Putin attacks Ukraine again to boost his popularity at home

Putin attacks Ukraine again to boost his popularity at home
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Over the weekend, the Russian navy fired upon and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels, wounding multiple sailors in the process. In addition, a Russian ship has been positioned to block entrance from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Ukraine has called for an emergency U.N. session and has voted to partially implement martial law throughout Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive move will intensify Russia’s international isolation as a pariah — but Putin had to create a diversion to promote his narrative of Russia’s encirclement.

He hopes that this action will restore his public opinion ratings on which his regime’s legitimacy rests. 

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Putin was elected against nominal opposition to a fourth term as president of the Russian Federation in March. Barring the unexpected, he will serve out his final (according to Russia's constitution) six-year term, which will end in 2024 when he is age 74. Counting his “hiatus” as prime minister, Putin will likely match Joseph Stalin's quarter-century of rule.

By all appearances, Putin seems to be in firm control. His inner circle of oligarch-billionaires is comprised of loyalists who stand to lose their wealth if they cross him. There is no Soviet-style Politburo or Central Committee to oust him, as they did Nikita Khrushchev.

Putin is not constrained by his feeble political party, United Russia, which rubber stamps his every move. No matter how badly the economy performs, Putin and his fellow kleptocrats have massive cash flows from energy and minerals to enrich themselves, build up a modern army and expand the frontiers of the hybrid warfare of “little green men,” cyberattacks, internet trolling and financial support for Kremlin-friendly politicians abroad.

Beneath its seeming stability, Putin’s Russia is built on the shaky edifice of managed democracy as characterized by a strong president. President Putin manages Russia through a massive presidential administration. Constitutional institutions such as parliament and the courts act as weak rubber stamps.

Elections provide a facade of democracy, but the Kremlin determines who is on the ballot, and loyalists stuff ballots, engage in carousel voting and intimidate demonstrators to ensure an overwhelming outcome. 

Russia’s managed democracy stakes its legitimacy not on the appearance of democracy but on public approval of the supreme leader. Strong public opinion ratings, the Kremlin claims, demonstrate conclusively that Russia is indeed a democracy that operates with the support and consent of the people.

Accordingly, they argue, democratically elected Western leaders have weaker public approval and hence less credibility than the president of Russia.

Putin’s Russia requires a “good czar,” whose political platform elicits widespread approval from the people at large. Managed democracy is therefore a highly personalized system of rule that allows for one dominant leader. The “good czar” is the face of Russia, but he is not a cult-of-personality figure like Stalin.

His loyal deputies remain largely out of public sight unless the leader chooses to blame them for policy failures. If they wish to hold onto their positions and wealth, they cannot allow themselves to be seen as competitors to the “good czar.” Supreme leaders are not interchangeable and cannot alternate in service in line with election results.

If Putin, as leader of Russia’s managed democracy, fails to attract widespread approval for his policies, the foundation of the whole system threatens to fall apart. Therefore, Putin cannot tolerate weak approval ratings. If they fall, the good czar must offer his people new “bread and circuses” (as did the Roman emperors) to pump his ratings back up.

Russia has several research organizations that measure Russian public opinion. The non-governmental Levada Center appears to be the most trustworthy, and Levada’s measures of Putin’s standing show a substantial weakening since his re-election last March.

As of October, 66 percent approved (and 33 percent disapproved) of Putin’s performance, down from 82 percent (and 17 percent) in April. The percentage of those who “trust” Putin fell over the same time from 59 to 39 percent, and the percentage of those not trusting Putin doubled.

Only 40 percent would vote to re-elect Putin, and 81 percent hold Putin “fully” or “somewhat” accountable for the current sorry state of affairs.

Putin’s current ratings are almost identical to those leading up to the Crimean annexation and Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The most significant threat to Putin came in December 2011 through March 2012, when Putin announced his return to the presidency, prompting mass demonstrations and a slogan: “Russia without Putin.” 

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Putin’s ratings soared with the euphoria over Crimea’s annexation and the success of Russian disinformation in branding the new Ukrainian government as fascist extremists. Within a few months of the Kremlin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda, the percent of Russians with favorable attitudes towards Ukraine fell from 70 percent to 20 percent. 

Putin’s Sunday provocation in the Sea of Azov is likely his first salvo in a campaign designed to raise the Russian people’s outrage against the "belligerent" Ukrainians, who, he'll allege, followed orders from the CIA to violate Russian sovereignty in the waters off Crimea.

Kremlin propaganda is already hard at work explaining to the Russian people that Ukrainian military vessels violated Russian borders despite repeated demands to cease their hostile actions. Russian border forces had no choice but to act, they'll say, wounding three Ukrainian sailors and commandeering the military vessels.

According to the Kremlin, it's another triumph of Russian forces against the dark forces controlling Ukraine. 

It seems unlikely that Putin can whip up enough patriotic outrage with such a move as to restore his sagging ratings. Once this is clear, he will try another move. He has no choice but to “wag the dog.”

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He has written extensively on Russia and the former Soviet Union, including: "Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina," (Hoover Institution Press, 2010); "Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives," (Hoover Institution Press, 2008); and "The Political Economy of Stalinism," (Cambridge, 2004), which won the Hewett Prize.