Autocratic and erratic President Vladimir Putin is stronger than ever, more popular than ever and more dangerous than ever. For years, Western newspapers have run pieces questioning the validity of the polls which show how popular the former KGB officer and mayor of St Petersburg really is. How could a man who assassinates his enemies, murders journalists, oppresses homosexuals and imprisons dissidents be so liked by his own people? How can “dictators” be that popular? Surely the Russian people would prefer a lovely, pure democracy like France, or the United Kingdom, or the United States? In fact, independent polling agencies like the Levada Centre and even opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny acknowledge that Putin is wildly popular and has almost ninety per cent approval ratings.
Russian society is patriotic and socially conservative, and Putin is excellent at playing to these tendencies. He has allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church to lend social legitimacy to his project, and has nurtured the youth vote carefully. His secret weapon though is war, a card he plays whenever Russian citizens start to doubt his legitimacy or competence. The 1999 war in Chechnya, the 2008 war in Georgia, the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine, and now Russia’s war in Syria, were all preceded by a shake in Putin’s popularity or a risk to his personal security. In Chechnya, for example, he was trying to establish himself as a strong leader after the shoddy, drunken ineptitude of Boris Yeltsin. The war in Georgia was a long-simmering conflict where Putin turned up the heat in response to the financial crisis in Europe. His approval ratings jumped ten points over night. The economy was still creaking in 2013, though, and after years of steady decline and rising prices his approval ratings hit a record low. In 2014, Putin reacted with fury to the changing of the political guard in Kiev; he annexed Crimea and started a new war in the Donbass region, which even some of his political opponents supported. Overnight, his popularity crisis was solved, and those ratings soared towards ninety per cent.
If Putin’s “get out of jail free” card is war, like any dictator he has an Achilles heel; in his case, it’s the economy. His 2008 incursion into Georgia might have buoyed the ratings temporarily, but Putin could do nothing to stop the steady slide after that. The European sovereign debt crisis left Russia exposed. Prices rose and profit margins soured. Many who had made it into the middle classes found themselves back among the working poor. For a while, Putin blamed the mess on European financiers, but this tale was discarded in December 2013, when he admitted that he had broken promises to reform and failed to address corruption.
Given that sixty per cent of Russians supported air strikes in Syria – but were wary of entering into another disastrous war akin to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the eighties — Putin has kept to his promise not to deploy ground troops. The low oil price, though, is tearing through the Russian economy. A tentative deal with Saudi Arabia to raise prices through supply manipulation looks set to be cancelled out by Iranian oil flooding the market; in any case, the primary driver of low oil prices is slackening demand in the developing world, a trend which looks set to continue. Although Putin does have the sanctions to worry about, for now, many Russians are dug in and enjoying the patriotic siege mentality, but that sentiment may not last forever.
How then might Putin react if his popularity starts to fade again? He has war options beyond the Syrian theatre; NATO commanders and central European politicians are worried that he will make a push into the Baltic, while some analysts are looking at a possible push into central Asia. Putin is adept at dressing up these kind of incursions as an attempt to rebuild the lost glory of Russia, a narrative bought into by ordinary Russians, as well as many Western commentators. In reality, Putin doesn’t care much for Russia’s past or future; he cares for his bank account, his personal security and the wealth of his school friends, who orbit around him as powerful merchant oligarchs and cabinet ministers. Together, they are asset-stripping Russia.
Putin is quite possibly the richest man in Europe, if not the world, and if his popularity dips, his personal enrichment programme may have to end. Even worse, a revolution could land Putin in a prison cell. Thus, not only does he have form in taking extraordinary steps to protect himself – like waging unnecessary wars – but he also has a motive. He is a caged bear in a golden cage, swiping at his adversaries to ensure that the crowd around him continues to cheer.
How does this affect Syria? Directly, possibly not at all. Given that the primary driver of Putin’s incursion is self- rather than national interest, he will stick to his promise not to deploy significant numbers of ground troops; instead, he will stoke the refugee crisis by targeting civilians deliberately. This is destabilising Europe, which plays into Putin’s hands again. He hopes that he can convince EU members and Washington to lift sanctions on Russia as they present a long-term threat to his personal security.
The wild card is Turkey. A war between Russia and Turkey, which Putin has positioned successfully as belligerently anti-Russian, is on the cards. If war does break out, you can bet that it won’t be in Russia’s interests, but it will be in Putin’s. In fact, it would suit him very nicely.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.