Has Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Improved His Standing in Russia?

But for now, as Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, told me, survey data suggest that Russians have a more positive outlook for their country than in any previous period of Putin’s Presidency. The share of Russians who report being able to make discretionary purchases, such as televisions and household appliances, is growing. The portion of respondents who think Russia’s economic prospects will continue to improve in the next five years has risen by some thirty-five percentage points since 2022. Even the number of those who said that the distribution of wealth has become more equitable rose by a record percentage. “If you look at the data,” Volkov said, “you’re left with the feeling that people believe they’ve never lived so well.”

The darker aspects of the war, including the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers, are largely kept private, dealt with individually, out of the public sphere. The Kremlin has promised to send payments of five million rubles, around fifty-five thousand U.S. dollars, to the families of those killed in action—a significant sum, especially in the poorer regions from which most of Russia’s recruits are drawn. In a stage-managed meeting with mothers of Russian soldiers, Putin revealed his own attitude toward the country’s war dead. “Some people die of vodka, and their lives go unnoticed,” he told a woman whose son was killed in Luhansk. “But your son really lived and achieved his goal. He didn’t die in vain.”

Putin, for his part, sees himself not as an autocrat holding the country hostage but as a steward of Russia’s historical destiny. After decades in power, Putin’s logic functions as a tautology, a closed loop in which he never has to question or doubt the virtue of his political choices. As he sees it, he acts in the nation’s interests and therefore has the nation’s support; he has the right to rule however he wants because, in fact, he is serving and protecting the state. “Of course, that’s a very convenient position for Putin,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who is now a Putin critic, told me. “Seeing as that, by this point, he is the state.”

Still, in the past few months, Russia has seen two mass-scale, unscripted political events and, tellingly, neither was in support of Putin or the war. The first came in January, when lines of people spontaneously appeared across the country to provide their signatures in support of the candidacy of Boris Nadezhdin, a milquetoast, unthreatening, and unknown liberal politician. Nadezhdin made ending the “special military operation” the centerpiece of his campaign and called for freeing political prisoners. The Kremlin ultimately refused to put him on the Presidential ballot—a sign that it was rattled by images of people standing in the freezing cold to register their support for an alternative to Putin. According to reporting by Meduza, a Russian news outlet based abroad, internal Kremlin metrics forecast that Nadezhdin would have won as much as ten per cent of the vote. That would have clashed with Putin’s rhetoric of a unified country. A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that such an outcome would “suddenly give the impression that a sizable share of the population is eager for the special military operation to end.”

The second event was Navalny’s funeral. Navalny was not necessarily popular in an electoral sense. His approval rating in Russia peaked at twenty per cent, in 2021, shortly after he was poisoned by Kremlin agents. But he had a powerful resonance in Russian society. With his plainspoken criticism of official corruption, his sense of humor, and his remarkable lack of fear, he became an avatar for an alternative, more optimistic future. He built a nationwide network of field offices and consistently drew thousands to protests across the country. “Autocracies like Russia’s don’t like the idea of progress,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist based in Berlin, told me. “They are intently focussed on the past, maintain a cult of history, and use these ideas to try and keep the present forever.” Navalny represented the opposite, which made his existence unbearable to the state. “His entire stance centered on how tomorrow can be different from today if only we all follow some consistent action,” Schulmann said.

On March 1st, crowds lined a street in Moscow as the hearse carrying Navalny’s body drove past. Thousands more flocked to Borisovsky Cemetery, where they covered Navalny’s grave in a bulging mound of flowers. People chanted “Russia without Putin,” “No to war,” and even “Ukrainians are good people”—a remarkable display of civic courage given that, during the past two years, police have arrested people holding posters with asterisks in place of the words “No war,” and even those with blank posters with no words at all. Analysis of the Moscow metro system by Mediazona, an independent news site, showed a surge of twenty-seven thousand passengers to the station nearest to the cemetery. I spoke to a friend who had attended. “We hadn’t been among so many people who think like us in years,” the friend said. “The occasion was terrible, but the mood felt energized.”

The Russian investigative site Proekt, which the Russian state has labelled “undesirable,” recently tallied the number of people who have faced criminal prosecution in politically motivated cases in the course of Putin’s current six-year Presidential term. It was more than ten thousand, surpassing the comparable figures under the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. “In addition to the widely discussed repression of oppositionists and anti-war activists, Russia has a system of social pressure where citizens are severely punished for the most insignificant misdemeanors,” the Proekt report said. Still, the current repressions are tough enough for everyone to get the message, but not so tough that they infringe on the public’s sense of normalcy. Aleksei Miniailo, an activist and co-founder of a sociological research project called Chronicles, who has chosen to remain in Moscow, told me, “If these were really Stalinist times, I would have been shot a year ago.” He went on, “This regime relies on one per cent repressions, ninety-nine per cent propaganda.”

One should not confuse the absence of dissent with heartfelt support. The Kremlin cannot fill stadiums with rabid, committed supporters. (It can bus them in or otherwise twist the arms of state employees, but genuine passion is exceedingly hard to muster.) Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, referenced Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address from late February, during which he spoke of people who “send letters and parcels, warm clothes, and camouflage nets to the front; they donate money from their savings.” Putin, she said, needs to see the war not as something he alone launched—as is the case—but as an endeavor supported and demanded by the people. Stanovaya quoted the Soviet battle hymn, “Sacred War,” known for its opening line: “Arise great country!” But now, Stanovaya said, “The country doesn’t feel like rising.”

Last fall, in a moment of rare candor, Valery Fedorov, the head of a state-run polling agency, admitted that the so-called party of war—hawks who advocate for victory at any price—represents only ten to fifteen per cent of society. “The majority of Russians do not demand to take Kyiv or Odesa,” he said. “They don’t enjoy the fighting. If it were up to them, they would not have started a military operation, but since the situation has already developed this way, then we must win.” This is not quite opposition to the war, but it’s certainly something far less than enthusiasm for it.

Putin has largely accepted this reality. His government has set out to rewrite school history textbooks to portray Russia as perpetually defending itself against outside enemies and to link the war in Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War. Now Russian troops are fighting for “goodness and truth” just like their grandfathers. But, on the whole, as Volkov, of the Levada Center, put it, “The state lets people live as they want.” Putin has attempted to calm fears of another mass-mobilization order. “There is no such need,” he said last summer. If people are so moved, as he noted, to sew camouflage nets for the soldiers at the front, the state will celebrate their efforts. But if people want to busy themselves with children’s playgroups and Moscow restaurants—Remchukov, the newspaper publisher, spoke of new supply chains that provide exquisite crab legs and sea urchins from Murmansk, on the Barents Sea—that’s fine, too.

There is no great strategy or vision; unlike the ideology of the Soviet period, Putinism offers no sweeping values against which particular actions or policies can be measured. This fact, along with Putin’s disinterest in the nitty-gritty of governance, means there is ever more room for improvisation and freelancing at all levels of the state apparatus. Many high-profile arrests and criminal cases are launched without Putin’s direct awareness—the F.S.B. long ago received carte blanche to act as it pleases. Last fall, Putin ended up in a mildly awkward position when regional governments moved to restrict abortion rights and Putin, aware of the general discomfort in society with such restrictions, stepped in to block them.

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