As senior Russian military officials accuse Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin of an attempted coup against President Vladimir Putin, the question of how popular is the Russian leader is tied to the survival of the regime like never before.
Russia scholar Anna Matveeva recently argued that Prighozin could challenge Putin from the right. But he’s refrained from directly criticizing the Russian president, who remains a very popular figure at home.
Russia has paid a tremendous price for its invasion of Ukraine last year. The war has become a deadly, costly, long slog. Russian military and allied forces deaths and injuries now may total upwards of 200,000, according to Western officials. The war has cost Russia tens of billions of dollars and sent its economy into recession.
But, paradoxically, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has risen since the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s approval rating remains near its record high, standing at 82 percent in May 2023, according to a tracking survey by the independent Levada Center.
In January 2022, ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s approval rating stood at 69 percent. By March of last year, it had surged to 83 percent — the highest level since September 2017.
Over the course of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, support for Putin has seen modest fluctuation, falling to 77 percent in September 2022 after the announcement of a partial mobilization of military reserve forces. But support for Putin has since rebounded, with his approval rating reaching 82 percent this January.
Surging Putin Approval Rating Reflects Pattern of Rewarding Aggression
The surge in the Russian public's support for Putin over the past year is not unprecedented. In fact, Putin's approval rating has risen after aggressive military actions in Russia's near periphery.
In February 2014, Russian forces invaded Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in the final days of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Putin's approval rating shot up from 69 percent that February to 80 percent the next month. By 2015, the approval rating of Putin would hit 89 percent — an all-time high.
Similarly, after the war with neighboring Georgia in 2008, Putin — who was serving as prime minister at the time — saw his approval rating rise by eight points, reaching 88 percent that September.
Why is Putin's Approval Rating So High?
Russian strategic culture helps explain why public support for Putin is so high. Scholars Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky write:
"The sense of grievance against the 'European West' and, by association, the United States, is a prominent feature of the entrenched worldview broadly shared by Russia’s national security establishment."
These views are also adopted by a large segment of the general population, especially older Russians who lived through the Cold War. Putin's military offensives are seen by Russians who consume state propaganda as defensive wars against the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO. The invasion of Ukraine has also been framed as a war to protect ethnic Russians and liberate the country from so-called "Nazis."
When Putin announced the partial mobilization on September 21, he framed it as a fight against "not only against neo-Nazi units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West." The partial mobilization, he said, was necessary "to defend our Motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories."
Large numbers of Russians are rallying behind their national leader in a time of war, while others relish in the brutality of the fight, viewing the aggression as a return to glory. For these ultranationalists, the Ukraine war harkens back to Russia's imperial era.
For 60 percent of Russians aged 55 and older, Russia's actions in Ukraine evoked national pride, according to a Levada Center survey last June. For more than fifteen years, Putin has promoted the idea of "Russkiy Mir" (the Russian World) — a pan-Russian chauvinism. And he has framed the Ukraine war as a fight for the unification of the Russian people in "the historical Russia," which included present-day Ukraine.
Western sanctions against Russia may also be boosting domestic support for Putin, according to Denis Volkov of the Levada Center and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They write that sanctions may be driving the "majority of the population to rally around the country’s leadership."
But what surveys by Levada Center and other pollsters do not account for is the Russians who have voted with their feet. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country since the start of the war and after the September mobilization announcement.
Will Putin's Popularity Hold?
Public approval for Putin and his Ukraine war slipped last September after the announcement of the partial mobilization. But both have since recovered, according to the Levada Center's tracking polls.
The latest survey data from the Levada Center and Russia Watcher, which describes itself as a Princeton-based research organization, both demonstrate continued support for the Ukraine war by a commanding majority of Russians. While for some respondents, the feelings of pride at the start of the war have given way to anger and anxiety, Putin's own popularity remains resilient.
Putin benefits from heavy media censorship and an active propaganda machine. And a large segment of the Russian population buys into his worldview. It may be that the economy is his greatest vulnerability.
The Russian economy contracted modestly last year, well short of the dire double-digit recession predicted by economists. Imports of Russian oil by China and India helped drive Russia's current account to a record surplus.
As Russia's military spending soars, its current account surplus has begun to narrow, which may force non-military budget cuts. But Russia's reserve stockpile is substantial and will provide the Russian president with a cushion for the next few years.
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