Leonid Bershidsky

Putin Can Safely Ignore Russian Critics of His War -- For Now

The day before the fake “referendum” that handed Crimea to Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2014, I marched against the annexation with tens of thousands other Muscovites — but a majority of Russians supported the move, and Putin’s popularity, measured by independent sociologists, soared to highs not seen before or after. Now that the dictator has launched an all-out attack on Ukraine, there will be no large-scale protests and no popularity bump. Seven years later, Russia is a different country — one that allows Putin to disregard it.

That, however, is hardly sustainable.

At the time of the Crimea adventure, Russia still had an active political opposition. Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was still alive and protesting loudly against the takeover. Most of my friends saw the move as the end of Russia’s civilized European path, a major defeat for the freedom project launched by the fall of the Soviet Union. By 2022, the opposition has been crushed, chased into exile or underground. Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015. When Alexei Navalny speaks out against the war on Ukraine, he does so from a penal colony where he’s been locked up for a year and where he’s being tried on further trumped-up charges. And when one of Navalny’s trusted lieutenants, Leonid Volkov, curses Putin on Telegram and expresses the hope that the dictator has bitten off more than he can chew, he does so from relative safety in a European Union country.

Some artists, TV personalities, writers and social network influences — not all of them still living in Russia — have expressed their shock and disgust. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, still allowed to publish under a compromise with the Kremlin, has promised to put out an edition in both Russian and Ukrainian in protest against the war. Journalists, academics and more than 100 local legislators have signed antiwar appeals. But none of them will lead a big march through Moscow streets: Putin’s repression machine now works pre-emptively to neutralize protest. Activist Marina Litvinovich, who called for street protests on Thursday, was detained. Those Russians who dare take to the streets across the land likely face the same prospect: Official warnings already have been issued.

But although there will be no footage of big marches to prove that not all Russians accept Putin’s aggression, no polls will show a boost to Putin’s popularity, either. The regime has largely gotten rid of independent pollsters, but even the Kremlin-loyal ones aren’t registering Crimea-like approval levels. VTsIOM, for example, on Wednesday reported 73% support for the previous, much less radical Putin move — the recognition of the separatist “people’s republics” of eastern Ukraine. In 2014, the same pollster measured the popular backing of the Crimea annexation at 93%.

A fresh CNN-commissioned poll shows 50% support in Russia for military action to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO — but even that number seems high. Russian respondents’ mistrust of pollsters — what if they work for the authorities? — is a constant source of distortions.

In March 2014, Putin’s support hit 80%, according to one of the few remaining independent pollsters, the Levada Center — and kept increasing as Crimea was integrated into Russia. Last month, with propaganda already blaring an anti-Ukraine message, Putin’s rating stood at 69%, close to the pre-Crimea level. It’s unlikely to rise when Western sanctions on Russia hit full force — and Russians know these are coming. There are lines at banks to draw dollars and euros. The biggest state bank, Sberbank, briefly published a notice on its website that it might soon be hit by sanctions, making things difficult for more than 100 million clients, but then quickly took it down, claiming a software error.

The Crimea moment was euphoric for many, since the peninsula was widely seen as both historically and ethnically Russian. Hardly anyone spoke Ukrainian there even pre-2014, and a lack of respect for Ukrainian authorities was palpable. The large Russian naval base, with a history of many wars, added to the perception, heavily promoted by propaganda outlets, that Crimea was “coming home.” But Russian missiles raining on the outskirts of Kyiv and Kharkiv, arms depots blowing up near peaceful Ukrainian cities — that, for many of the same Russians who welcomed the 2014 annexation, is the stuff of nightmares. Ukrainians are broadly perceived as a fraternal people; according to official statistics, Ukraine is at the top of the list of countries whose citizens Russians are most likely to marry. No matter what Putin might say about “denazifying” Ukraine, too many ordinary Russians have family ties and friendships in the neighboring country; they know their friends and relatives are not Nazis.

Russia’s biggest YouTube star, Yury Dud, spoke for many compatriots just before the invasion when he said,

I grew up in Russia, Russia is my motherland, and I’m proud to have a tattoo of the Russian tricolor on my forearm. But these days, my support goes to Ukraine, the birthplace of my kin and home to my friends.

Not that Putin cares, at least for now. It’s quite possible that all the screw-tightening the regime has conducted in the last two years, the crackdown on the opposition, the greatly increased risks for street protest, came in preparation for this moment. Putin is so insulated from the Russian street now that his regime is not in danger, no matter what drastic and unpopular steps he takes. What is less certain is the longer-term picture, with increasing economic isolation, potential paralysis in financial markets, the loss of hydrocarbon export clients. Russia’s financial cushion, including $643 billion in international reserves, can last for a long time, but not forever if the West’s resolve to maintain punitive sanctions endures. In a country as big as Russia, maintaining a climate of repression amid economic decline will not be an easy proposition even for a dictator as experienced and ruthless as Putin.