Russia brazenly captured global attention and three Ukrainian naval vessels in a late-November clash in the Azov Sea, the culmination of months of growing tensions. This event amplified murmurs that President Vladimir Putin, worried by a precipitous decline in his approval rating, stands prepared to escalate the war in Ukraine to distract the Russian populace from economic stagnation and unpopular reforms. While this explanation may feel compelling, it suffers a critical flaw: Putin’s approval rating has actually been relatively stable for several months now.
At present, pollsters FOM and Levada Center find Putin’s current job approval rating hovering somewhere between 60 and 65 percent. Those figures are down from the neighborhood of 80 percent in spring 2018—a notable drop, but one that has levelled off since July. The same dynamic is observed in trust measures, wherein Russians are asked to volunteer the names of politicians they trust. These days, roughly 35 percent name Putin: a 15 to 20 percent drop from spring figures, but also a trend that has stabilized. Perhaps of most acute interest to the Kremlin, protest potential indicators have ebbed somewhat, particularly since rallies this summer. Russians may remain discontented and jaded, but they are less apt to take to the streets over it. That is critical for Putin’s team, which places a tremendous a premium on optics. In short and as usual, rumors of Putin’s imminent political demise are greatly exaggerated.
That said, the Crimean Consensus—the surge in political cohesion following the annexation of Crimea—is now thoroughly over, a change with critical implications for governance in Russia.
The key dynamic that has emerged is what might be termed an increase political friction: Political actors who would have simply gone along with the agenda handed to them in 2014 are now more willing to bargain or demand concessions. Practically, delivering on policy will now be slightly more difficult for Putin, requiring ample time and sweeteners for stakeholders. While wholly unremarkable in regular democracies, this is a greater challenge in a “managed democracy.” Powerful domestic politics curators in the Presidential Administration apparatus, who have long deserved more attention in the Western press, are going to be a lot busier over the next six years.
Though Russians may continue to see Putin as above politics (albeit less so than in the past), United Russia, the party that essentially represents the status quo, is about as unpopular as he is popular. Though the party dutifully delivered on pension reform, it did so with a notable public defection. More recently, at its annual congress, party members enacted a ban on public criticism of its own policy decisions. United Russia is stuck with a classic principal-agent problem. The party exists to move forward Putin’s agenda in the Duma, but necessarily has its own interests and instincts, survival chief among them. Across the aisle of the Duma, Russia’s “opposition” has taken a more active role after a period of obsolescence following the annexation of Crimea. Liberal Democratic and Communist Party leaders Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky received a positive response to their request for regular meetings with Putin. While neither is capable of holding up the Kremlin’s agenda, both they and Putin’s team understand full well that the “systemic opposition”—nominal opposition within the Putinist system—stands to lose credibility as a pressure valve for angry voters if it fails to deliver at least nominal opposition.
Recent gubernatorial elections are a concrete example of this new political dynamic. The recent election in Primorye Krai was cancelled after blatant voter fraud that pushed the local United Russia candidate over the line. Central authorities moved to prevent the “victorious” Communist Party candidate from participating in repeat elections, while the acting governor appointed after the debacle then ran and won as an independent candidate. While no one should expect him to be an oppositional stalwart, he derives some of his legitimacy from his independence, and will have to demonstrate it. While the Communist Party did not contest being muscled out of victory in Primorye, that appears to have been more of a horse trade than acquiescence: In the Siberian republic of Khakassia, the Communist candidate was allowed to take power unopposed after a first round vote. That result spurred Kremlin discussions on running trustworthy opposition candidates in places where United Russia is unpopular to avoid further embarrassment. (It also ended the 17-year Senate tenure of the best haircut in Russian politics.)
Russia’s political friction can also be seen in the Kremlin’s use of local referenda to make a populist end run around traditional politics altogether. A recent campaign saw a series of local votes to rename airports. Though perhaps of more cultural significance than political, the strategy marks a means to head off apathy among voters—low turnout makes elections, even falsified ones, feel illegitimate—while avoiding the horse-trading that the use of traditional political channels might require. Popular referenda also have the benefit of keeping United Russia out of news, its powder dry for further unpopular policies should the need arise. However, a turn to direct democracy has costs of its own, and requires just as much curation as traditional electoral politics do.
Russia is not on the cusp of becoming a pluralist democracy, but its politics are becoming ever so slightly more “normal.” However, in a carefully curated political system, more “normal” means more difficult and expensive to manage. With regards to foreign policy, then, the argument that Putin is about to personally gobble up Ukraine to avoid his imminent overthrow lacks nuance. It is more the case that with the costs of doing political business in the domestic arena increased, Putin and his team may find it easier to engage abroad, escalating where the opportunity arises to achieve the right optics. That likelihood is compounded by Putin’s consistently demonstrated preference for avoiding “boring” domestic politics; he would much rather deal with advanced missile tests than labor issues. The key question looming over this next, and probably last, term is whether he is able to enjoy that luxury.