Novaya gazeta, Aug. 9, 2021, p. 4. Complete text:
Twenty years ago, when [Vladimir] Putin’s presidential career was just beginning, we decided to find out how [Russian] citizens viewed his performance. We asked them two questions: The first was, “who mainly deserves credit for Russia’s economic successes and growing prosperity?” The second one was, “who in Russia is primarily responsible for problems in the country and the rising cost of living?”
In 2001, 56% of respondents credited Putin with the [economic] achievements, and only 22% thought that the president was also responsible for domestic problems. This proportion remained the same throughout Putin’s first and second terms in office. When Putin, to the delight of some and apprehension of others, returned to the presidency in 2012, Russians sent a quiet but clear message: 51% now thought the president would also be responsible for problems in the country. Still, more people (56%) talked about [his] achievements. This ratio remained unchanged until recently. We will try to look into why and how things changed.
In 2014, the [annexation of the] Crimea raised Putin’s approval rating to 88%. In response to the question [of who is to credit with Russia’s achievements], the share of those who named Putin also rose to an unprecedented 81%. The Crimea’s annexation did not promise or bring any economic successes, so clearly the key word in the question that the public reacted to was “achievements.”
They believed that Putin’s main achievement was the annexation of the Crimea. But it’s more complicated than that: The first time that Putin’s rating hit 88% was in 2008. That was how Russians assessed his role in the [August 2008] war with Georgia. However, at the time, he was credited not with the military victory over small Georgia, but with a double victory over America: First, because it was believed that America trained the Georgian Army; second, and most importantly, because neither America nor the West managed to counter [Russia] in any serious way, despite the fact that [Russia] had violated what [the West] called norms of international law. The only countries that could violate [those norms] are either pariah states like North Korea, or great superpowers. [Russians] chose to go with the latter. The Georgia escapade showed Putin what Russians expected from him in foreign policy – the return of the superpower status enjoyed by the Soviet Union. As for domestic policy, the unrest [following the presidential and Duma elections] in 2011-2012 showed that public discontent was reaching dangerous levels.
But that wasn’t all. The state of affairs in neighboring Ukraine clearly indicated who could be the potential target for Russia’s popular indignation (those who remind Russians of [Ukraine’s] president) and the vector along which [this indignation] could be channeled (the Western one). That’s how the idea of the Crimea came up, which solved the regime’s pressing political problems of the time, as planned. It also set the course for Russia’s historic path for a long time to come (we don’t know exactly how long yet). As far as most Russians were concerned, superpower status was achieved. Approximately half of all Russians continued to put responsibility for the country’s problems on the president. However, the share of those who chose to focus on his achievements remained consistently high during the so-called post-Crimean euphoria. Let’s not forget that this was a period of sharply negative attitudes toward the West in general and toward America in particular. The negative attitude toward the West coupled with a positive view of Putin were two sides of the same coin; this was indicated by one poll after another back then, conducted by the Levada Center (which was designated a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry soon after).
The Crimean effect fizzled out in an interesting way. In 2018, Russians suddenly began befriending foreigners on the streets of Russian cities as part of the World Cup. Polls indicated a sharp rise in positive attitudes toward the US and the West. Had Putin decided to ride this wave, it would have been his new popularity boost, his “Geneva spirit,” his détente.
But alas, the unfortunate incident with the pension reform, for which [the president] eventually and begrudgingly assumed responsibility, ruined everything [see Vol. 70, No. 24‑25, pp. 6‑8]. Putin’s ratings fell, while the share of those who lauded his achievements also took a tumble and came to equal the share of those who blamed him for problems in the country. This failure was coupled with the miscalculation over [former US president Donald] Trump, since the hope of sorting things out with him as “our guy” and then ruling the world together also fell through. As a result, by July 2021, for the first time the share of those who focused on Putin’s achievements fell to 42%, sinking lower than the share of people who blamed him for problems in the country (54%). You could of course attribute this to the ongoing recession and the COVID pandemic. But it’s [actually] all about foreign policy.
Apparently, Vladimir Putin or those in his inner circle thought that the only way to win back public support was through escalating tensions with the West, i.e., to choose the risky North Korean maneuver. But people’s attitudes have changed. Public opinion is tired of anti-Western rhetoric and policies. Two-thirds of Russians now rate their view of the West as “favorable.” A lack of support for this new trend [of escalating tensions] is what brought about a decline in the number of those who stress Putin’s achievements.