Putin’s Heat Level: Apparent mild citizens’ support

  • + Covid-19 has hit hard a country heavily reliant on oil and gas exports.
  • + Due to Putin’s passive response to coronavirus, his popularity has decreased.
  • + Russian citizens have been called to vote for a constitutional referendum. Putin may remain in power.
Source: Warsaw Institute

Why is Putin’s heat level Mild?

Answer: Several polls have shown Putin’s popularity to be at an all-time low. In addition, several challenges have arisen testing his quality as Russia’s leader

In March 2018, month in which the last Russian presidential elections took place, Putin had on his favour a 81% approval from citizens. Two years later, after the clash of oil and gas markets, a global health crisis and its economic consequences, the Russian leader has bottomed out, at least in terms of citizen popularity. Recent surveys undertook by VTsIOM or the Levada Centre, among others, show that only 59% of Russian population supports Putin’s behaviour and decisions. This is Putin’s worst result ever. 

The above can be read – and it is read by several political analysts – as a loss of some of his historically reliable supporters. The reasons? The economic situation that the country is going through, along with the health matters derived from coronavirus’ global spread, are two factors which are encouraging Russian citizens to protest because of the drop in their living standards.

At the same time, regional governors are enjoying  large support among their citizens, and for the first time recorded, these political figures have a greater approval rating – 65% – than Putin. 

Tensions between OPEC leaders and Vladimir Putin in oil production regulation and its price were echoed in the international press. A sensitive issue for the Russian president, given the relevance of these resources to his country’s economy. One can find in the collapse of oil and gas prices one of the reasons for the lower quality of life that Russians are fearing, and which contrasts with the expectations generated by Putin’s speeches.

Even though the stated above is accurate, the consequences of the situation Vladimir Putin is facing won’t be as bad as can be expected from a Western-democracy point of view. Some international press analysts are qualifying the leader and his team as incompetent, but this is not fully true. Research on public opinion in Russia has shown that Putin’s popularity results in surveys are not always linked to his real support when it comes to voting. Furthermore, Putin has managed during his years in power to defeat any attempt of a well-structured political alternative to him. Another factor to be taken into account when talking about poll results is the pro-regime media propaganda and the lack of independent media.

Who is changing Putin’s temperature?

Answer: The circumstances and himself. The Russian leader, who is used to an almost absolute support of his figure and to deal with foreign policy, is finding difficulties at home. 

Following the final thought in the previous section, I would like to emphasize the significance of the energy industry in the Russian economy. In addition to accounting for nearly 30% of national GDP, the oil and gas industry is strongly linked to the country’s foreign policy, given that large conglomerates – Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft – are state-owned.

Due to the sharp drop in fuel demand from Russia’s major energy partners, industry has seen its revenues decline at the same rate. As an example, the Yamal-Europe pipeline – one of Russia’s most relevant – has been transporting zero natural gas for a week. Furthermore, the long-term transit deal for this pipeline has expired. This generates discontent and nervousness in a sector which feeds many families.

Notwithstanding the above, some strategic steps have been taken in order to keep a strong position in the fuel industry. Xi Jinping and Putin agreed in the past to strengthen their energy ties by having China buying more gas from Russia. In order to achieve this, Gazprom – state-owned – is beginning to construct the Power of Siberia 2 in order to increase gas flows to China. Furthermore, Gazprom has signed a long-term agreement with a Greek company in order to supply natural gas to the country until 2030. In addition to the above, the Kremlin have stated its intentions in completing Nord Stream 2 construction, despite the controversies that the project is raising. 

A 15,000 tonnes fuel spill into a river has also damaged Putin’s image of a strong independent man who does not care about the environment. The accident, considered the worst ecological disaster in the area, took place on 29 May in a thermal plant near the Artic – Siberia. Such is its extent that Putin declared it an emergency, and the U.S. has offered its help to manage the issue.

Additionally, the response given by Putin to the health issue that is shaping currently international affairs should also be taken into account. Russia is the third largest country in coronavirus cases, but Putin decided to delegate the management of this health crisis to local officials and regional governors. This is a passive movement for a leader who for years has been a strong leading figure in Russian politics. Some analysts, as Mark Galeotti, claim that “this is abdication of responsibility”. In other words, such a political decision doesn’t improve Putin’s popularity, but rather worsens it. 

Putin’s hyper-presidential political system has been slightly damaged. Suddenly, local political entities exist, and they have managed a great challenge. Also, energy exports have dropped, which is the same as saying that Putin has been left without an essential tool in Russia’s geopolitics strategy – his favourite playing field.

What is driving Putin?

Answer: Putin wants to maintain Russia’s strong position in the world, as well as extend his mandate to 2036 through constitutional reform.

Putin is a strong man with great discipline and with a great capacity to read reality in a geopolitical key, in which there are enemies and losers. Since he served in the KGB as an agent, his conviction has been to defend Russian interests and Russia’s position in the world. This attitude has been sustained and he applies it in his mandate. Maintaining a strong Russia in the world, and keeping him in power, are Putin’s main objectives. 

The first of these objectives has been based on his ability to build the West as the enemy, and to use Russia’s energy exports as a foreign policy weapon. This fact shows us why his image has been damaged when the sector that gives him power at a national and international level has been struggling due to the drop of demand. Likewise, it also explains the reason for Russia’s agreements with China and Greece in energy supply. Energy is a strategic sector, for Russia and for Putin, when it comes to being seen as a strong leader. 

As for Putin himself, he has a great capacity to play in the international arena, but domestic issues, beyond being seen as the reference leader, bore him. This, along with the fact that he does not want to have a bad image in front of his voters because of the measures to be taken to face the coronavirus, has led him to delegate the task of confining citizens and managing overloaded hospitals to regional authorities. Is this a wise move? At the moment, surveys do not label it as positive for his reputation, but, as I mentioned earlier, public support is a relative thing in Russia. 

Finally, on July 1st there will be the referendum that was planned for April 22nd 2020.  The citizens will decide whether to adopt several constitutional amendments, including one that would allow Putin to extend his term in office until 2036. Therefore, Putin needs to maintain an image of strong leadership and avoid being blamed for unpopular decisions.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: It seems that the hyper-presidential Russian system of the last decades may, in a far future, start to crack. This affects us all due to Putin’s influence on other states, especially when it comes to energy.

Vladimir Putin is one of the most known faces when it comes to international power. The length of his political career, his promises of keeping Russia in a strong position towards the world, his love for geopolitics and his use of energy as a foreign policy tool makes him a very interesting political actor when it comes to research. But also, his decisions have a direct impact on citizens of many countries, not only the ones which used to be on the political orbit of the Soviet Union, but also EU countries, among others. 

Therefore, it is not necessary to remark that a change of the Russian political system will definitely have consequences in Russiathe country’s relations with other countries. Although a political change has not yet been achieved in Russia, and it is expected that after the July 1st referendum Putin will remain in power until 2036, the delegation of power to regional governors and local authorities hasve changed the perception that the Russian population has on the aforementioned personalities. It is predictable that these political entities would like to keep the powers their President has given them, and it could lead to an increase in the political weight of these institutions. That is to say, a less presidential system and more prominence given to the oblasts. In any case, any changes to the system will be long-term, as Putin’s support is strong, and there is no real political alternative to him.

Undoubtedly, Putin’s apparent discomfort and his decision to delegate are a political reality that will remain in the spotlight.

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern