How much trouble is Russian President Vladimir Putin really in? Every day seems to bring new battlefield setbacks for his military in Ukraine, images of Russian citizens fleeing en masse from a shambolic mass mobilization and — more recently — surprisingly direct criticism of the conduct of the war from insiders who have traditionally been his staunchest supporters.
But in an autocratic political system, particularly one with as much power vested in a single leader as Russia’s, public controversy only matters so much. In his more than two decades in power, Putin — who celebrated his 70th birthday on Friday — has weathered a host of military, political and economic crises, more often than not finding ways to turn them to his advantage.
On this week’s Global Grid, Grid Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating spoke with Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson, the authors of “Putin vs. The People: The Story of a Popular Dictator and the Struggle for the Future of Russia.” This study of Putin’s relationship with his citizens and the often misunderstood role of public opinion in autocratic political systems was first published in 2019 but reissued this year with new material on the war in Ukraine.
Greene is director of the Russia Institute and professor of Russian politics at King’s College London. Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies. They discussed the evolution of Putin’s nationalist message, why the annexation of Crimea in 2014 led him into a disastrous miscalculation this year, and why he may have as much trouble understanding Russians’ real views as we do.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Keating: I’ll start with a question that I’m guessing is pretty difficult to answer: How much do we really know right now about the level of support in Russia for this war and the extent to which the Russian people are really behind their president right now?
Graeme Robertson: We actually know quite a lot about public opinion in Russia, and we know that about 60 percent of people say in polls that they support the war. We know from research that those numbers are, in one sense, pretty firm. There is some degree of preference falsification, but we know that people respond to polls pretty much the way they did before, that people answer questions just about as freely as they did in Russia before the war. So those numbers are a pretty decent guide to public opinion.
We see a very clear age gradient in the polls. Younger people are much more likely to oppose the war. Older people are much more likely to support it. This is, in part, a result of younger people being more affected by the war. It’s also a result of the fact that younger people have a much broader information diet. I saw a really interesting poll the other day that showed that one of the best predictors of being opposed to the war was being able to define what a VPN was. So, if you know what a VPN is, that means you’re probably able to access one, and if you want to access one, you have a different set of information.
That’s sort of the landscape of public opinion, but what’s harder is to know how to interpret that landscape. We typically think of public opinion as being something that’s formed after people have been exposed to different kinds of information and reflect some kind of deeper understanding of the situation. That’s clearly not the situation that we have in Russia. So instead, what we have is a war that’s based mostly on people’s trust in the authorities to do the right thing.
And to the extent that that’s true, it means we have very broad but very thin and very fragile support for the war. As soon as it becomes more and more obvious that the state is not effective, that the state is not telling the truth, that support could collapse pretty quickly.
JK: In the book, you really emphasize the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a kind of turning point in the government’s relationship with the people and the rhetoric that Putin uses. Could you tell us a little more about what changed in 2014, and what lessons Putin might have taken from that experience into the current conflict?
GR: What we saw after the Crimean annexation was really a transformation in Russia. Popular support for Putin went up dramatically. His poll numbers have been sliding from when the financial crisis hit Russia in 2009, through the elections of 2012, which resulted in mass protests on the streets. When Putin was reelected in 2012, his strategy shifted to a much more nationalist and much more anti-Western agenda.
Before Crimea, people had been supportive of the president, but not particularly engaged. When we asked people how proud they felt of their president, very few people did feel pride. But after Crimea, lots of people felt pride. So you had lots of people who felt joy and emotional attachment to Russia. And this was a big transformation. So it’s possible that Putin drew from this experience the idea that if he could launch a successful war, he could once again capture the hearts and minds of the Russian people.
There are other, incorrect lessons that he drew from the Crimean experience that led him to this disaster in Ukraine. The military operation in Crimea went off very easily without a hitch. There was little to no resistance. They also were able to support and sponsor uprisings in eastern Ukraine that ultimately ran into resistance from Ukrainian militias and then the Ukrainian army, but that had been relatively successful. I think Putin took that experience where he was able to turn local actors to the Russian side as being something that would happen again in 2022. He missed the enormous transformations in Ukrainian society that occurred between 2014 and 2022.
He missed the consolidation of national identity, especially in eastern parts of Ukraine.
So, Putin completely misjudged the extent to which people would flip and start supporting the Russian invasion. I think his wrong assumption about the war was less about Russian and domestic opinion than about public opinion and behavior in Ukraine.
JK: There’s been a sort of interesting dichotomy in Putin’s rhetoric where, on the one hand, he frames this as a sort of civilizational struggle or a matter of Russia’s historical destiny. But until a few weeks ago, he avoided mobilization or even calling this a “war.” So how do you square that? Why was there this reluctance by Putin to fully engage Russian society until recently, considering how he seems to believe the stakes are?
Samuel Greene: I think we have to recognize that as much as we don’t understand about Russian public opinion, Putin doesn’t understand a whole lot more than we do. In some ways, he may understand less simply because he’s beholden to some ideas and maybe he’s not quite as rigorous about the research. But the reality is that he had no way of knowing how the public was going to respond to the war. He had no way of knowing, ahead of time, how it was going to respond to this partial mobilization. And so when he’s in that position of not really knowing, it means that Putin has to do two things.
He tends to be experimental. So he will try things out and leave himself with the flexibility to pivot. So that instead of going for the 1.2 million [troop] mobilization that some people have been talking about, he starts off with 300,000 to see what kind of response he gets, and then he can push forward if it if it works, and he can turn around in the other direction if it doesn’t.
But the other thing is that Putin has really, going back to the very beginning of his time in office in 1999, tried to be all things to all people. So if you go back to the early 2000s, if you wanted a kind of a backward-looking and nostalgic view of politics, you could find reasons to identify with Putin. And if you wanted a forward-looking and sort of progressive view of politics, you could also find ways to convince yourself that that was the direction that he was taking. He does, I think, still try to give people various reasons to get on board. So, if what really motivates you is nationalism, then he’s giving you a bunch of rhetoric that puts him in your camp. But if what really motivates you is the idea that the United States might be threatening us, or you really don’t like NATO, or that kind of thing, he’s giving you rhetoric in that direction. And you can kind of ignore the other parts that you might not like.
JK: One thing you talk about in the book is the strong “rally round the flag” effect that Russians, in particular, tend to display during international crises and insulates the Kremlin from the economic impact of things like sanctions. But are there limits to that, to how much economic pain Russians will tolerate for geopolitical gains?
GR: First of all, the kind of rally around the flag effect that we see in Russia is common in most countries in the world. You see rallies around the flag when the country citizens perceive the country be under some kind of threat and the government responding militarily. Look at the American invasion of Iraq or the Falklands War in Great Britain in the 1980s, and you see the same kind of phenomenon. So Russia isn’t unique in this context. But what’s interesting is that what you saw in these other cases of rallies, that were mostly in democracies, is that the rally holds until such time as the opposition starts to feel able to criticize the government again; criticizes mistakes that are made in the invasion of Iraq, for example.
In democracies, that happens pretty quickly. In somewhere like Russia, where you don’t have a free press, and there’s not the same access to opposition voices, the process is much more slow. And so we saw after the Crimea annexation, the rally lasted about four years before economic problems started to chip away again at Putin’s popularity.
So, what’s really interesting about what we’re seeing in Russia right now: On the one hand, you had this economic squeeze that’s taking place more slowly than anticipated. It’s not really biting yet with a ferocity that some people were expecting at the beginning of the sanctions. I think that’s a slow burner. But the faster way of chipping away at his authority is the criticism of the handling of no more than we see from two sides. We see it very much from the nationalist side who don’t think the wars been done hard enough, fast enough, well enough. This is [Chechen President Ramzan] Kadyrov’s criticism.
But then on the other hand, there’s also more criticism from society as the inequities and inefficiencies of the mobilization start to become more obvious. So I think this is actually a really interesting moment where the wartime rally effect is really under a lot of pressure from two sides at the one time.
JK: There’s been extensive reporting that even before the draft and more so after it, that a disproportionate share of those fighting and dying in this war are from more remote regions of Russia and ethnic minority communities: places like Dagestan, Tuva, Yakutia. I’m curious how these communities fit into the nationalist rhetoric Putin has been espousing in recent years. Does he address his message about Russian greatness to them as well?
SG: It’s interesting: As much as we talk about Putin as a nationalist, he’s a great power nationalist, but he hasn’t really been an ethnic nationalist, at least until pretty recently. And he’s been very careful in the ways that he’s used nationalism in his rhetoric. You’re not going to find me saying nice things about Putin on a regular basis, but he does seem to recognize the fact that Russia is a multiethnic country and that trying to exploit ethnic divisions within Russia would be catastrophic, including for Putin’s own power. And so he’s tried very hard to talk in a way that allows everybody within the state the right to feel to feel patriotic.
But there are there are dangers within that. One is the degree to which he has mobilized the sort of hard-right Slavic ethno-nationalist communities in Russia in support of this war. It does drag him more and more into the kinds of rhetoric that they espouse, and that can begin to create problems, particularly when we see something like this mobilization and the extent to which it draws on marginalized communities.
When the rhetoric in these communities doesn’t match up with what’s actually being done to them, when poverty drives people into the military as an avenue of social mobility, when people in these communities begin to feel that they’re being exploited or somehow bearing an uneven, inequitable burden that other communities, particularly the dominant ethnic Slavic community in Russia, is not being asked to bear, then they may come calling for some recognition, and for some autonomy, and for some justice.
JK: Since the mobilization, we’ve also seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country, both to neighboring countries and farther afield. One would assume these are the sorts of people who might be more inclined to oppose the government or at least be critical of it. So what impact could this exodus have on Russian politics going forward?
GR: Yes, we’re seeing a historically large emigration of Russia’s intellectuals, lots of educated people, and frankly, people with the resources to get up and go, so better-off people. I haven’t seen any decent polling around émigrés, but anecdotally, it’s pretty clear that most of the people who are leaving are critical of the war and did not want to be involved in the war. Although obviously, there are some people amongst those that have fled who supported the war until it came down to the point where they didn’t want support it with their with their lives and their bodies.
The real tragedy of this is not even just politically, it’s the enormous human capital. For Russia to prosper and develop and flourish in the future, these are the people, the young people, that it needs. And that’s yet another tragedy that Putin is visiting upon his own country.
JK: So, I think the biggest question many people are wondering about is to what extent are we really seeing vulnerability in the Kremlin? There are more reports coming now of dissent from within Putin’s inner circle and criticism from what used to be his supporters in the pro-war camp. How much does this really matter in terms of his hold on power? Today is his 70th birthday. Is there any reason to think he won’t be in the Kremlin on his 71st?
SG: There’s always vulnerability in the Kremlin. The reality is that when you don’t have what you would think of as a normal political system, one that creates and endows a government with legitimacy every five or six years, then you’re not giving them any incentive to wait until the next election. They know that [Putin] could be in power forever, which means they don’t have to wait for the next election. It means that if there is a threat to their livelihoods and their prospects, and if that threat is acute, if you’re Putin, if you’re that dictator, you have to worry about that threat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We do see Putin respond to threats, take them very, very seriously and organize politics around how serious these threats are. That is something Putin has been doing for a long time. At the same time, there is also a tremendous amount of strength and resiliency. He does control a very powerful coercive apparatus, he controls all there is to politics and all there is to the economy.
I think his core asset in all of this is the fact that it’s not enough just for people who are dissatisfied with Putin — whether that’s people in government around him or ordinary citizens — to be dissatisfied. In fact, it’s probably really hard to look around the Russian landscape right now and find people who are very happy with the way things are going, but they have to be able to believe that they A) could pull off a change in government, and B) that the change in government would actually make something better.
It’s still easier for everybody in this game, whether you are in the elite, in the top of the system, or much further down the food chain, to find an individual solution to this, to keep your head down and sort of isolate yourself. That’s the strategy that seems to be much more available and much more sensible to people than trying to take the very big risk of trying to create political change.
GR: Maybe some people listening are familiar with the movie “The Death of Stalin.” This situation has a lot of similarities to that. People who were sitting around the table with Putin, being humiliated by him on television on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, they probably hate him as much as anybody does. But their problem is, “If we were able to take the old guy out, and that’s a big if, who do we get next? And what’s usually happened in the past is that whoever comes next then eliminates the rest of us as his potential competitors and people who know where the bodies are buried.”
So, you not only have to be able to coordinate, you have to be confident that whoever replaces Putin will treat you better and not immediately turn on you. That’s the classic dynamic of these kinds of political systems. I think this situation is actually really acute. If Putin had wanted to die peacefully in his bed, he would have not invaded Ukraine. I think he’s more vulnerable now than he’s been, really, since he took office.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.