Within days of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities began to orchestrate a pro-war campaign at home. To portray a country that is rallying around its president, the regime has staged pro-war rallies and introduced new symbols in support of the war. State media regularly runs stories that emphasize how Putin’s approval ratings have gone up since the invasion.
Why do authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin try so hard to convince the public that they are popular? Our research shows citizens’ support for Putin depends in part on how popular they think he is among other Russians. Scholarship generally finds that more popular authoritarian governments tend to last longer. Our results suggest that leaders such as Putin need these public perceptions of support if they want to remain in power.
Survey experiments we fielded in Russia in 2020 and 2021 found that when people think support for Putin is declining, they become less likely to support him — and not just because that’s what they think others want to hear.
As Russian newscasters, athletes and ordinary people let their dissatisfaction over the war seep into public view, support for the war and for Putin himself could erode. Given that the Kremlin uses Putin’s approval ratings to justify its rule, convincing the Russian people that the authorities enjoy broad support is now more important — and more perilous — than before.
Autocrats try to convince the masses they are popular
Authoritarian leaders such as Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping draw popularity from some of the same sources as democratic leaders. Ideology, personal characteristics, masculine self-portrayals and job performance in office can all bolster support for nondemocratic leaders.
Authoritarian regimes also try to actively shape citizens’ perceptions of how popular the regime is. Dictators try to convince the masses that they are popular through propaganda, subverting elections and suppressing dissenting voices.
There is good reason for all this. Citizens sometimes see popularity as a sign that leaders are competent. Evidence of popularity itself may make a leader even more popular as people come to believe sincerely that the leader deserves approval.
Alternatively, citizens may view a dictator’s high approval ratings as a sign that supporting the leader is the “correct” opinion to report. If voters believe expressing opposition to a popular leader might result in social condemnation or political punishment, they may feel compelled to say they support the leader even if they do not. Indeed, research shows that pressure to conform helps account for Putin’s large approval increase after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
But such staged perceptions of popularity can be fragile. When unanimity or social consensus breaks down, regime support can dissolve very quickly, as happened when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled in 1989.
Our research found that the image of Putin’s popularity helps maintain his actual popularity
To investigate the relationship between perceptions of Putin’s popularity and his actual popularity, we fielded a set of experiments in four public opinion surveys in Russia. Two of these surveys were conducted by the Levada Center, Russia’s most reputable social research firm, face-to-face in respondents’ homes. These surveys, which relied on a probabilistic sample, were representative at the national level. Approximately 1,600 respondents were interviewed for the first of the Levada surveys and 2,766 for the second, fielded as part of the Russian Election Study.
The other two surveys we rely on were conducted online using quota samples. The first of the surveys was nationally representative, with a sample of 1,504 respondents. The final survey was representative at both the national and subnational level, with a sample of 16,342 respondents.
Our experiments took advantage of a novel circumstance. Because upward of 60 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s presidency throughout 2020-2021, which is objectively high yet relatively low compared with his popularity in the past, we could word questions in ways that framed Putin’s popularity as either negative or positive light without deceiving respondents.
In each survey, we divided respondents into three groups, all of whom were asked the same questions. The control group simply took the survey. Another group first read a short statement saying Putin’s popularity was relatively high and stable. A third group was told Putin’s popularity was relatively low and declining. We then compared how much each of these two experimental groups of respondents approved of Putin, compared with the control.
Telling people that Putin enjoyed stable and high support had no effect on support for the president in any of the four experiments. However, when people were told that Putin’s approval was low and declining, their support for the president dropped significantly — by six to 11 percentage points.
We also used a statistical method known as a list experiment to investigate whether these results reflected sincere changes in what people felt. It is possible respondents felt freer to be critical when told that Putin was unpopular, regardless of their true opinions. However, our analyses indicate that the changes in preferences were sincere. Telling Russians that Putin’s approval has been in decline made them less likely to support the president, not just less likely to say they supported the president.
These findings suggest that much of Putin’s support is based on perceptions that he is popular. Without that perception, Putin’s popularity fades.
Will Putin’s support unravel?
While public opinion does not constrain authoritarian leaders the way it constrains leaders in democracies, it does affect the authorities’ ability to tamper with elections and keep elites united around the leader. The Kremlin’s current efforts to shape perceptions — through propaganda, “patriotic” lessons in schools that justify the invasion, manipulated polls, censorship and repression — all aim to boost the regime’s popularity.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, signs of public dissatisfaction about the war may increasingly enter the public consciousness. Street protests across the country, scenes of soldiers’ mothers criticizing the authorities and a sharp rise in food prices coupled with shortages could dent Putin’s image of popularity. In turn, that could set off a larger loss of support.
However, Putin is also increasing repression to make citizens afraid of expressing opposition to the regime. The dueling dynamics between growing dissent and increasingly stifling repression will help shape Putin’s rule in the months and years ahead.
Noah Buckley (@thenoahbuckley) is an assistant professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin.
Kyle L. Marquardt (@kailmarkvart) is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Bergen and a V-Dem project manager.
Ora John Reuter (@reutertweets) is an associate professor of political science at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Katerina Tertytchnaya (@KTertytchnaya) is an assistant professor of comparative politics at University College London.