Vladimir Putin has been the face of Russian leadership for over two decades. Barring four years between 2008 and 2012, when constitutional provisions didn't allow him to be the president, Putin has been the Russian president for all of this century. Even in those four years, he was the country’s prime minister with a puppet president. Why do Russians like Putin?
In a referendum in 2020, Russian voters even attested to the constitutional changes that allow Putin to be the president until 2036. Going by the election results, one may conclude that Russians like Putin. Do Russians support the Ukraine war?
Putin is popular in Russia, or is he?
A poll by FOM, which is a state-owned research company in Russia, showed that Putin’s approval ratings increased by 11 percentage points to 71 percent in less than two weeks. This would show that he's gaining popularity in Russia amid the invasion of Ukraine. By its extension, we may also conclude that Russians also support the Ukraine war.
However, not many trust the results of a state-owned company in Russia. To make things worse, Russian media has been bombarding its citizens with what Lyudmila Narusova, wife of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin's mentor, described as “shameless lies.”
To get a sense of how free the media in Russia is, consider the fact that the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent, which reported that Putin was planning to marry his rumored girlfriend Alina Kabaeva, was shut down due to what it called "financial difficulty."
In May 2019, major Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Kabaeva had given birth to twins. The story was quickly deleted along with the online cache. Kabaeva is also the chairwoman of National Media Group, a pro-Kremlin media organization.
There have been protests against Putin
There have been protests against Putin in Russia after he ordered the invasion of Ukraine. The protests were quickly dispersed by the security forces. While the protests weren't too widespread, they still deserve merit since protesting against an autocratic ruler requires a lot of courage. This is unlike mature democracies where we have a rule of law.
Putin's popularity surged after the annexation of Crimea.
Here it is not to say that Russians don’t like Putin or his wars. In fact, independent polls also showed that his popularity surged after the annexation of Crimea. A lot of the current generation of Russians witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, which bought immense financial suffering and a loss of national pride.
Putin has positioned himself as someone who's working to restore the “past glory.” Chinese President Xi Jinping has also been working on a similar model seeking to undo what he sees as the “century of humiliation” for China. Both of the leaders have territorial ambitions which have resonance among the citizens as well.
Putin is popular because of economic growth.
Under Putin, Russia’s economy has become stronger. While one may argue that the oligarchs have amassed a lot of wealth, the income of the average Russian has also gone up. The country has among the best economic indicators in non-E.U. European countries. The economic rise has been mostly due to the steep rise in commodity and energy prices, which are the key pillar of the Russian economy.
Putin has served a dose of nationalism and economic growth to Russians, which is a deadly combination for any leader. He has suppressed dissenting voices and has the support of a pliable media in the country, which makes him look even more popular than he is.
Not all Russians support the Ukraine war.
While there have been overt protests against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many silently oppose Putin’s action. The opposition will only increase as Western sanctions start to bite average Russians.
It isn't a surprise that Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to direct his comments towards the Russian people saying, “We know many of you want no part of this war.” He also alluded to the economic hardships that would follow the sanctions asking them how “President Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine” would help them achieve a better life.