Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a youth forum in Moscow, Russia, on March 15, 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool)

Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, author and expert at Free Russia Foundation. He was Russia’s deputy minister of energy in 2002. Olga Khvostunova is the director of the Institute of Modern Russia and a fellow at the Free Russia Foundation.

In recent years, Russia’s young people have been harshly criticized for political apathy and conformism, but also for dangerous forms of activism and patriotism. Some scholars described them as the new version of the Komsomol, the youth organization run by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, deeming them the “most pro-Putin group” in Russia. But in March 2017, thousands of young Russians, defying all expectations, took to the streets to protest government corruption. So is the Kremlin winning or losing their hearts and minds?

While there is no simple answer to this question, our new report for the Free Russia Foundation suggests that President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin may have already lost the unfailing support of youths.

Our report draws a detailed picture of a new generation of Russians, ages 17-25, who find themselves largely disconnected from the country’s aging leadership, nostalgic Soviet rhetoric and nepotistic agenda. Though Putin’s average approval ratings remain relatively high (over 60 percent), his support among youths has dramatically decreased over the recent decade: 32 percent in January 2019 as opposed to the peak of 80 percent in 2009.

Making sense of what had caused this shift is crucial for understanding what might come next. Several factors were at play.

A generational conflict is one of the key drivers of the growing disconnect between Russia’s leadership and its youth. Putin is 66 years old, and most members of his inner circle are well into their 60s. This age gap is aggravated by the diverging values, attitudes and communication styles. Putin’s infamous “potty mouth” and the fact that he rarely uses the Internet make him look outdated.

Moreover, Russia’s gradual economic decline has exacerbated inequality. The 2014 annexation of Crimea came at a steep price, straining the economy with Western sanctions and hitting average Russians the hardest. As living standards deteriorate, anxiety has settled in among Russians, including young people.

Young Russians are increasingly aware that corruption and nepotism contribute to their economic uncertainty. They can’t help but notice that many top positions are distributed among Putin’s loyalists and their children. It comes as no surprise that, according to a poll conducted in December 2018, 41 percent of young Russians — a record high — say they intend to emigrate. This reflects the fact that when it comes to youths, the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the West and the United States as a foreign enemy are failing. The 2018 polls show that 60 percent of those ages 25 and younger have favorable views of the United States — three times as many as those over 55.

But perhaps the most interesting factor at play is the Kremlin’s failed youth policy. In the 2000s, the Russian government enjoyed some success, recruiting thousands to pro-Putin, Komsomol-style youth movements (“Walking Together” and its successor, “Ours”). But the Kremlin’s lack of any long-term vision for the future and its failure to build a constructive dialogue has cost it some of this support.

By contrast, opposition leader Alexei Navalny has managed to appeal to young Russians by addressing the very issues they care about. His investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s personal wealth — an engaging visual story that appealed directly to the younger audience — came out on the heels of high-profile arrests of top government officials on charges related to embezzlement, and took aim at the culture of corruption that has limited their aspirations and career opportunities.

The youth responded to Navalny and took to the streets. Astonishingly, by some estimates, 75 percent of the demonstrators in the 2017 mass protests were under 30 years old. The protests may have subsided over time, but that doesn’t mean the original frustration has been resolved.

Though only 14 percent of young Russians say they are ready to participate in a protest, and 72 percent see it as an inefficient way of influencing the government, many are engaged in civic activism at the local level. Even before the 2017 protests, youth participation was growing in various directions — including environmental work, urban activism and volunteering. In response to the political vacuum created by the Kremlin, young people are focusing on the politics of small deeds.

Yet it appears that the Kremlin is now considering a strategy to win the youth back. Youth policy oversight was reportedly entrusted to Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of Putin’s administration and the mastermind behind his reelection. The federal agency responsible for the youth affairs has been granted a new budget seven times bigger than what it was in 2018.

The results of the Kremlin’s new efforts to co-opt youths will take years to come to fruition. But if recent history is any indication, these efforts will not be successful. As the Putin regime grows older, more rigid and repressive, its conflict with younger Russians will get more heated.

Read more:

Timothy Frye: Putin touts Russia as a great power. But he’s made it a weak one.

David Petraeus and Sheldon Whitehouse: Putin and other authoritarians’ corruption is a weapon — and a weakness

Christian Caryl: Let’s empower Russians who are fighting Putin’s propaganda

David Von Drehle: Donald Trump is lucky. Vladimir Putin is luckier.

Michael McFaul: Why Vladimir Putin is a terrible strategist