Putin's Public Opinion Challenge

August 21, 2014 Topic: Public OpinionDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency Region: Russia

Putin's Public Opinion Challenge

"With low popular support for escalation, Putin faces a sharpening dilemma."

Despite weak popular support for open intervention, Putin may still take that step—hoping that his high approval ratings, current anti-Americanism in Russia, and the dependence of Russians on Kremlin-controlled media will rally public opinion. The Ukrainian Army will likely play an important role in the Kremlin’s decision making, if its tightening encirclement of rebel-held cities significantly increases civilian casualties while further reducing the ambit of the secessionists. In this instance, the Kremlin will be tempted to go to the brink and escalate support for the rebels to preserve Russian influence in Ukraine.  This would forestall criticism by hardline incumbent elites, ultranationalists and segments of Russian society that it is “losing” Ukraine.

Yet Putin may still hesitate, aware that an invasion of Ukraine, even if presented as a humanitarian imperative, might be the greatest gamble of his career because of the divided reaction of Russian society. Instead, the Kremlin may increasingly stress diplomatic efforts for a bargain with Kiev and the West as its best strategy.

Thomas Sherlock is a professor of political science at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army or the Department of Defense.

Image: Kremlin website