Putin wins in Russia only by escalating his war rhetoric

Vladimir Putin has won. In Russia, support for his war in Ukraine is overwhelming. And his approval rating has finally recovered after falling drastically in December 2011, when the Russian protest movement erupted.

Putin claimed reelection to his third term as president in March 2012, as mass demonstrations were taking place in cities and towns across Russia. Official tallies said he won with 63 percent of the vote, but independent exit polls suggested he captured about 50 percent — hardly a show of overwhelming support for a virtually unopposed candidate (none of the four opponents he handpicked for the ballot had campaigned).

After the election, Putin began cracking down on opponents while mobilizing his shrinking constituency against an imaginary enemy: strong, dangerous, Western and, apparently, homosexual. Laws were passed restricting public assembly and the activities of nongovernmental organizations; about three dozen people of various political and social stripes were jailed for protesting.

The crackdown proved effective: When the risks of demonstrating became extremely high and the benefits apparently nonexistent, the number of protests and protesters dwindled; the loose leadership structure of the 2011-12 protest movement dissolved in a haze of mutual recriminations.

As for the mobilization effort, the results were mixed: Putin’s approval rating, as measured by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling organization, bounced back soon after his reelection but sank again and then plateaued. The high approvals that he enjoyed in his first decade at the helm, around 70 percent, were a distant memory.

It took the Sochi Olympics to raise Putin’s numbers to their post-election level, and it took the Russian invasion of Ukraine to drive his rating past 70 percent again. Levada polls conducted in the second week of March show just how effective the state propaganda machine has been: A majority of Russians believe that Ukraine has no legitimate government, that Russian speakers in Ukraine are in danger and that blame for the crisis in Crimea lies squarely with Ukrainian nationalists. Only 6 percent of Russians are “definitely opposed” to a military invasion of Ukraine.

Historically, the idea that Russia is a country under siege, surrounded by enemies and constantly on the brink of catastrophe has been central to Russian politics in general and to Putin’s politics in particular. In its propaganda campaign against Ukraine, the Kremlin has employed images dating to World War II, including the swastika. As recently as last year, Russia was mobilized to fight gay men, lesbians and other “foreign agents.” The resulting composite is that of someone a Russian television viewer might call a fascist, a Westerner, a Ukrainian, an American or some combination of those things. To Russians, any and all of these terms are shorthand for “enemy” and “danger.”

Measures of public opinion in authoritarian countries are notoriously unreliable — not because the measure is necessarily inaccurate but because citizens in such a society are particularly sensitive and responsive to any shifts in power. Opinion can change on a dime. Putin intuitively senses this, which is why his anti-Ukrainian mobilization campaign has closely tracked with an all-out attack on what little independent media remain in Russia.

The last independent television channel, TV Dozhd, or TV Rain, is on the verge of closing after being dropped by most of its satellite and cable carriers. The owner of the largest online news and analysis outlet, Lenta.ru, summarily dismissed its longtime independent-minded editor in chief Wednesday; she was replaced with a Kremlin hand, and most of Lenta’s journalists quit in protest. Smaller online news outlets were rendered inaccessible by the Russian consumer authority, which now has power to shut down access to any Internet site. On Thursday, Russians discovered that three independent news-and-commentary sites were gone (though they could still be accessed outside of Russia). And because the consumer authority shut off access to the blog of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was placed under house arrest two weeks ago, one of Russia’s most popular blogging platforms, LiveJournal.com, was rendered inaccessible. Russians devised ways to circumvent the Kremlin firewall and rushed to post instructions on social networks, certain that these, too, would soon be rendered inaccessible.

By silencing the last of his critics, Putin is staying a step ahead of the war game he has started. Still, the only way to continue shoring up his popularity is to escalate war rhetoric and the war effort. Putin will continue to succeed only by painting the Western/fascist/Ukrainian enemy as ever more dangerous and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as ever more important. This means he is not interested in a peaceful solution or, as some Western analysts have hopefully suggested, in an exit strategy that would allow him to “save face.” He needs the war in Ukraine to endure and spread. This is terrible news for Ukraine — and for Russia, which will grow only more isolated and impoverished.

Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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