The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia

Putin’s Failure in Ukraine Will Cost Him His High Ratings and Force Him to Change His Image, Gudkov Says

Staunton, July 15 – Vladimir Putin’s failure to carry out the policies in Ukraine that Moscow’s “hysterical anti-Ukrainian propaganda” had seemed to promise and require are likely to cost the Kremlin leader his current standing in the polls and prompt him to change his image from that of a tough leader to that of a peacemaker, according to Lev Gudkov.

In comments to Deutsche Welle
which have been picked up by numerous Russian sites, the head of the independent Levada Center polling agency said that these shifts, signs of which are already in evidence, could happen as soon as “the early fall”.

Putin’s current standing in the polls reflects “the unbelievably intensive and aggressive propaganda” that Moscow has unleashed about Ukraine. This effort “again secured the regime ‘legitimacy,’ it destroyed the opposition, and it generated a wave of support,” despite the fact that Russians continued to view Moscow as “a corrupt and repressive regime.”

But despite Putin’s skillful use of this campaign, Gudkov says, “with all the euphoria and patriotism” on display, “the majority of Russians do not want to assume responsibility for this policy, neither materially nor morally,” a reflection of the complexity of Russian feelings about Ukraine and Ukrainians.

It is the complexity of those feelings which explain why Moscow has sought to “discredit the democratic movement in Ukraine and, in the first instance, its course toward European integration” by suggesting that “nationalists, ultra-nationalists and radicals” have come to power in Ukraine and threaten Russians living there.” Thus, Moscow is “obligated to defend them.”

And by accusing the Ukrainians of being fascists as Russian propaganda has done, Gudkov continues, Moscow has set the two against each other by playing on memories of World War II and caused Russians to overlook the economic consequences of its actions in Ukraine which “so far are not too much in evidence.”

But the situation in eastern Ukraine has not gone according to Moscow’s script, the sociologist says. “In contrast to the annexation of Crimea, [events there] are viewed negatively. Therefore, propaganda will be changed and assert that Russia is guided exclusively by its moral obligations and follows humanitarian goals.”

And with that change will come a change in the portrayal of Putin, he continues. Putin “will no longer be presented as a tough, aggressive leader. He will be shown as a peacemaker and someone who out of humanitarian convictions wants to put an end to the bloodletting.” That shift will have a negative impact on his poll numbers.

And that is the case even though “a large segment of the residents of the Russian Federation are not ready to take part in the conflict in southeastern Ukraine.” Fighting for “symbolic authority, prestige, and the domination of Russia in the world” is one thing; “taking personal responsibility” is quite another.

Gudkov does not address it, but this shift in Russian propaganda may have another consequence for Putin, one that despite everything, he may care even more about in the short term. Western governments appear likely to accept the new propaganda at face value and thus overlook what Putin and his regime continue to do in Ukraine and elsewhere.