A WaPo opinion piece sets out to debunk Putin’s poll numbers but in fact does the opposite, leading to the conclusion that Putin’s numbers today are real and that he has the resources to stay popular for quite some time. Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung give four reasons for Putin’s popularity: 1) His propagandists operate in an “information vacuum” 2) Any opposition figure is immediately and relentlessly smeared, or worse 3) Well-educated Russians are fleeing the country in droves 4) Putin uses “diversionary” tactics like invading Crimea to distract the public. They conclude:
Today, the Kremlin must work far harder than it has to manufacture regime support. Its fiercer propaganda and harsher repression suggest that the Russian population is less willing to accept Putin. To compensate, the state apparatus has been shifted into overdrive. […]
Putin may well retain the support of certain segments of the Russian population. But given the degree of state-controlled “manufacturing” inherent in generating his “popularity,” uncritical reporting [by Western media] of Putin’s stratospherically high approval numbers does a disservice by feeding into the misguided notion that he is unassailable.
One can certainly argue that Putin has manipulated conditions to artificially produce high poll ratings and that in conditions of genuine political and information freedom, his support might well sink. Moreover, even with all these advantages, Putin still has to resort to adventures like the annexation of Crimea to keep his supporters stirred up.This is all true, but what does it mean? Basically, it means that if Russia were a more democratic country, Putin would have a harder time politically. But more to the point, it also means that in the actually existing Russia under the conditions that now prevail, Putin seems well positioned to hold out for quite some time.Does press censorship and a government propaganda machine create an “information vacuum” which favors Putin? Well yes, it does. Next question: Is there any sign that censorship and propaganda are going away in Russia anytime soon? Well, no. If anything, they seem likely to get stronger, tighter, and perhaps more effective.Does political repression of potential opposition leaders contribute to a sense of political vacuum which means that most Russians have a hard time imagining an alternative to Putin’s governance? Yes again. and is there any sign that Putin is going to dismantle this system anytime soon or that anybody else is going to force him to dismantle it? No.Does a foreign policy of adventurous nationalism rally support behind the government? Apparently, the answer is yes. And does Putin retain the capacity to perform more eye-catching stunts on the international stage that will make him look like a powerful and effective nationalist leader to Russians stuck in the propaganda smog and censorship blanket he has created? Yes.Putin has big problems at home, mostly stemming from the limits on his ability to manipulate markets and the economy. In time, hardship and stagnation are likely to undermine the effectiveness of even the most hardworking propagandists. And there are other dangers to Putin, though many are from the right rather than the left or the democratic center. Wholesale immigration from central Asia alarms some ethnic Russian nationalists who see risks to the “purity” of Russia from non-slavic, non-Orthodox migrants.But for the moment he has a system of governance that, as far as one can tell from the outside, looks pretty stable. The WaPo article is written to warn readers against the danger of taking Putin too seriously, of reading too much into the poll numbers that show 80 percent backing him. But the bigger danger is that the West will, as it has rather consistently so far, underestimate both the capacity Putin has to cause trouble and his will to assert himself internationally even if this means breaking what the West fondly thinks of as “the rules.”