As the West Extends Sanctions on Russia, Putin's Popularity Grows

By Woodrow W. Clark II and Dimitri Elkin (*) On June 22, 2015, the European Union voted to extend Russia sanctions for six months. Two days later, Russia retaliated, extending counter-measures that include a broad ban on European and American food imports for twelve months. The new round of this "tit-for-tat" strategy was surrounded by self-righteous posturing on both sides. The West blamed Russia for failing to live up to the Minsk 2 accords designed to bring peace to the Eastern Ukraine. And the Russian Foreign Ministry noted that the European sanctions were passed on the same date when the Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. One especially feisty Russian parliamentarian suggested putting Pepsi and Coke on the list of sanctioned products.

Why would the West and Russia extend destructive policies that failed to produce any meaningful advantage for either side?

It seems that the current poisonous political environment rewards belligerence on both sides. In Washington, being "tough on Russia" remains probably the only area where the Republicans fully back Democratic President Obama. The White House's recent decision to send US tanks to Europe for the first time since the Cold War ended, received solid bipartisan support. In Eastern European capitals the calls to prepare for "Russian aggression" have become common ground and almost assumed to be the EU official position. While in Moscow, the bashing of ruinous American economic foreign policies has evolved into a Russian national political sport.

The standoff between Russia and the West have damaged every nations' economy and alienated its people. Yet on the both sides of the divide the electorate continues to support politicians who produced what increasingly appears to be an irreversible geopolitical divide. One day, the citizens of the United States and Russia will wake up and come to their senses. Despite the partisan political leaders in both countries (often referring to the old days of the communist Soviet Union vs. democracies of the Western nations) reality will set in and take hold. The current economic crisis in Greece is the evidence. Both sides want to help Greece recover. But for now, the process of geopolitical ditch digging goes on to approving but very limited cheers to the political leadership.

The phenomenon of voters rewarding bad political decisions is universal, but the extent of Vladimir Putin's Teflon-like resilience is especially remarkable. Russia was hurt by the economic sanctions more than any other nation. Yet, several days after the sanctions were extended, The Levada Center, an independent Russian polling service, reported that Putin's approval rating reached an all-time high of 89%.

Why is Vladimir Putin continuing to be so popular in Russia?

This question carries considerable political importance since the high level of popular support has always been essential to the Kremlin's ability to govern effectively.

It's the ECONOMY, stupid? Russia's political process is more competitive and even democratic than many people in the western world may realize. Russia has over seventy (70) registered political parties. Additionally each year Russia's electoral calendar includes hundreds of elections at the municipal and regional levels. Putin may be called an autocrat in Washington, but the only way he could retain his power is through the local ballot box.

During the post-Soviet period (1991-2014), economics superceded politics in Russia. The ballot preferences of Russian voters were based upon an economic rational. People supported those leaders who delivered economic prosperity; and snubbed those who failed to do so. In the 1990s, for example, the Russian economy collapsed and the approval of the then President Boris Yeltsin fell into single digits. Yeltsin nearly lost his 1996 reelection bid to the Communist leader Zyuganov. When the Russian economy started to grow boosted by the devalued currency and a rising oil price in 2000, the approval for the second Russian president Putin remained strong. By 2004, Putin won his second election in a landslide.

After Putin returned to a third term in 2012, the Russian economy struggled to grow, and Putin's popularity predictably declined. By the end of 2013, The Levada Center estimated that Putin had lost a third of his supporters. In 2014, the Russian economy slowed, yet Putin's ratings went up sharply. Why? After the Crimea "reunification" in March of 2014, Russian politics became disconnected from the performance of the Russian economy.

Why also did this happen? The Levada Center experts explained this as a case of "negative mobilization" as the Russian people supported their commander-in-chief when the country was in danger. This process was similar to how Americans rallied around the then unpopular George W. Bush immediately after 9/11. The Victory Day parade on May 9, and the recent announcement that Russia is expanding its nuclear arsenal are all part of this patriotic narrative.

So, is Putin's persistent popularity about his status as the defender of the motherland? Patriotism is surely a powerful force, but those emotions can only go that far. At some point, the Russian people will surely develop immunity to the Kremlin propaganda of the past, and start to realize that NATO has no plans to invade Russia. Therefore for Putin to stay on top, he needs a more rational, and a more feasible story of why he deserves the support of this people. Putin is not dumb. He already sees this and is acting now.

The persistence of memory For example, two months ago, Channel One, the Russian central TV, which openly favors the Kremlin, aired a documentary titled The President, a two hour expose that provided a reminder of Putin's political achievements during his fifteen years at the top of the Russian political ladder. The essence of the Kremlin's key argument is that Putin deserves support of the Russian people because of his prior achievements.

For Vladimir Putin, the revival of the Russian economy after the "roaring 90s" has always served as one of the main sources of political capital, and hence power within the nation. This is just. Even Russia's staunchest critics in the West acknowledge the incredible recovery after Putin became president in 2000. But most of Russia's economic miracle occurred before 2008, during Putin's first two presidential terms. Do Russians still care about those old achievements? Apparently they do.

Americans could relate to such short historic memory. The decline of the Russian economy during the 1990s was more severe than that suffered by the US during the Great Depression. And since the Great Depression experience impacted US national psyche for many decades, then it is hardly surprising that Putin still gets mileage from Russia's economic recovery between 1999 and 2008, based on its energy fuel recourses, supplies and sales outside Russia. The Kremlin is well aware of this. In fact, the allusion to the Great Depression and to FDR was one of Putin's justifications for his decision to run for a precedent setting third presidential term.

Can it get worse for Russians? Political revolutions occur when the people feel they have nothing to lose. The Kremlin has convinced Russians that they have plenty to lose. Russia trails the US in wealth and income. Russia's GDP per capital is less than half of the US. But on many non- financial measures, the two countries are surprisingly close. In fact, according the UN Human Development Report Russia ranks just below the US on many key indicators ranging from expected years of schooling, maternity mortality ratio to female participation in the economy. The US has a higher life expectancy (79 years vs. 69 years in Russia), but Russia beats US in two key areas of international leadership: a higher level of college education graduates and home ownership. Russia has a lower level of inequality than the US. Certainly Russia has plenty of social and economic issues. However so does the US, with its increasing racial conflicts, especially between police and black citizens and the growing gap between lower and upper economic class citizens that has seen a dramatic reduction in the historical middle-class.

Any politician in the West who calls for a regime change in Russia inevitably runs into the fact that Russia's current socio-economic conditions are civilized and now matured, albeit not following the traditional western capitalism model. Russia has created its own "form" of capitalism, which is something that most Russian citizens would probably prefer not to lose. And lose it, they certainly can. Russians can only look across the border to see what a US-sponsored "democratization" (that is western neo-classical capitalism) can do to a country. Thus there goes Putin's story line. As the Ukraine edges towards a sovereign default and the bad results of being a pro-European experiment in Kiev, there are increasingly indicators that serve as a compelling justification of Putin's insistence on the meddling (that is, influence through many means from use of economics, energy to individuals and "friends") of "foreign agents". Meddling must be checked at all times by all nations.

The question of propaganda Thus, Putin's popularity is based on three areas: (1) patriotism, (2) the achievement of his first two terms, and (3) the fear that without Putin, Russia will turn into an Ukraine-like corrupt basket case or even worse, a bankrupt Greece. This latter line of argument has been growing more prominent over the past few months. A recent article in The Economist put it as follows: Putin concocted a new story of Ukraine as a failed state.

This incorrect interpretation of Russia and Putin is not entirely convincing, in part because the phrase "failed state" does not exist in the Russian political lexicon. And also because nobody in Moscow suggests that the Ukraine should be put into the same group as counties like Libya, Syria and Iraq. Yet The Economist is correct to note that the Kremlin has been taking a "softer line" lately. This observation is where we look next: Russian (and Western) propaganda. And how much of it reflects the reality on the ground in Kiev and other nations between the West and Russia.

(*) Dimitri Elkin is a Russian-American businessman and writer. He is a graduate of Moscow State University and Harvard University. His book Russia Turns the Page - Historical Sketches of the End of the Post-Soviet Period was recently published in Moscow, and is being translated into English.