Putin's popularity goes beyond a personality cult. Reasserting great power status in the minds of Russians is at the heart of his success
Since Crimea was “returned to Russia”, Vladimir Putin’s performance as President of the Russian Federation has enjoyed an overall approval rating of 85 percent or over. “Crimea’s reunification with Russia” has also enjoyed the support of the same 85 percent.But this goes beyond being a personality cult - just seven percent of people polled are proud of being a Putin supporter.
Many observers in Russia and abroad and some ordinary Russians attribute these effects to ‘Putin’s propaganda’ and indeed much evidence does point in this direction. The three main TV channels broadcasting from Moscow, which cover 80-90 percent of Russian audiences, are said to be under the control of the Presidential Administration and practice rigorous self-censorship. While there are other channels their audience is limited and a number of them do not discuss politics.
Even amongst the third of the population (mostly young people) who claim to use the internet regularly to read ‘world news’, 75 percent said they get their information on Ukraine from ‘government TV channels’
This virtual monopoly has led to a strong influence on public opinion. When asked “what their source of the information on events in Ukraine is”, over 90 percent of Russians refer to these three ‘central’ TV channels. Even amongst the third of the population (mostly young people) who claim to use the internet regularly to read ‘world news’, 75 percent said they get their information on Ukraine from ‘government TV channels’. And while people complain that there is too much violence and bloodshed on TV news yet they keep watching it.
But this influence over public opinion does not extend to all spheres of government activity. Putin’s high overall approval performance coexists with a much lower assessment of his success in domestic politics, especially in managing the economy. This would suggest that such a high overall popularity is based not solely on propaganda, which might be expected to improve ratings across the board, but on exceptionally high support amongst ordinary Russians for Putin’s actions towards his Western counterparts.
Crimea is a strong case in point for understanding this support. Most Russians see few (if any) practical advantages to the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, but discern, first and foremost, proof that their country has at last acted as a real great power. Russia went ahead and ignored the will and the interests of big, important players in international affairs - the US, NATO and the EU.
This makes many Russians proud. Special propaganda efforts were not required because defying rival powers, fulfils long-held dreams of seeing their motherland resurface as a great power. While in principle, opinion poll respondents agree that they would also be happy with scientific or cultural achievements (like Yuri Gagarin’s space flight), as no such achievements are in sight hard-power politics remains the only way to reach this historical goal. Putin took a chance and won. The only purpose of the propaganda in this case was to confirm the ‘mission accomplished’.
The two contrasting ideas - that Russia has done something great and is in the right, and that it has broken international and moral laws and is in the wrong – coexist and collide within the public mind
TV and other media had another very important mission to fulfil. Levada research has shown that Russians are fully aware of the West’s opinion of what Russia has done in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Yet research also shows that they would still back Putin to ignore sanctions and the hostility of the West in any event. While Russians who dare say out loud that Moscow’s policy in Ukraine is wrong are condemned as traitors, the idea that Russia has broken international law that she wanted others to respect is very present in the public mind as well. The two contrasting ideas - that Russia has done something great and is in the right, and that it has broken international and moral laws and is in the wrong – coexist and collide within the public mind.
In this case, anything that might help to lower the moral standing of the other side and to raise that of Russia will help the unease that this situation causes. Anything that shows how bad the West is will be welcomed. To put it bluntly, the masses are eager for any kind of propaganda which helps to allay the deep but disturbing sense of wrongdoing.
How Russia deploys its narrative in the wider world has been a cause for concern. But Europe worried about Russian external influence during the Cold War too, but in the end found its societies pretty resilient. There are much more effective ways of exerting influence, especially through the engagement of elites. And today, polls have shown that the German public is to a large degree unaffected by Russian propaganda. But to compare today’s propaganda with that of the Cold War is to miss a central shift in Russia’s behaviour. Russian trolls are stupid and ineffective, but they do take up a lot of space and airtime. Russia’s new propaganda is not now about selling a particular worldview, it is about trying to distort information flows and fuel nervousness among European audiences.
The idea of Europe launching an alternative Russian-speaking TV channel to compete with Russia Today has been circulating for quite some time… [but] many Russian expats in London and elsewhere who were free to watch whatever TV news they liked supported the actions in Crimea.
Whether Europe can respond to this in kind is a much-debated question: the idea of Europe launching an alternative Russian-speaking TV channel to compete with Russia Today and other Moscow-funded channels has been circulating for quite some time. Yet there seems to be little to recommend such a course of action. Russian-speaking audiences are quite specific and it is impossible to reach domestic Russian audiences from outside. Indeed, many Russian expats in London and elsewhere who were free to watch whatever TV news they liked supported the actions in Crimea. And if Moscow saw any attempt to create competing media, it would just invest even more capital in its own programmes. It was not, after all, propaganda which helped end the Cold War, but international exchanges and this is what Europe should focus its efforts on. However, this too will be made much more difficult if recent Russian talk of stopping the Western flow of funding to student exchange programmes becomes reality.
Many experts predict that Russians will stop supporting Putin as soon as the economic problems - caused perhaps by Western sanctions - become unbearable. But there is no real evidence to support such an assumption. The experience of poor countries with illiberal but popular regimes in Latin America shows that it is easy to convert economic problems into a means of further mobilising the public. Half of the Russian population has said that it has already been seriously affected by the economic crisis, but this has yet to be transformed into criticism of the authorities.
Russian public opinion may and will change some day but only if the social layout in Russia changes or Russians feel that their claims to great power status equal to the US are acknowledged by the latter. And in their minds the idea of the proper ‘respect’ includes also a healthy dose of ‘being afraid of’.
Alexey Levinson is Senior Researcher at the Levada Center. A version of this paper, based on Levada Center polls and other studies, was first presented at ECFR’s EU-Russia Strategy Group meeting in June 2015.