A terrible pride
October 7, 2022
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrei Kolesnikov analyzes changes in public sentiment in response to Putin’s decree on mobilization. The slide in Putin’s approval ratings, combined with a jump in anxiety reported by Russians, gives reason to ponder what resources the Putin regime has to survive.
The original text in Russian was published by Delfi and republished with small changes here with their permission.
Vladimir Putin with the leaders of the annexed territories on September 30, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Sixty-nine percent of Russians are experiencing anxiety – even according to the pro-Kremlin FOM pollster. Moreover, the share of people who reported anxiety shot up from 35% on September 15, a few days before the mobilization. The 34 percentage point jump is the price of Putin taking the population out of their comfort zone in which the Kremlin and professionals do the fighting and the rest of the country sluggishly supports it, watching TV and living their deeply private lives to the soundtrack of noisy Kremlin talk shows. After the mobilization and annexation of four Ukrainian regions, there is no longer any comfort, nor can there be. The escalation was obvious, but there is no joy from the territorial enlargement: in 2014 there was widespread euphoria, which now looks impossible – even through artificial “Putings” (political rallies in support of Putin – RP).

No thoughts, just emotions

The mobilization, according to the Levada Center, spurred “anxiety, fear, horror” (47%) and “shock” (32%). Such feelings were most palpable among younger age cohorts. “Pride for Russia” was experienced by 23%, mainly driven by older age groups (only 9% in the 18-24 cohort). In addition, 40-year-olds, for example, simultaneously reported both horror and pride.

Indicators of support for the special operation, Putin and his "elite" have crept lower. The drop isn’t as significant as that during the pension reform – back then, Putin went from an 82% approval rating in April 2018 to 67% in July after raising the retirement age. Similar rapid fluctuations in Putin's approval rating have been seen in the past. However, important is something else: his rating had been in a long stagnation right up until the announcement of the “special operation” (a similar stagnation was observed from about 2010 until the annexation of Crimea). The autocrat met the beginning of 2019 with an approval rating of 64%. By the spring of 2020, the pandemic had pushed it down to 60%, though when the country adapted to the new reality, Putin’s approval rating reached the plateau of "normal times" at around 70%. Now, after the announcement of the mobilization, it slid 6 percentage points from 83% – around the highs observed during the 2018 presidential election – to 77%.

More time is likely needed for people to reflect on the military mobilization: the shock was very strong, and not everyone had time to clearly formulate her attitude to what was happening, to the role of Putin and the special operation itself amid such an unexpected development of events. This is confirmed by sociologist colleagues who conducted focus groups in Russia’s regions.
“People are so shocked by what is happening that they can’t formulate their attitude to the government and war. There are no thoughts, just emotions."
Thus, the deterioration in popular sentiment and Putin's indicators might still have room to go – even with Russians’ colossal capacity to adapt, which could slow the slide in the ratings.
Z symbol on a Moscow billboard with the words За Путина (For Putin). Source: Wiki Commons
Mortal danger

The emotions about the special operation did, however, have an immediate effect. At the very least 200,000 fled Putin’s Russia – a number nearly equal to the mobilization target announced by Defense Minister Shoigu. Male citizens voted with their feet. Demobilization beat out mobilization. It's like the old Soviet joke, when Brezhnev, having heard out an East German journalist with a proposal to open the borders between the GDR and the FRG, says with a sly smile: “Ah, you devil, you want us to be left alone!”

Putin won’t be left alone. His electorate is obedient enough to secure 80% in presidential elections: the country will vote in a new demographic and social dynamic – even older and more dependent on the state. But elections do nothing for the legitimacy of the regime. The Kremlin worries not about election numbers – only the officials who organize the elections are worried about them – but economic data. The outflow of young labor, brains and skills abroad is a serious test for the economy and many of its segments. If small and medium-sized businessmen who can’t get out of the mobilization are sent to the slaughterhouse, who will pay taxes and oversee, for example, the very parallel imports on which the wellbeing of the Russian consumer is highly dependent? Entire sectors of the economy are being laid bare, the tax base is being shrunk – how in this situation should the budget – important to buy the loyalty of the aggressively or passively obedient majority – be balanced?

Economic problems, which the mobilization only exacerbates, are also a reservoir of discontent. The combination of social, consumer and psychological problems is very bad for Putin – he went through this during the pension reform and pandemic. Each time death played an important role in the emotional construction of the events. The pension reform touched upon the period after retirement but before death when a person can lead a calm and at least relatively healthy life. Covid was also about death and at the same time a serious change in the style and quality of life. War and mobilization are all rolled into one: death, wounds, illness, changes in the level and quality of life, constant psychological stress across an entire nation.

There is another factor weighing on the mood of Russians: the threat of nuclear war, which has only grown following the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. Of course, that has to do with death too. Though talk of a nuclear catastrophe has become a sort of new normal due to frequent use by politicians and propagandists, it logically shouldn’t serve to mobilize support and pride in the power of the country, but rather exacerbate the very feelings of anxiety and horror. Among the anxieties and horrors of Russians, fear of a world war consistently ranked second in recent years. Before the special operation in February, the figure was 53%. In May, the Levada Center asked whether Russians worried that Russia might use nuclear weapons. Half of the respondents said they did.

Does that mean that the fear of a nuclear war will overcome the fear of Putin? Will the panicked dodging of the mobilization, which seeks to use the male population as cannon fodder, undermine the moral foundations of the regime? The answer is definitely yes. Still, it doesn’t follow that the power vertical built over 23 years by the autocrat will collapse in an instant. The regime still has resources to survive and suppress. Among those resources is a strange, terrible pride of Russians for their country’s self-destructive power.
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