What is Really Behind Putin’s Approval Ratings
November 3, 2023
  • Alexei Levinson
    Levada Center
Based on years of polling and research, Alexei Levinson of the Levada Center explains why public approval of Putin has remained high for almost a quarter of a century and under what circumstances it jumps to 80% or higher.
At the end of 2007, when Vladimir Putin was wrapping up his second presidential term (no one knew that he had at least three more ahead of him), Time magazine chose him as its person of the year. Today, it is interesting to see where the editors were right, where they were wrong, and which of their suspicions proved prescient.

“An intense and brooding KGB agent, a steely and determined man,” Time wrote, “… he is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability.” Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, Time noted: “stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years.”

Time called Russia “an indispensable player in whatever happens in the Middle East” – an observation that now seems threatening – recalling that “throughout much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union cast an ominous shadow over the world. It was the US’s dark twin.” Many today, both in Russia and outside it, would agree with this characterization of a country increasingly striving to be the heir of the USSR.

Time credited Putin with “putting his country back on the map,” while noting that he “intends to redraw it himself.” At the end of 2007, Time was unsure “whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression.” Now, that question has been answered.

Why Putin will go down in history

The “electoral procedures” that legitimize his power have been questioned by many observers. There are, however, numerous public opinion polls that show that the majority of the adult population of Russia approves of him as president, while almost 70% would like him to remain president. (The results of these surveys have been called into question, but the author of this text is a pollster with 35 years of experience in conducting such surveys, which use a widely accepted methodology developed mainly by George Horace Gallup. Knowing how they are carried out from the inside, the author considers these doubts to be unfounded.)
Two thirds of the adult population look favorably on Putin’s entire tenure as head of state (including his four-year stint as prime minister).
The successes associated with the figure of Putin are attributable partly to his personal qualities, partly to the nature of the Russian elites (those who brought him to power and those with whom he surrounded himself) and partly to the state of Russian society at its current stage of development.

Putin’s relationship with the Russian public

Putin certainly has a closer connection with his fellow citizens than any of the country’s post-Soviet, Soviet and perhaps even pre-Soviet rulers.

First, a common explanation that he is a populist who made “a social contract” with the Russian people are not supported by our studies.

Specially organized (simulated) meetings with the people, where “ordinary people” complain to him about their local bosses and Putin immediately takes action, do not, as our surveys show, make him a “president of ordinary people” in their eyes.
Putin on a trip to Tyva. August 2009. Source: Livejournal
According to Levada Center data, the extravagant gestures of Putin – flying with cranes, shooting a tiger, diving to the depths of the sea or riding a horse shirtless – did not find any response among the masses.

His obscene jokes, which journalists love to repeat, are also not the reason for his popularity.

According to some experts, Putin made a “deal” with Russian society: he, as the head of state, would provide the people with more prosperity, and in return the people would remain loyal and not protest.

We have two objections to this concept. First, from ancient times to the present day the Russian autocracy has never considered itself bound by any contractual obligations with the population subject to it. The rulers of Russia could, to one degree or another, consider themselves responsible for the welfare and well-being of the people. But this responsibility, if it was felt, was not before the people, but before higher powers – God, history, Russia as a spiritual entity.

As for the people, they proceeded (and proceed) from the idea that there is a regime, and by law you should obey it, though the law can be broken if needed, and the regime itself observes the law only when it needs to. Reciprocity, therefore, exists, but this is by no means a social contract.

The second objection is that there is no visible connection between the growth in prosperity that actually took place in the first half of Putin’s rule and Putin’s approval ratings. As we have noted, those ratings, while experiencing certain fluctuations (major spikes will be discussed below), on average remained the same throughout the entire period of Putin’s rule.

In-depth research helps to understand why there is no such connection. The bulk of the population in the early Putin period still remembered the country’s dramatic economic decline, the loss of their savings and the drop in living standards amid the political transformations under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. “They robbed us” – this is what Russians said about this period, and they did not blame Putin for this. Meanwhile, the return of prosperity was considered not his doing, but just the return of what was illegally taken away by the authorities (and not everything).

As our research showed, the majority of the population did not consider Putin responsible for the economic situation whatsoever. That is the responsibility of the government, the prime minister.
Putin, as president, is responsible for something completely different. For what can be called Russia’s standing in the world, or more precisely for the glory of Russia. This glory was damaged when the USSR collapsed, but it was restored under Putin.
The country regained its “great power” status (we will discuss how below).

We are talking about purely symbolic matters, about the image of Russia as it appears to Russian TV viewers. Russians find signs of their country’s international standing in the fact that it has begun to behave like a “great power” – a country that, when it wants, violates international laws and the interests of other countries, and, most importantly, other great powers allow it to do that! In this regard, an example of a great power that is cited by Russians is the US, whose actions in the international arena are carefully noted and emphasized. Russia as “the US’s dark twin.”
A rally on Pushkin Square in Moscow in support of incorporating Crimea into Russia. March 10, 2014. Source: VK
Politics by informal relations

What is the essence of the phenomenon of Putin’s “normal high” (60-79%) and super-high (80% and higher) approval ratings? The latter was registered in time for Russia’s major military operations, in Georgia (2008), in Crimea (2014-15) and the current campaign in Ukraine (2022-23), respectively.

We registered approval at two thirds of the population in the first period of Putin’s rule, when he was continuing the policy of strengthening ties with the West, demonstrating friendliness toward the leaders of the key Western powers, etc. Breaking down these two thirds, older people predominated (the 55+ age group in today’s Russia is much more numerous than the younger generation), along with people with a low level of education and residents of medium-sized and small cities and villages. It is the same level of approval, and by the same social groups, that was seen in surveys conducted in recent years, when the West was fingered as the main enemy of Russia, etc.

Thus, approval of Putin in these strata is not approval of a specific policy course. As our research has shown, for these people the main thing was precisely the restored great power status. Meanwhile, friendship and enmity with other great powers equally confirm that status in their eyes.
Yuri Gagarin statue in Kaluga. Source: Wiki Commons
Note that many of these people remembered the explanations that Soviet propaganda offered for why their homeland was great. The #1 explanation was success in space exploration – the first satellite and Gagarin’s flight. Then came internationally recognized Soviet musicians, Soviet ballet, etc. All these arguments have now fallen away. They have been replaced by ideas that impute the country’s greatness to self-righteousness and impunity, which intimidates other countries.

It is not hard to see in this a projection of the typical behavior of an authoritarian figure – be it a bully or a bandit, a boss or a commander – from the level of interpersonal relations to that of relations between countries. By flouting existing laws, an authoritarian figure gains the upper hand over those who strive to comply with and hold up norms.

In such ideas, informal actions and relations (not only aggressive and violent ones, but also friendly, clan and familial ones) are valued more than formal ones. This could be expected from a society that had developed in a semi-feudal rural environment before being forced to rapidly urbanize in the collectivist conditions of a “socialist city” – critically, without going through the school of capitalism and its urban life. It has not mastered the principle of the primacy of formal over informal relations in all social spheres, except for those within primary groups such as the family and the like.

Putin’s actions and gestures in tune with mass sentiment

We are talking about remarks and actions, almost imperceptible to an outside observer, through which Putin shows Russians that for him, in all key areas, informal relations are more important than formal ones. This applies both to positive relations – friendly, “human” relations – and negative ones, associated with dividing the world into friend and foe.
Putin invariably demonstrates that international relations are structured the same way as they are on the street in a bad neighborhood. Strength decides everything, the weak are beaten, he told Russians, after which they realized that he was one of their own.”
Pro-war rally and concert at Luzhniki Stadium where Vladimir Putin spoke. February 22, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
This policy is understandable and effective for Putin – they fear us, which means they respect us. It is precisely what people massively approve of in Putin (the same technique was successfully used by the late LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky).

We have so far described the behavior of 60-65% of the population that in the course of our monthly surveys invariably express approval of Putin. Another 10-15% equally invariably disapprove of him. They are the steadfast opponents of the Putin regime and its policies, criticizing them from liberal and democratic perspectives (they include, for example, supporters of Yavlinsky, one of the founders of the Yabloko party). They are the ones labeled “foreign agents” by the authorities – agents of the “collective West.” But it is not only such people in that 10-15%.

There are also many supporters of other parties that consider themselves “oppositional” (mostly the KPRF and the LDPR). Note that we are talking about the public image of these parties, though in parliament their factions almost always vote with the ruling United Russia party. These people’s dissatisfaction with Putin can come from both “left” and “right.” Some of them, meanwhile, do not associate themselves with any political line. The reasons for their dissatisfaction are different, and their positions do not merge into a single “opposition” even in surveys, but in reality they are marginalized individuals, scattered among the population of various cities and villages.

Super-high support

Now, we come to the question of why in the above-mentioned  cases – in 2008, 2014-15 and 2022-23 – Putin’s approval ratings jumped to 80-90%. We mentioned above that 60-65% are chronically loyal and 10-15% are chronically disloyal.

Thus, 20-30% remains. Who are these people and what is their attitude toward the national leader? In “normal times,” they tell Levada Center “no” when asked whether they generally approve of Putin’s performance as president.
When that number (them together with those who are always disloyal) gets particularly high, about 35%, Russia embarks on some kind of military action against its neighbors.”
This happened in 2008 with the “peace enforcement” operation in Georgia; in 2014 with the “return” of Crimea to Russia by force; and in 2022 with the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

After the start of each of these campaigns, the abovementioned 25-30% of Russians immediately (in no more than four weeks) changed their attitude toward Putin from negative to positive. When breaking down the socio-demographic makeup of this category, we see that the proportion of men is slightly higher, as is that of residents of big cities. Supporters of the KPRF and LDPR are found there more often, while a higher-than-average share of these people express high confidence in the army and other security forces.

Note that for these people, Russia’s opposition to the West, NATO and the US is particularly important. They perceive all the abovementioned military actions as episodes in Russia’s eternal struggle with this geopolitical enemy. This is precisely what they approve of in Putin.

A very small number of them are ready and able to personally take part in this struggle. They, like the rest of the Russian population, are mostly spectators, but they “activate” when things heat up. The critics of the Russian command on the right that emerged during the special operation probably find their most loyal audience among these people.

In conclusion, let us return to the majority. Alongside the noted high support for the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine, at least 50% of Russians say that they would prefer that Russia move on to peace negotiations. According to data from end-October 2023, if President Putin decided to end the conflict with Ukraine this week, 70% of the adult population of Russia would support this decision. Still, only half of them are ready to give up the newly incorporated territories.

Currently, there is no consensus among Russians in support of peace negotiations on the terms put forward by the Ukrainian side. But based on what we know and have laid out above, hypothetically when and if the parties find a compromise, and if the current commander in chief signs off on it, then it will be guaranteed to find approval by a very significant proportion of the Russian population.

In Russian politics, the fate of a politician, including the top one, does not directly depend on public opinion, on the public’s approval or disapproval. Yet a high level of public approval does convert into political capital, his or her political weight, which can help manage and control competing elite factions.
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