Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
Victory Day (May 9) in Moscow has come and gone without any major policy announcement from Russia’s current czar, Vladimir Putin. Observers (especially British) had worried about a flat-out declaration of war (thereby allowing a national mobilization), an expansion of the assault front in Ukraine, or a further raising of the nuclear threat level.
Instead, Vlad gave a speech and continued the fairy tale about defeating Nazis in Kyiv. Since the holiday commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, one could understand his desperate attempt to make a radically fictitious bridge to the Ukrainian leadership today. Even in the case of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where the rhetorical fix strains credulity (Zelenskyy is a Jew).
On the other hand, a more mysterious matter for Western observers is the continuing high popularity figures Putin holds despite the crippling economic sanctions resulting from the invasion, rising casualty figures from a perplexing and disorganized war plan, and the loss of both top-level armaments and brass (at least eight generals among more than two dozen commanding officers thus far).
Putin’s approval rating is about 80 percent, with some figures above that. Now, these are Russian polls and the figures reflect a tight propaganda narrative with which the Kremlin controls Russian media. But the polling is statistically sound and seems to show an accurate public view.
Or at least a view the average guy wants to portray to anybody who is listening.
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Some of this is no doubt a rallying around the flag syndrome reflecting strong Russian nationalism. Other elements that may contribute include dislike of Ukrainians following the eight years of civil unrest in Donetsk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, strong support for the war by the Russian Orthodox Church clerical hierarchy, and a longer-held distrust of NATO intentions.
Russians are hardly stupid people. They have on average a better educational background than most elsewhere in the world. And their propensity to resort to dark humor and a different time frame when confronted with a crisis also factors in.
Perhaps this is why I rather unexpectedly found not a single one of my Moscow contacts disparaging the war effort. Their personal views certainly seem accurate, given the encrypted systems utilized in our emails. I cannot remember as sharp a contrast in genuinely held views between the West and Russia since the advent of this new Cold War.
But I keep coming back to those astounding poll numbers. In the process, it drifted my attention back to an episode over two decades ago and the way I expressed what was going on in that journal I kept during my sojourns in Moscow.
Leading thereby, to today’s entry in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale series.
Back then, Putin was facing the first serious crisis in how his leadership was regarded. Having assumed the top post a few months earlier, he was now in full damage control following the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk (designated K-141 in the Russian naval order of battle).
Matters started off poorly. Critics were quick to label official comments misleading and reminiscent of the Soviet coverup following the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine (where recently Russian military vehicles had managed to stir up radiation debris and narrowly missed hitting the damaged core with rocket fire before withdrawing).
Putin compounded the problem by deciding not to cut short a vacation for several days, and upon returning to Moscow provided a version of the rescue operations which turned out to be inaccurate.
Some commentators claimed that his reluctance to accept foreign help early on caused 118 sailors to lose their lives. It was clear that Russian-only efforts to reach the sub failed miserably, while Norwegian specialists succeeded – too late to save anybody on board.
Families of the victims confronted the president, causing him to cancel a symbolic wreath laying near the crash site. Appearing live on national television, Putin accepted personal responsibility for the tragedy. Two days later (August 23, 2000), he announced that no navy brass would be fired over the episode. In short, this was, according to Putin himself, a personal failure.
Over 20 years ago, this was the first and last time Putin shouldered responsibility for anything adverse happening.
But looking back through my journal notes (written in my own personal code because these jots were put down while I was living in Moscow), I remember what struck me most about the events.
Why did Putin’s approval rating increase in Russian opinion polling after the debacle and his inept handling of it?
On August 24, surveys were released showing that the president’s rating had improved to 65 percent, two points higher than before the Kursk sinking. While still below the 73 percent rating shortly after he took office in May, I observed at the time that these levels remained the highest for any chief executive in any democracy in the world.
OK, I was giving Russia the benefit of the doubt in those days. I really wanted it to become the next nation where officials felt obliged to reflect the needs of those who elected them.
At the time a political analyst from the major daily Izvestia observed: “The polls show that the population is able to weigh many factors about Putin,” while adding “the Kursk affair was badly handled, but people do not hold Putin personally responsible for it regardless of what he may say on television.”
Others agreed with the assessment, one which the political scientist in me (it was, after all, the discipline in which I had earned my Ph.D.) found fascinating. An analyst at Moscow’s Center for Public Opinion Research, one of those think tanks only emerging when it was certain the old system was not coming back anytime soon, met with some of us gathering for beers at the favorite watering hole for expats and members of the rising new Muscovite intellectual class. This was the Balalayehnaya in the Old Arbat section of the city. It would be blown up several years later in an organized crime fight. But for years this was where we went to grab a Western brew and interesting company.
What the fellow from the Center told us made a lot of sense, both from what we could see for ourselves and from the intel agents were forwarding. This was one of those times were the “office” needed as much info on what was happening in the streets as possible, even though it was not intended as fodder for any specific operation.
The Center fellow said that almost 40 percent of Russians considered the submarine sinking a tragic occurrence for which fault should not be placed on officials, military or civilian. He insisted that less than 10 percent held Putin directly responsible for any of it.
An unusual opinion if viewed through US public opinion today. Everything bad that takes place in or to America– from inflation, through military frustrations, to Supreme Court leaks and even bad weather – is immediately blamed on some partisan opponent.
One other finding squared with what I had been witnessing personally while living in Moscow ever since the time of Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike Americans, Russians did not care whether a leader amassed disproportionate power. What they could not abide was a leader then not doing anything with it.
Nonetheless, Putin did not fare well in being accountable and forthcoming. That led to a wave of attacks in the newspapers, despite the normally reticent attitude dailies in Moscow had for just about anything related to the president. “This was the first genuine crisis under his watch,” said one editor in a biting op ed piece, “and he failed miserably in confronting it.”
I noted in my journal at the time that the fledgling Russian democracy was about the same as elected systems anywhere else. People have the irritating habit of asking what you have done for them lately. Until the sub sinking, Russian voters had balanced Putin’s very popular attacks against the oligarchs, a raising of pension and minimum wage levels, his move to streamline both regional government and the military high command as positives against the Kursk disaster. Yet even then, one could see he had a public relations problem.
Russians did not yet expect elected officials to be forthcoming in public. That hangover from the Soviet period, I wrote at the time, is viewed harshly in the West, but has little resonance with most people walking the streets of Moscow. “Why should I care what is admitted to from the Kremlin,” a taxi driver said to me at the time. “The only thing important is what they do.”
And that was where Putin still had some problems to overcome.
In my journal entry on the Kursk, I found the following written in the margins (where I would sometimes add a comment or two days, weeks, or months after the fact): Popularity is a fleeting commodity. It is, after all, always under the control of those who give it. Especially so in any system based on popular choice. Trust, however, is not. Once people stop trusting a leader, little else makes any difference. At that point, the only other factor coming into play is fear.
Especially so in a democracy where appearance often ends up being more important than reality. My last entry suggested that one should just ask Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin – the man who initiated the very democratic tide that ultimately washed him into the pages of recent Russian history. Or his predecessor – Gorbachev – who left the presidency with approval ratings in single digits.
OK, let’s transition from Putin’s first bout with PR to the present. How has he managed to control later situations affecting potential attacks on his image? Fast forward to the next major crisis – October 2002 and the terrorist takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. Ultimately, security forces pumped toxic chemicals into the building before storming and then, given the military nature of the material used, refused to give particulars to the medical staff treating those affected. In total, all 40 terrorists were killed along with 130 hostages.
This time, Putin was better organized. This time he signaled an understanding of how to avoid ever again (á la Kursk) having to accept responsibility: control the narrative, the media, and segregate any opposing views (from oligarchs, opinion leaders, political opposition, or military command) by either coopting them or seeing to it that they simply ceased to be a public factor by having them disappear, charged with a crime, or simply silenced.
With each subsequent situation, his hold on popularity became a matter orchestrated in his image and likeness, predicated upon an iron-fisted manipulation of opinions. What he is practicing these days in the generation of high approval ratings via a stranglehold of domestic media is hardly new. It has been under his personal development for more than two decades, ever since the sinking of K-141.
Dr. Kent Moors
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