The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
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Ukraine has Cost Putin Domestic Support But How Much and for How Long?

Staunton, July 9 – Recent events in Ukraine and especially the Kremlin’s decision not to intervene overtly in support of pro-Russian groups there has cost Vladimir Putin support among Russians, but Moscow commentators disagree about how much he has been hurt and how long the impact of this shift will last.

Aleksandr Dugin, the Eurasianist leader who has beaten the drums for intervention, says that “many people feel themselves deceived as a result of [Putin’s] refusal to use force” in Eastern Ukraine and that some “Russian patriots are close to turning away” from the Kremlin leader.

But as Aleksey Polubota of Svobodnaya Pressa points out, while everyone agrees that the events in Ukraine have cost Putin support, there is great disagreement as to just how much he has lost and how long whatever loss he has sustained may continue, especially given his ability to manipulate public opinion by shifting the debate.

Mikhail Aleksandrov, a researcher at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), says “the consequences of the non-interference of Russia in the military conflict in Ukraine really could be catastrophic. Having lost the support of the patriotic camp, the Kremlin remains one-on-one with the fifth column” because “Putin’s support by a significant part of society was based on his defense of national interests.”

“If however Putin discredits himself by concessions to the West and friendship with liberals,” he could be in trouble, Aleksandrov says. And a new wave of protests could emerge by the fall. “In that situation, the Kremlin would have to engage in more repression,” but “one can’t remain in power for long by repressions alone, if there is no popular support.”

And if the domestic situation in Russia itself deteriorates as a result of Western sanctions or more violence in the North Caucasus or as a result of “provocations” in Ukraine, then Putin’s situation could become critical because the population “will quite quickly cease to support the authorities which contributed to this by its lack of a display of will internationally.”

At the same time, Aleksandrov says that Putin still has time to act in Ukraine, especially if Kyiv’s actions create “obvious reasons” for the application of Russian force. If that doesn’t happen, the Moscow media won’t be able to hide it from the population for very long: “Our people are not fools,” and they will “begin to ask questions.”

Valery Solovey, a professor at MGIMO and head of the unregistered New Force Party, has a different take on the situation. He says that “it has long been clear to many thinking people that [Russian] forces would not be introduced in Ukraine” and consequently, the current state of play was “not unexpected.”

At the same time, he continues, many Russians have been profoundly affected by “patriotic rhetoric” spread by the authorities themselves and now they are asking themselves why Moscow isn’t doing anything given that Putin and the Russian government promised to help the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

According to Solovey, this does not present a problem for the powers that be. “In the course of two or three months,” the Kremlin will cool the rhetoric around Ukraine and “the information order of the day will be changed.” In that event, “society as a whole will swallow this” latest turn of events.

As far as the patriotic political forces are concerned, the MGIMO scholar says, most of them have been in opposition to the Kremlin from the beginning, except for a brief period at the time of the annexation of Crimea when some of them thought Putin had changed course. Now that it is clear he hasn’t, “the patriots are again returning to the opposition.”

Those who don’t quiet down, he suggests, will be subject to repression because “the regime will not put up with those who declare publicly that [Putin] has betrayed compatriots or ‘surrendered the Donbas’ or anything like that.”

Leonty Byzov, a senior researcher at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, takes a position in between those two. He says there has indeed been a certain cooling of Russian support for Putin in recent days, but “Dugin exaggerates its size” because he thinks the “convinced patriots” are more numerous than they are.

According to Byzov, Putin has lost “perhaps five percent of his electorate.” The remainder, having followed the Kremlin leader in his rhetorical campaign to reassemble the Russian world, will “find another agenda.” Moscow media coverage of Ukraine will decline, and Russians won’t act against their regime because of events there.

Another reason to expect Putin’s ratings to fall is that in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, they had risen “to unnatural heights.” By fall, expressed support for Putin will fall back from “the current 90 percent to the customary 60-65 percent,” although it could fall further because Putin has been in office so long.

“No politician however successful can be popular forever,” Byzov says. But Putin can continue to rule without serious problems if he has 50-60 percent support. “Therefore,” the MGIMO professor says, it would be a mistake “to dramatize the situation” he faces now.

A major reason for that continuing support, Byzov says, is that “the defense of Russians” has not been “a characteristic part of Putin’s image” for long. Instead, he is backed because under his rule, “people could relatively peacefully live for a quite lengthy period and make plans for the future.”

Maintaining that stability is “much more important” to the Russian electorate than “the Russian world which for many of them is something abstract” and not really part of their lives.