Many analysts have worried in recent weeks about a large buildup of Russian military forces along the Ukrainian border. Russian troops have gathered in areas near the ongoing conflict in the Donbas, and some troops relocated to Crimea. Amid border skirmishes, warnings from the Kremlin and escalating rhetoric on Russian state-owned media, what’s going on?
Some experts speculate that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be seeking a confrontation with Ukraine to bolster his position at home. Reports from Russia show personal support for Putin softening, and his unpopular ruling party faces elections in September.
However, the data suggest it may be hard for Putin to use foreign policy to rally support for military intervention. Russians strongly supported annexing Crimea in 2014, but are otherwise unenthusiastic about Russian foreign policy assertiveness. Rather than resenting the West or harboring vague neo-imperial impulses, the Russian public is ambivalent about Putin’s foreign policy. Here’s why that matters.
Crimea was an exception
The annexation of Crimea, which sent Putin’s approval ratings into the 80 percent range for a remarkable four years, may be why people say there is public approval for aggressive Russian foreign policy. The annexation created a “collective euphoria” that “led to an emotional outpouring of pride, hope and trust in Russia’s leaders”.
Russian popular support ran high in part because the annexation was largely bloodless. Policies toward Ukraine that could bring higher costs have been far less popular. In May 2014, when fighting in eastern Ukraine was hot, only 31 percent of survey respondents backed “sending direct military assistance, such as the introduction of troops”. By August 2015, this figure fell to 20 percent. A 2015 poll asked: “If you found out that among the ranks of the insurgents, regular Russian army troops were fighting, how would you respond?” Only 33 percent responded either positively (9 percent) or more or less positively (24 percent).
Nor is it just Ukraine. In August 2017, just 30 percent of Russians said they thought the Kremlin should continue its military operations in Syria — and 49 percent thought the Kremlin should end them. Putin in March 2014 may have claimed that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people that cannot live without each other”, but a January 2020 poll found 82 percent of Russians believe Ukraine should be an independent state, and just 15 percent believe “Russia and Ukraine must unite into one country”. These figures haven’t changed much since 2008. There’s little support in general for “unification”: In summer 2020, only one in four Russians supported unification with Belarus.
In addition, Russia’s foreign policy elite holds far more anti-U.S. views than does the mass public. A January 2020 poll found 67 percent of Russians feel the Kremlin should view the West as a “partner”, 11 percent as a “friend” and just 16 percent as a “rival. One pollster at the respected Levada Center noted that these data “once again underline the mass exhaustion from foreign policy confrontation”.
Russians prefer living well over superpower status
To be sure, national pride is important to Russians. Public support for the army, the security services and the church is high, and increasing. Survey respondents often link national pride to Russia’s World War II victory, achievements in outer space — and (recently) to the annexation of Crimea. Furthermore, most Russians like Moscow’s return to global politics. They believe their country is a superpower and overwhelming majorities — around 80 percent — support keeping this status. In 2018, 47 percent of respondents cited a return to great power status as Putin’s greatest achievement.
But being a great power is costly, and when they are asked to make a trade-off, Russians prefer economic development over great power status. Every few years the Levada Center has asked Russians whether they would like to see their country as “a great power which other countries respect and fear” or a “country with a high standard of living, albeit not one of the strongest countries in the world”. Only in 2014, at the height of the Crimea crisis, did more Russians value great power status over a high standard of living (48 vs. 47 percent). In other years, more Russians preferred a high standard of living — and often by big margins (in 2017, for example, by 57 percent to 42 percent).
Survey results suggest Russians are unenthusiastic even about bearing the costs of annexing Crimea. A summer 2019 poll found 16 percent of Russians were willing to bear significant costs, 26 percent were willing to bear some costs, and 36 percent were not at all willing. The polling evidence doesn’t support the common view that a deep-rooted national history and culture supporting great power status drives Russian foreign policy.
Invading Ukraine could be a hard sell
Popular opinion doesn’t drive Putin’s foreign policy, but it’s difficult to see the Kremlin ignoring it altogether. Contrary to the common notion that Putin might engage in a diversionary war to bolster support, the Russian public probably would treat such a move with skepticism, forcing the Kremlin to work hard to sell it at home. As one observer notes, Putin’s approval ratings fell after the short war with Georgia in 2008 and the start of the Syrian intervention in 2015.
In his first decade in office Putin rode an economic boom to great popularity and in his second he basked in the glow of the annexation of Crimea. As these achievements have faded, Putin has had mixed success selling the public on Russia’s return as a global power. The Kremlin retains vast capacity to promote its narrative at home, and the details of a move would matter, but rallying public support for direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine will challenge even Putin.
Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and the author of the recently published “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia” (Princeton University Press, 2021). Follow him on Twitter @timothymfrye.