EL PASO, Texas — The popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin has soared in recent months to unforeseen heights amid multiple international controversies in which Russia has been entrenched. The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent backlash from nations like the U.S. resulting in economic sanctions has done nothing to deter Putin, and if Russian media can be believed, citizens there stand behind the Kremlin. Even amid an impending economic crisis started by the collapse of the Russian currency, Putin seemingly enjoys the support of his people and is gaining new international allies.
In early 2014, the world witnessed Putin forcibly annex Crimea from Ukraine in what Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post described as, “… the first major land grab in Europe since World War II …” The once Ukrainian state only has traces of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church left, as people are speaking and learning Russian. The area is almost unrecognizable from even a year ago when the “illegitimate” annexation, as described by U.S. President Obama, began. Ethnic Russians wanted the change, with nearly 100 percent of Crimeans backing the measure. Protests and boycotts were waged even more as dissenters questioned democratic support for Russia.
CNN has questioned a report touting Putin’s 86 percent approval rating across all of Russia, including Crimea, compiled by the Levada-Center, “… an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization.” Putin’s approval even remained steady during the annexation of Crimea. The numbers are allegedly doctored because of the absence of a free press in Russia; any public opinion poll results would be naturally skewed. The public in general may now be fearful of dissenting and may have answered questions about him favorably more out of fear than favor.
Putin was once again voted Man of the Year in Russia, a title he’s consistently held each year for more than a decade. This is despite the economic hit that Russia took from their actions in Crimea, as the ruble has crashed and the price of oil, a chief export, has dipped sharply. The Central Bank of Russia responded by increasing interest rates by seven points in December 2014 to retain some stability.
Reuters profiles the punk band Pussy Riot, who alleges that the level of Putin propaganda flowing through national media has skyrocketed since Russian troops first entered Crimea. Several band members were jailed “… for a profanity-laced protest in 2012 against Putin in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral …” That move garnered publicity, but was ultimately quashed by more authoritarian rule and propaganda from the Kremlin. On February 27, 2015, Putin declared the yearly anniversary of Crimea’s annexation a national Russian holiday dedicated to the Special Forces.
The measures used to sway positive public opinion have also proven to be dark and callous. Putin opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a former Deputy Prime Minister to Boris Yeltsin, was brutally and repeatedly shot in the back walking through Moscow after publicly encouraging citizen protest of Putin. Time Magazine reports that the murder “galvanized” nearly 60,000 citizens to march on Sunday, March 1, 2015 in mourning and protest along the Moscow River. Nemtsov was at one point going to succeed Yeltsin before the former Prime Minister selected Putin instead.
Despite the strong turnout, people at the March 1 protest are still cautious of the moves they make because of strict Russian laws governing freedom of expression. What is striking also is that many, including Vera Gavrilina, a citizen in her early twenties, don’t have high hopes for peaceful opposition. Speaking to Time Magazine, Vera remarked that the rally should be a turning point but probably won’t be and that Putin’s grasp on the media is stronger than any internal Russian opposition to him.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to Putin’s high but disputed approval rating is the apparent backing of China regarding the Crimea annexation. The Center for Research on Globalization reports that China’s Belgian ambassador, Qu Xing, voiced support for Russia and denounced the dissenting Western role of nations like the U.S.
Cited by Reuters, Qu said that Western powers should take into consideration Russia’s legitimate security concerns over Ukraine. The United States is unwilling to see its presence in any part of the world being weakened, but the fact is its resources are limited, and it will be to some extent hard work to sustain its influence in external affairs.
China’s apparent backing and understanding of Russian actions over the last calendar year lend unprecedented legitimacy to the Putin regime during a time when the rest of the developed world is against it. No doubt the statements made by Qu will be broadcast en masse through every Russian media outlet imaginable as Putin attempts to prove his message to his own people as well as to the world at large.
Voice of America caught up with Ben Judah, Putin’s biographer. In Fragile Empire, Putin’s biography, Judah tells all that Putin feels he’s the only one who can return Russia to prominence and glory and will do so by any means. A former KGB agent who is now squarely in the international spotlight, Putin rarely shows his personal side, instead opting to build an aura of strength through policy execution and publicity. Judah claims that these are an attempt to mask deep insecurities within Putin.
The events of the past year—since the start of the annexation of Crimea to now—have proven very interesting. Russia under Putin is bent on reestablishing itself as a global superpower in the mold of the former U.S.S.R. at the height of its power. Tightly controlled media reports, imprisonment of dissenters and rebuking Western nations in the face of harsh sanctions may be a good thing ultimately for Putin’s push for a new brand of strong Russian nationalism. The struggle to get all Russians and the rest of the world to believe that Russia is strong again weighs heavily on a man with alleged deep-seated insecurities. China’s role has gone from reluctant and silent neighbor to supporter seemingly overnight, and that is a new wrinkle worth watching that could potentially unravel Western sanctions and influence in the region. Time will eventually tell how the story goes, but what is for certain now is that even if the support of 86 percent of Russians is questionable, the support of China isn’t, and that is clear proof that Putin’s poll numbers are on the rise.
– Dave Smith
Sources: The Atlantic, CNN, Newsweek, Reuters, Time Magazine, Voice of America, The Washington Post