The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The myth of Putin is punctured

Savvy? Genius? A strong leader? Americans increasingly reject not just Putin’s morality, but his formidability.

Russian, Belarusian and some Ukrainian youth gather to burn Russian President Vladimir Putin in effigy in Tbilisi, Georgia, last month. (Justyna Mielnikiewicz/MAPS for The Washington Post)
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In the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Donald Trump and some of his top allies decided that it was a good time to build up Vladimir Putin. Trump called Putin’s actions “genius” and “savvy.” Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo agreed that Putin was “very shrewd” and “talented,” saying he had “enormous respect” for him.

The defense offered was that they were speaking pragmatically — merely acknowledging Putin’s formidability. It’s important to understand what your foes are capable of. (Trump, of course, conspicuously and repeatedly declined entreaties to offer moral judgments of Putin.)

Even that explanation, though, has suffered significantly as the war has unfolded over the past month and a half. Americans increasingly agree that Putin is a nefarious figure, on par with some of the most reviled foreign leaders of recent decades. Increasingly, they also think that he is not especially savvy.

In early March, U.S. News and YouGov released a poll asking people about Trump’s comments — but without attributing them to Trump. Just 15 percent agreed with Trump’s estimation that Putin’s stated justification for the war was “genius.”

But people were more willing to entertain the idea that Putin was indeed pretty savvy. More than a quarter of people said calling Putin “very savvy” matched their opinion at least “somewhat closely,” and that number shot up to 49 percent among 2020 Trump voters. Another YouGov poll at the time showed that 50 percent of Trump supporters called Putin a “strong leader” and 41 percent called him “strategic.”

Now, not so much.

A new YouGov poll conducted for the Economist also asked people about a range of descriptors for Putin, ranging from “savvy” and “genius” to “evil.” Just 15 percent overall agreed Putin was “savvy,” 7 percent called him “rational” and 25 percent called him “strategic.”

The poll asked about some characteristics in both surveys. The number saying Putin was a “strong leader” dropped from 31 percent to 23 percent, “paranoid” went from 30 percent to 41 percent and “out of control” went from 50 percent to 57 percent.

The shifts were even bigger among Trump supporters. While 50 percent called Putin a “strong leader” in late February, that number is down to 36 percent. Views of Putin as paranoid and out of control both increased by double digits. Those calling Putin himself a “genius” — slightly different from Trump calling Putin’s strategy genius — has dropped slightly, from 12 percent to 7 percent. Those calling him “strategic” declined from 41 percent to 32 percent.

Even in late February, though, the writing was on the wall: Polls showed that Americans weren’t particularly interested in such a supposedly nuanced view of Russia and Putin. People of all political persuasions quickly rejected the idea — on offer from the likes of Tucker Carlson and a few prominent Republicans — that the war in Ukraine does not really concern us. Negative views of Russia returned to Cold War levels. While 39 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Putin after it was revealed that he had tried to help elect Trump in late 2016, that number dropped to 14 percent (and now to 10 percent in the most recent survey). Soon, Putin became so reviled that people viewed him about as negatively as Kim Jong Un, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro at their most notorious.

In the weeks since, Russia has struggled to defeat an inferior — or at least, less-resourced — Ukrainian military, apparently abandoning efforts to take the capital, Kyiv. Late Wednesday, the Ukrainians claimed that they had successfully attacked Russia’s top warship in the Black Sea, the Moskva. While the facts remain unclear, a crippling missile strike would be a remarkable practical and symbolic victory, especially since it was reportedly the ship that the Ukrainians defied on Snake Island.

Some have wagered that Kyiv was never really the objective, and that Russia’s true aim was eastern Ukraine. “What if Putin didn’t miscalculate?” asked a recent column from conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. There’s certainly a valid debate about both Putin’s strategy and the possibility that Russia’s invasion could still accomplish significant objectives.

But for now, the myth of Putin has been punctured — even among many conservatives and Trump supporters.