Sanctions Have Little Effect On Putin’s Incredible Popularity In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the Planalto Palace before a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia, July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Earlier today, President Barack Obama announced the most restrictive U.S. sanctions against Russia since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine. The sanctions were coordinated with the European Union and strike at several Russian state-owned companies in the financial and defence sectors.

But it’s unlikely that the sanctions will undermine Putin’s incredibly secure position within his country.

A Gallup poll published on July 18 — shortly before Kremlin-backed separatists shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight — found Putin was more popular within Russia than he had ever been. Gallup found that Putin was riding an 83% approval rating, a 30% gain over his numbers just two years earlier, and a record high for him.

More biased sources than Gallup were reporting a similar phenomena in the days leading up to the MH17 crash. Russian state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS concluded on July 16 that the president’s historic popularity owed to “a new Putin majority forming in Russian society.” Pro-government experts even couched his high approval rating in quasi-democratic jargon:

“The Putin majority is evolving as a social coalition for sustainable development, where each social group develops its ways of joining the majority,” the authors of the report “New Putin Majority: Critical, Pragmatic, Non-indifferent and Patriotic” said.

There’s probably a certain response bias at play in the Gallup poll: Russia is far from a democratic country. Poll respondents might have felt pressured to give positive replies in light of a groundswell of nationalism that followed the Sochi Olympics and the annexation of Crimea. Of course, the generally oppressive political culture that Putin has fostered may also account for Russians’ reluctance to cricitize him.

Even so, Putin’s managed to leverage a seemingly difficult set of geopolitical circumstances into a secure domestic position, as another recent Gallup poll reveals. Russians don’t just approve of Putin, his government’s view of the world at large is also widely trusted and accepted within the country.

Gallup found that, even after the destruction of MH17, some 76% of respondents believed Russian state media reporting on Ukraine to be “reliable,” compared to just 30% who found Russian independent media reliable, and 48% who considered western media to be “not reliable.”

Even with the EU and U.S. presenting substantial evidence connecting Russia and its Ukrainian proxies to MH17, most Russians still seem accepting of often-conspiratorial official government narratives that absolve the Putin regime and its allies of responsibility.

And even before today’s sanctions were announced, there were signs the Russian government was already attempting to leverage tighter American sanctions in its domestic favour, with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporting on efforts to officially brand governments that sanctioned Russia as “aggressor countries.”

Even with the latest round of sanctions it’s unlikely that Putin will feel much pressure from inside of Russia to change his policies. He is simply too popular — and his version of events in Ukraine, which casts Russia as a victim of a U.S. and European alliance with a fascist and racist government in Kiev, is simply too widely accepted as fact — to feel any pressure to change course.