Russians Aren’t Buying Putin’s PR Stunts Anymore
To save its approval ratings, the Kremlin might be better focusing its energy elsewhere.
For viewers of Russian state TV, the war of words ignited by U.S. President Joe Biden’s March 16 interview with ABC News, in which he agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer,” seemed to provoke a great deal of patriotic hysteria. Putin quipped back that “we always see our own traits in other people and think they are like how we really are” and challenged Biden to a verbal duel. But the frosty exchange doesn’t actually change anything in U.S.-Russia relations—or in Russian public opinion, for that matter. There was never any chance of anything approaching a rapprochement between the two powers, and what little cooperation there is—on climate change, the pandemic, and nuclear nonproliferation—has always been purely pragmatic. The latest spat between U.S. and Russian leadership, then, is nothing more than a routine affair.
That’s not what the Kremlin would have you believe. Biden’s comments in the ABC News interview were a gift to the Russian propaganda machine, and it has seized on them in a—futile—attempt to inspire Russians to rally around their leader. In reality, that flame of fandom was extinguished years ago. For Putin, it’s all gone downhill since 2018, when he tanked his approval rating by making an unpopular reform to Russia’s pension system. Last registering at 63 percent approval in March of this year, it’s a far cry from the record high of 88 to 89 percent that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
That’s not to say that Putin and his entourage have not gotten as much mileage as possible out of the interview, which coincided well with the national wave of artificial euphoria they have promoted to mark the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In keeping with his trademark style, the Russian president trolled Biden on state TV, a move that—though amusing to Western audiences happening upon the exchange on Twitter—was unlikely to attract much notice from the Russian public, who are quite accustomed to such verbal interventions by their president.
As part of this constructed furor, Putin held a vast rally and concert in Moscow on March 18 to mark the Crimea anniversary. The event drew skepticism from across the political spectrum. Russia is currently subject to coronavirus restrictions, which the authorities are applying liberally to prosecute opposition activists. Yet the same authorities saw fit to put on a mammoth spectacle at the country’s biggest stadium, attended by tens of thousands of people with no social distancing. Even those loyal to the Putin regime can’t help but notice these egregious double standards.
Like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Kremlin now finds itself having to run twice as fast just to keep its ratings at their current levels. Today, around 49 percent of Russians approve of the government, personalized by Putin, and only 32 percent say they trust him. These are numbers on par with before the Crimea annexation; by comparison, in 2017, 59 percent of Russians reported trusting Putin. To make up for the deficit, Putin has to appear at rallies in person, which he usually only does in exceptional circumstances. Anti-Western propaganda has to be ramped up, too, along with pressure on civil society. But the average Russian remains an indifferent spectator to it all.
In 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea sent the approval ratings of Putin and his government soaring to record heights. Today, Crimea remains a cornerstone of the Russian national consciousness and Putin-era identity: 86 percent of Russians still supported its annexation in 2019, a figure that was down to 81 percent in March. But Crimea is no longer a tool for mobilizing support for the authorities. That cold cornerstone is nothing like the molten lava of aggressive patriotism that once sent Moscow’s approval rating skyward.
The same is true of relations with the West. Every schoolchild in Russia knows that the European Union and United States don’t like their country. But Russia’s perceived victories over the West—including its trolling of Western leaders and military interventions in Syria, Libya, and the Donbass—are no longer enough to rouse public opinion. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov humiliated the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, during a February visit to Moscow, the exchange was met with little reaction from the Russian public. Indeed, such spectacles have become a matter of routine—a routine that is increasingly unwelcome as Russians battle years of falling real household incomes, worsening socioeconomic problems, and depression and anxiety caused by the pandemic.
For Putin, this fall from grace was totally avoidable. His ratings nosedive can be traced directly back to June 2018, when the Russian government announced a proposal to raise the retirement age from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. (The unpopular bill, which was enacted that October, ended up raising the retirement age for women to just 60.) It was a violation of the core, unwritten social contract of Putin’s Russia: We vote for you, and you don’t touch our social benefits. The Kremlin’s breach of that contract unraveled the effects of the annexation approval boon, prompting ratings of both Putin and the government to return to their pre-Crimea levels. Meanwhile, anti-American sentiment among Russians has also been decreasing since about 2018, according to research carried out in January and February of this year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Unlike the Kremlin’s spin doctors, people in both the United States and Russia have a very realistic view of the bilateral relationship between their countries, the same research showed. Forty-three percent of Americans and 42 percent of Russians don’t expect that relationship to change in the near future, while 44 percent of Americans and 29 percent of Russians anticipate it will get worse. These results match those of a Levada Center poll carried out at the end of 2020, which revealed that only 12 percent of Russians believed relations with the United States could improve under a Biden presidency. (Forty-six percent of Russians felt such optimism in 2017, under Donald Trump.)
Still, attitudes in Russia toward the United States—independent of its leaders—are far better than they were several years ago: In 2016, 28 percent of Russians had a positive view of the United States, a figure that had risen to 35 percent at the end of 2020. By the start of 2021, attitudes had improved even further, with 40 percent of Russians viewing the United States favorably.
As with other political matters, age is a key factor informing attitudes. Younger Russians are more likely to have a positive view of the United States than those aged over 55, who are most likely to have a negative view. The numbers of another Levada Center survey in February 2021 are telling: 58 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 and 49 percent of those aged 25 to 39 regard the United States favorably, while only 30 percent of those over 55 do. In fact, 53 percent of people in that older group have a decidedly negative view of the country.
All this is to say that Crimea and anti-American sentiment are no longer capable of mobilizing Russians to rally around Putin, who has governed Russia either as president or prime minister since 1999. The Kremlin, however, cannot bring itself to accept this attentive lapse and will use any adversarial foreign-policy jab to try to fire up its people. Now, Putin appears to be doing just that, dispatching troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has decried as mere “muscle-flexing.”
The average conformist Russian is used to this tactic and doesn’t particularly mind it. But their concerns have—out of pure necessity—long been focused almost exclusively on domestic problems like economic malaise. Though the government is aware of this trend, it is trying to solve the issues competing for Russians’ attention using state interventions that will be counterproductive in the long run. If the Soviet experience is any indication, regulating prices, for example, could end up causing a shortage of goods.
For Russians faced with this grisly domestic landscape, Biden’s comments made for good TV and little more. The constructed spectacle won’t detract public attention from Russia’s real problems for very long and certainly won’t do so effectively. Though the average Russian may still be convinced that the West is wicked, they understand full well that there are tremendous advantages to Russia cooperating with the far stronger economies of the United States and EU. Indeed, Russian authorities can no longer attribute all of Russia’s misfortunes to Western intrigues. It was once said that “never have Russians lived as badly as they did under Barack Obama.” That’s definitely not true anymore.