The Oasis Reporters
December 21, 2023
Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced he intends to run in the 2024 presidential election. Putin is almost certain to win what would be his fifth term as Russian president.
The news comes as little surprise. Putin has led Russia for 24 years and polls suggest Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Ukraine has bolstered support for him.
In September, Russian pollsters the Levada Center conducted a survey of Russian attitudes toward the war in Ukraine. When asked whether they supported the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine, 73 per cent of respondents said “yes” or “definitely yes.” In February 2022, the month of Russia’s invasion, that number was 68 per cent.
Some might be skeptical of polls coming out of Russia, but it should be noted these figures are from an organization that has been deemed a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. It doesn’t matter who does the polling — the data suggests a majority of Russians support the war effort.
At the same time, Putin’s personal approval rating has remained high, running at around 80 per cent for some time, according to Levada. A more recent poll by Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation indicates around 78 per cent of Russians approve of Putin’s work.
However, there was a drop in support for both the war and Putin in late 2022. In the fall of 2022, the Russian government launched a major mobilization of reservists for the armed forces in response to Ukrainian battlefield successes, first near Kyiv and then Kharkhiv. This led to many young men leaving the country to avoid being drafted into the military.
Russian forces also pulled back from their foothold on the western bank of the Dnipro River at Kherson. Unease with the situation among Russians was reflected in polling numbers during that period, and was tangible on the ground when I visited Moscow and Murmansk in October 2022.
The Russian government’s zero tolerance for public opposition to the war or Putin undoubtedly has some bearing on improved polling. Russia’s defeat of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive also certainly boosted Russian confidence. Furthermore, the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine remains a closely guarded secret.
However, as I found during time spent in both Moscow and Ryazan in November 2023, many older Russians in particular — from different walks of life — express genuine support for both the war and their president. Why?
Backing Russia’s war narrative
The answer to this question lies in part in a combination of Russian government policies and western reactions to the war.
Many Russians undoubtedly accept the government narrative explaining the reasons for the war. Those reasons are not the same as they were back in February 2022, but have morphed into something bigger and more existential.
Back in February 2022, Russia went to war in Ukraine with the justification of protecting the rights of those identifying as Russian in the Donbas, and to prevent further NATO encroachment into the former Soviet space. The “de-Nazification” of eastern Ukraine was also tacked on to these aims.
Defending the rights of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine clearly resonated to some extent with the Russian population at the beginning of the war. However, the threat of NATO expansion was perhaps not as powerful an argument for the war back then as the more recent idea that a hypocritical West is out to “cancel” Russian political and economic power.
Money certainly plays a role in maintaining support. The Russian government has increased military wages to keep morale up. As of last September, the minimum monthly wage being offered to those signing up was three times the national average. In June, the government announced it would increase military salaries by 10.5 per cent.
Western hypocrisy plays into Russia’s hands
Through their actions, western powers have made it easy for the Russian government to point to western hypocrisy. Unwavering western support for Israel’s war in Gaza has further highlighted that the United States in particular has one set of rules for its friends, and another for its enemies.
A U.S.-backed Israel has been slaughtering civilians at a rate far exceeding anything Russian forces have done in Ukraine. And while western officials were quick to condemn Russian attacks on civilians, condemnations of Israel’s actions have been muted or non-existent.
At the same time, blunders by some western governments have also made it easier for Russia to sell the narrative it is fighting fascism in Ukraine. The recent Yaroslav Hunka debacle in the Canadian Parliament was a propaganda gift for the Russian government. Western celebration of Ukrainian units with fascist ties like the Azov Battalion only makes matters worse.
New economic ties
Unprecedented western sanctions aimed at isolating the Russian economy from the world have not succeeded in changing Russian actions in Ukraine.
Early in the war, Putin touted what he called Russia’s ability to “fully provide itself with natural resources.” While inflation is high, Russian stores remain full and unemployment remains low. The International Monetary Fund did recently lower Russia’s economic growth forecast for 2024, but that forecast still compares favourably to countries like Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Palatable or not in the West, Russia’s ability to seemingly resist sanctions and fight off a Ukrainian NATO-backed counteroffensive has contributed to rising public support for the war and for Putin.