MOSCOW – Think Russians are tiring of conflict with the West? Not according to President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings, which hit all-time highs of 89 percent Wednesday.
Putin has been riding sky-high ever since the March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russians embraced as a restoration of their place at the table of superpowers. Neither Western sanctions nor an economy in the doldrums nor NATO’s bolstering its presence along the borders have been able to dislodge Putin’s support ever since.
Some Western policymakers had hoped that a sanctions regime that includes tight restrictions on the Russian banking and energy industries would push Putin toward a different path. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which is partially fueled by Russia, has indeed quieted, though not stopped, in recent months. But those who were planning for a collapse in Putin’s support might want to pin their aspirations elsewhere.
Putin’s ratings jumped from 65 percent in January 2014 to 80 percent two months later, and they’ve stayed in the 80s ever since, according to measurements from the Moscow-based Levada Center, the only independent polling organization in Russia. They’ve kept going up: In Putin’s 15 years in office, they’ve never been higher than June’s 89 percent.
The ratings boost comes as Putin has upped his confrontational rhetoric toward the West in recent weeks, saying last week that Russia planned to “supply more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to our nuclear force.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced plans this week to station heavy equipment, including tanks, in the Baltics and Poland to facilitate training exercises there. It was a sign of a U.S. commitment to defending the NATO members against any move from their Russian neighbor – one that Russia interpreted as a sharp escalation.
NATO defense ministers are meeting Wednesday in Brussels to discuss plans for bolstering their presence in eastern Europe, though they have taken pains to try not to escalate a confrontation with Russia.
“NATO will not be dragged into an arms race, but we must keep our countries safe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels ahead of the meeting.
Some critics of Russian opinion polls – even independent ones such as those from the Levada Center – say they have little value in a society where the government has a near-monopoly on information and no real political rivals. But even if Putin’s approval ratings would be lower in a more open information environment, the direction of the ratings is still useful to know whether Putin’s support is strengthening or weakening.
The polling of 1,600 respondents across Russia was conducted between June 19 and June 22, Levada said.
The 89 percent approval rating is also a testimony to the near-unanimity of views about Russia’s current direction. Russian authorities have been effective at stoking the deep grievances that developed here after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Many here say that the West took advantage of Russia’s post-Soviet weakness in the 1990s to disregard the Kremlin’s opinion in affairs in countries that Russia had long considered its strategic orbit. The events of the past year in Ukraine, these Russians say, have made their nation feared in the world again, and therefore more respected.
As an additional measure of Russia’s moving back toward a more Soviet-era approach to the world, Moscow city leaders on Wednesday approved Communist Party plans to try to hold a referendum to restore a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police to a central Moscow square. Felix Dzerzhinsky’s statue was pulled down by protesters outside KGB headquarters in 1991.