Perhaps no figure has loomed larger on the world stage of late than Russian President Vladimir Putin. His recent summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, U.S. concerns about future Russian interference after the 2016 presidential election, the Kremlin’s resurgence as a decisive player in the Middle East, and, of course, Putin’s easy reelection in March all seem to point to his continued strength. Yet they may also conceal a growing weakness.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in March 2014, was a boon for Putin’s approval ratings. Hovering around 61 to 65 percent before the seizure, they climbed to dizzying heights of above 80 percent thereafter. For many Russians, Putin’s territorial grab restored the country’s national greatness, and for that they rewarded him with increased support. In the last few months, however, rising public frustrations over domestic policy and a government proposal to weaken the social safety net have led to a sharp decline in Putin’s popularity. For Russia’s political class, this decline is a sign that Putin’s ratings have lost their cloak of invulnerability, a development that could have real implications for his new term and the potential succession fight to follow.

What's behind the slump?

Putin’s recent fall in approval ratings has been steep. According to data collated by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, only 67 percent of Russians polled said that they approved of his activities in July 2018, compared to 82 percent in April and 79 percent in May. Other Levada data show that Putin’s trust rating declined from 60 percent in January 2018 to 48 percent in June. Some of Russia’s most popular officials have seen similar downturns: over the same six-month period, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trust rating declined from 31 percent to 19 percent and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s fell from 25 percent to 14 percent.

In a July 2018 Levada poll, 40 percent of Russians said they believed that Russia was heading in the wrong direction, up from 26 percent in April immediately after the presidential election. The July figure is comparable to those polls found just before the annexation of Crimea (41 percent in January 2014). In addition, 58 percent believed that the government would not be able to improve the economic situation in the coming year. So what went wrong?

The main reason for the slump in ratings is the government’s proposal to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women. The announcement coincided with the start of the World Cup tournament that Russia was hosting, and the immediate public backlash had the government scrambling to suggest that Putin had not been personally involved in the decision-making process. It was obvious that the authorities were seeking to mitigate possible mass discontent and protect Putin’s popularity. But they underestimated the degree of public sensitivity on the issue and found themselves facing stiff resistance from various social and age groups.

The reason for the public outrage is that the proposal is a breach of Russia’s unwritten social contract, in which the government preserves so-called stability, maintains modest social benefits, and promotes feelings of national pride in exchange for the public’s political support and indifference to the rife corruption at the top of the political pyramid. Because the state has for many years nurtured dependent attitudes among the Russian public, it is not surprising that most consider it the state’s duty to maintain the social welfare system as is. A collaborative study by the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Levada Center undertaken in 2017 showed that many respondents were unwilling to accept even small changes in benefits: 77 percent of respondents were unwilling to give up certain benefits today in exchange for an improved future quality of life (compared to 16 percent who were), and 75 percent refused to accept a higher retirement age. This is understandable, as such a change could hit Russian household incomes hard: one-third of today’s pensioners continue to work, and they don’t want to lose their pension as a second source of income.

The pensions proposal is, however, not the only factor in Putin’s falling ratings. Already, Putin’s successful foreign policy agenda is starting to lose its power to command public support in the face of growing domestic frustrations. Until recently, the president’s consistently high popularity since the annexation of Crimea reflected his main achievement in the eyes of average Russians: making Russia great again abroad. High approval ratings of Putin have depended on various kinds of perceived victories in this realm. They experienced a boost in August 2008 after Russia’s brief war with Georgia, and were subsequently declining slowly but surely until the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the Crimea operation that immediately followed.

In February 2018, in the middle of Putin’s presidential campaign, there was a quiet slump in his approval rating to pre-Crimea levels when it declined to 76 percent, down from 84 percent a year earlier. Putin may have made Russia great again in foreign policy, but now was the time to turn to Russia’s many domestic economic and social problems, including inflation risks, inadequate medical services, troubles with the housing and utilities sectors, and a hostile climate for small and medium-sized business. As his reelection campaign reached peak mobilization, the approval rating returned to 82 percent in April, right after the elections. Since then, however, it has experienced a fast and steady deterioration.

How the Kremlin could respond

So far, Russia’s political manipulators have yet to update their toolkit for mass mobilization in response to Putin’s falling popularity. They will likely continue to promote Putin as a champion of Russia’s glorious history, the Russian Orthodox Church, sporting victories, ambitious construction projects, and military strength. But these tactics are no longer as effective as they once were.

It’s conceivable that Putin’s popularity will stabilize at a lower yet sustainable level. Such a change is far from fatal—after all, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin held on to power with hardly any public support. Still, if Putin’s low approval ratings persist, the Kremlin will likely try to create some sort of spectacle to distract attention from Russia’s many social problems. It may want to double down on dramatic foreign policy gestures, but, as mentioned above, these have lost their potency. A July Levada Center poll showed a significant boost in positive attitudes toward the West after the World Cup—positive sentiments toward the United States, for example, jumped to 42 percent, up from 20 percent in May. (Of course, the recent additional U.S. sanctions against Russia could lower this rating while helping Putin’s.) Another way of distracting public attention could be to continue the tsunami of recent arrests of alleged spies and traitors to Russia, from Karina Tsurkan, an executive at Russia’s Inter RAO energy company who is charged with being a Romanian-Moldovan spy, to the 74-year-old scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev, who the FSB claims passed secret information to Western intelligence services. The more absurd these cases, the more effective the distraction from the social problems that are so costly for the Russian president.

Putin is theoretically bound by the Russian constitution to step down from the presidency in 2024, so planning and jockeying for an eventual political succession is never far from people’s minds. His declining public support could increase the likelihood of a successor in 2024. But Putin would feel comfortable only with a successor similar to what he himself was for Yeltsin. Yeltsin chose Putin to be Russia’s president in part to maintain the political achievements of the 1990s—which Putin did not do. Mainly, however, he was chosen to ensure the security of Yeltsin, his family, and his political associates. On this front, Putin proved much more capable. If he is unable to secure this kind of protector-successor, Putin will likely find a way to remain in power in 2024, probably through amending the Russian constitution. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the Russian public’s desire for political and social change.

For now, Putin’s steep decline in approval has shown that he is not nearly as politically invulnerable as previously thought. To remedy the situation, he and the Kremlin’s political strategists will have their work cut out for them.

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs