The image was of a man losing his bearings, stumbling blindly into a possible conflict. Perhaps, after 14 years of leading Russia, he had finally gone mad.
Apparently in Russia, the perspective is rather different.
In a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) last week, Putin's popularity level in Russia has reached 71.6 percent. That's a 9.7 percent increase since mid-February, which seems quite obviously linked to the Russian president's handling of Ukraine and the Sochi Olympics. As Ria Novosti notes, it means that Putin's popularity levels are now at a three-year high.
You might want to put that down to the fact that the VTsIOM is state-run, but that argument doesn't really hold. The Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling center, has also found that Putin had a 72 percent approval rating, up 7 points from January and a recent record. To put that in context on a world stage, U.S. president Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to Gallup, while 79 percent of the French say they don't approve of Francois Hollande's presidency. Putin isn't just popular, he's extraordinarily popular.
So what is Putin doing right? Well, another poll released by Levada offers some insight. According to that poll, conducted March 7-10, 37 percent of respondents believe that Ukraine has been taken over by radical nationalists, and another 36 percent believe there is no single authority there. Just 9 percent believe the government in Ukraine represents the full range of interests of the Ukrainian population.
Meanwhile, some 67 percent of those polled blame the crisis in Crimea on Ukrainian nationalists, while just 2 percent blamed it on the Russian leadership. This fear of Ukrainian nationalists is part of the Kremlin line, of course: In an unusual news conference this month, Putin referred to the Euromaidan protests as "orgy of nationalists and extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kiev."
Russia has simply stepped in to protect Russian speakers from this terrible crowd, the Kremlin logic goes, and that action is apparently okay with Russian citizens – some 65 percent of those polled by Levada felt that Russia had the right to protect Russian speakers in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In total, 79 percent felt that Russia should accept Crimea into the country if it votes that way in this weekend's referendum.
What's really remarkable about Putin's apparent popularity boost is that for so long we'd been hearing about how it was on the wane. An apparent drop in approval ratings in 2011 – not to mention the huge street protests that hit Moscow and other cities after the disputed Duma elections of December 2011 – had seemed to signify that Russia's growing middle class was finally growing sick of Putin. The latest trend appears to contradict that, with Putin's popularity apparently heading back to the stratospheric heights of 2008 and 2009, when his popularity reached 88 percent in Levada's polling.
Incidentally, Putin's popularity peaked in September 2008 – just a few weeks after Russia crushed Georgia's military in a brief war over the fate of breakaway region South Ossetia. Putin's actions may strike us as paranoid and possibly mad, driven by exaggerated fears of "Russophobia" and rose-tinted memories of a grand Russian empire, but we should remember: There appear to be millions of people in Russia who may feel the same.