This weekend, the world reckoned again with the threat of open conflict between Russia and Ukraine after Moscow closed a water route to the Azov Sea and reportedly opened fire on the Ukrainian navy. The situation follows years of tension between the two nations after the ouster of a pro-Kremlin president in Kiev and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
But while the impact of Russia’s move against Ukraine is potentially global in scope, could domestic concerns be forcing Russia to take an aggressive stance? Russia’s economy is stuck in the midst of long-term stagnation, and a plan to raise the retirement age has proved unpopular with voters. Regional election last month saw many pro-Kremlin candidates lose.
Kimberly Marten, a Russia watcher at Barnard College, pondered whether with the sudden escalation in Azov, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be “provoking yet another international crisis in hopes of winning support at home.” If this is true, “he’s a rather pathetic one-note Charlie,” Marten added on Twitter.
The idea that world leaders might make foreign policy decisions because of concerns about domestic popularity is hardly unusual — in the United States, the concept is known as a “wag the dog” strategy, in reference to the 1997 film. But with Putin, the accusations have been particularly persistent. Indeed, when you look at polling from Russia and compare it with acts of Russian aggression, there does seem to be some sort of correlation.
The above chart shows Putin’s personal approval rating from 2007 to the most recent in 2018, taken from the nongovernmental polling agency Levada-Center. Highlighted are two important dates when Russia took foreign policy moves that may have been motivated by domestic popularity concerns: the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Georgia in 2008.
In the case of the annexation of Crimea, it’s pretty clear that this coincided with a 20 percentage point jump in Putin’s personal approval ratings. The effect of the invasion of Georgia in August 2008 is harder to discern: Though Putin’s approval rating reached 88 percent the month after, it was already over 80 before the invasion.
However, Putin wasn’t actually president in August 2008 — Russia’s constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, so he stepped aside for four years and was replaced by his former prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. And according to Levada-Center’s data, Medvedev received his highest approval ratings ever (83 percent) the month after the invasion.
The effect also seems clear when you consider the approval ratings for the Russian government as a whole, which also reached a high of 66 percent in September 2008. It subsequently reached that same number again in September 2014, only a few months after the annexation of Crimea, during a time of increased tension with the West.
Putin has long had a reputation for cynicism — indeed, it dates back to the first term as prime minister, with unproved theories about government links to terrorist attacks in 1999. This reputation persists to the modern day and the Kremlin’s excuses for alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the attempted assassination of a former spy in England.
But can it really be so simple? Levada-Center is well-respected internationally, but there are clearly limits on the value of public opinion polling in an authoritarian country like Russia, where much mass media is closely aligned with the government. Even at its lows, Putin’s approval is sky high by most Western standards.
Then there’s the issue of cause and effect. We can certainly theorize that Russia’s actions in Georgia and Crimea led to a “rally around the flag” effect, but was that why the Russian government pursued these actions? In both cases, Russian aggression came after a number of other events not totally under Moscow’s control.
The Kremlin has also undertaken other provocative foreign policy actions, such as the alleged 2016 election interference, at times when Putin and the government were relatively popular.
In this latest instance, Russia has denied being the aggressor in the Azov Sea, instead saying that the Ukrainian navy had illegally entered its territorial waters — even though the two countries had agreed to share the sea as part of a 2003 agreement. Russia’s foreign ministry has accused Ukraine of provoking the situation for political gain.
“First there are provocations, then they exert strong pressure, and finally an accusation of aggression,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, wrote on Facebook.
Looking at approval ratings for Putin and his government, however, it’s obvious that they are at a low that hasn’t been seen since before 2014. Given the other limits on Russian economic policy, a moment of foreign policy aggression could certainly be one way to turn this around.