Understandably, perhaps, for many of us living in the West, seeing the approval ratings that Putin receives in polls can be quite a shock. How can it possibly be the case that almost 9 out of every 10 Russians polled possibly support him? Russia is facing increasing sanctions from the West for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict, is facing accusations that it supplied the weapons to down the MH17 Air Malaysia flight over the conflict zone. Worse still, the Russian record for human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech could not get much worse. So, why on earth is Putin seeing not only consistently high, but consistently increasing support from the citizens of Russia?
To answer that question, you have to look throughout the entirety of Putin’s time in power. When he was first elected back in 2000, in the wake of Yeltsin’s surprise resignation, Putin was seen by the Western leaders as being likely to follow in his footsteps, and prove himself a failure. Unfortunately, time and again, he has proven himself to be a shrewd judge of the public, knowing how to build support.
Right from the start, Putin was clear in his aims. Being dismissed as a failure from the beginning by the West allowed him free reign to do as he pleased, and more importantly, begin to shape his future government through influencing the media. He spoke of the dismissal of Russia by the West, and a need for the Russian people to become great and unified once again. It is his dream to rebuild Russia into the nation of the Russian people, and he is willing to do whatever he believes necessary to achieve this. It is a dream shared by the Russian people.
We’ve seen it in his treatment of various neighbouring nations. Back in 2008, he invaded Georgia. His approval rating skyrocketed to a then all-time high. He came to power during the Second Chechen War, now continuing to support a pro-Russian regime in the face of an insurgency. Now he has annexed Crimea, supported the Donetsk People’s Republic, and seized a strategic tract of land from Georgia.
And, in doing so, Putin has shown he can stand up to the West. In being faced with sanctions for his actions in the Crimea and Ukraine, Putin has shown he is serious. In seizing land to reunite the Russian people, he has shown that not only is he serious, but he is actively working to achieve reunification and a return to greatness, and for that, the Russian people adore him.
Their Russia is no longer an underdeveloped backwater. People always remember their childhood favourably. Most of those in power today were brought up in the Soviet Union, given the fodder of the glories of the war in Afghanistan, and being warned of the perils of the untrustworthy West. Should we really be surprised, having shown the Russian people that the West stands against them, that they support a man who they see as standing up to NATO aggression?
Putin carefully sweeps the human rights abuses under the carpet, using a deeply conservative social agenda and a strong control of the media to limit the power of any political opposition. He has utilised the upsurge in religious belief that followed the fall of the Soviet Union as a wave to ride upon, turning the Russian people against those who make easy targets. We see this in his attacks on the LGBT* community, in his attacks on minority populations, such as Jews and Muslims. And, for all the barbarism he shows, his intelligence is clear. He has made the Russian people love him, and it’s absolutely terrifying.