Part I in a series analyzing domestic developments in Russia.
Putin’s popularity is directly tied to the way that Russian’s perceive themselves on the national and world stage. Following Russia’s support for, military intervention in, and annexation of Crimea, the Russian President’s popularity surged. Further, the economic sanctions, though increasingly serious, are unlikely to damage Putin’s domestic support as the President has successfully managed a domestic public relations campaign against the West.
National Sentiment Rising
After Russia’s successful military campaign in Crimea, during which the unwillingness of the West was laid bare, Putin’s popularity soared. Nationalist sentiment has increased dramatically over the year prior, and Levada Center polls in August show 66% of Russians believing their country is “on the right track” over the just 32% the year prior.
Most recently, Putin has won a large foreign policy victory in ensuring that the Ukrainian Crisis will be left unresolved for the time being. As part of the early September accords signed in Minsk, the ground controlled by the separatist groups in Luhansk and Donetsk will remain in their hands. Most importantly however, the Ukrainian Parliament’s concession for a special status for these regions leaves the question open and may lead to yet another frozen conflict. Not unlike the other frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space in Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, these hotspot zones complicate the involved states’ movements away from the Russian sphere of influence.
Within Russia, this national sentiment has vastly overshadowed other internal and international issues that previously contributed to a middling, though definitely positive, support for the state and Putin, whose approval rating prior to the Ukrainian crisis sat at approximately 60% over the last two years since the protests after the 2011 Duma elections and 2012 presidential elections. However, in August of this year President Putin has enjoyed approval ratings of 87%.
Putin’s successful control of the information war domestically has played on social attitudes regarding a lost empire and need to ensure Russia’s great power status. The charged use of the term Novorossiya (New Russia) - prior to the ceasefire - pays service to the Tsarist Russian Empire when the majority of modern Ukraine was under Moscow control. Not only did this embolden separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, who took the term to mean Putin’s open support for their cause, but it also exemplified Putin’s desire to link Russian and separatist Ukrainian causes.
It seems that Russian solidarity has increased at home as a result of EU and US sanctions against Russia. The latest round, implemented 12 August, follows months of increasingly harsh sanctions that have reached from the top of the Kremlin circle to the real Russian economy, including the oil and gas sector. Despite the economic cost these are likely to have, Russians increasingly blame the EU and US for the crisis in Ukraine and are supportive of the costs associated with Russia’s reactive sanctions against the EU.