For an outsider, understanding contemporary Russian reality in any season is never easy—one senses, not even for the Russians themselves. They certainly disagree over many of its aspects. I’m in Moscow for much of this fall teaching graduate students at MGIMO and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in a video-connected classroom, as I was last fall—soaking up as much as I can, reading, watching, walking, meeting people.
Things feel different from last fall. The leadership, politicians, businessmen, analysts and the public—to the extent that it rises above its indifference to the political world—appear to have accepted the desiccated, friction-laden, arms-length U.S.-Russian relationship as the “new normal.” And it’s with something of a shrug. But then that also seems to be happening in the United States.
Television, unlike last fall, is not saturated from morning to night with lurid coverage of the violence in Donbas, although the political fights and protests in Kyiv get plenty of attention. Ukraine has been replaced by the migration crisis in Europe, and now competes with the menace of ISIS. Most Russians who follow current events think Ukraine is sinking into a “frozen conflict”—a ragged ceasefire appears to be holding, and neither Moscow nor the Western countries have any desire to see it collapse. The public, however, as measured in polls in mid-August remain more skeptical. Seventy percent believed renewed military conflict was likely or very likely; only 21 percent thought not.
As for ideas of what to do next or a larger Russian strategic agenda in Ukraine, one well-connected Duma deputy told me they don’t exist: Russia is simply sitting back and watching events unfold in Kyiv. It will focus on helping to create and defend functioning social, economic and military institutions in the shattered portions of Donetsk and Lugansk controlled by the separatists. But few expect the provisions in the Minsk II agreement aiming at a political settlement to work, nor do they see Moscow straining to make them work. Maybe Moscow will be minimally unhelpful in economic relations with Kyiv, if Kyiv helps ease Crimea’s electricity and water-supply problems. As for public attitudes toward Ukraine, the ratio between “very favorable” and “very bad” has flipped 180 degrees since January 2014 (then 66 percent were “very favorable;” in May 2015, the latest figures, 26 percent; “very unfavorable,” in January 2014l 26 percent; May 2015, 59 percent).
Scenes of thousands of desperate refugees besieging Europe and the turmoil in the Middle East, as one senior scholar said to me, provide further support for the Putin regime. (An MGIMO student asked his Fletcher counterparts: “Why do you call it the Putin regime? Do you call it the Obama regime?” They then stressed the widespread public support for the government.) Watching all this distress, the average Russian credits Putin with sparing the country the same, and for most Russians, having been through the 1990s, stability ranks very high. Added to the deepening and spreading sense of nationalism (the “ krim nash ” [“Crimea is ours”] tee-shirts are less on display, but the sentiment persists and the 85 percent support for the annexation has scarcely budged since March 2014), together with the strong tendency to blame Russian woes on the United States, this sense of Putin’s leadership as the best guarantee of continued stability helps to explain Putin’s popularity. Many Russians will tell you that it is not really at 83 percent, as the polls show, but almost none doubts that it is genuinely high. The fly in the ointment is that no other politician’s ratings are half as high, nor is the government’s, nor are those of government policies, although approval of the direction in which the country is headed last month was 55 percent, down nine points from June, but 14 points higher than when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. (And it might be pointed out, considerably higher than similar polls in the United States and most European countries.)
Thus, if in some U.S. quarters, people look at $40-50 barrel oil, a ruble-dollar ratio of 70:1, negative growth of 4 percent this year, and slow or no growth for at least three more years, with attendant inflation and the erosion of Russians’ disposable income, and assume discontent must already be building below the surface, the evidence is difficult to come by. True, some very smart Russian analysts have assured me that something has to give. As one put it, sooner rather later either the lid will blow off with unpredictable consequences or Putin and his colleagues will make a U-turn, and, at least at the level of atmospherics, try to release pressure from Russia-Western tensions. But they are in a minority, and a far larger number, both partisans and critics of those in power, either smugly or in resignation, expect things to stagger on pretty much as they are.