Staunton, June 30 – In ten days after the announcement of the government’s plans to raise the pension age for both men and women, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating fell from 78 percent to 64 percent, a decline that as likely increased by the Kremlin’s insistence that he has nothing to do with it even when it is obvious to all that he controls everything he wants to.
In a democratic country, such a decline almost certainly would lead to policy or personnel changes; but Putin’s Russia is not a democracy, not even a hybrid one; and he has shown little willingness to change course, especially if it appears he is under pressure to do so, and even less to change key officials as a signal to society that the government will shift.
Putin and his cronies obviously thought that Russians would be so entranced by the World Cup that they could get away with this unpopular move; but the Russian people as deferential as they may be to power proved that they were quite capable of rationally assessing what is going on and that their much-ballyhooed support for Putin is broad but paper thin.
In the past, Putin’s popularity has risen with the price of oil or as the result of his Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea. But oil prices are nowhere near where they were a decade ago and Russian incomes are suffering, with little prospect that they are going to improve anytime soon. Indeed, the government seems to be driving them down by taking more money from them.
That suggests the Kremlin leader almost certainly will launch some new aggression. Some may believe that the upcoming summit with Donald Trump in Helsinki will hold him back, arguing that Putin won’t want to do anything to undermine improved ties with the West. But unfortunately, Trump’s willingness to defer to Putin now seems greater than that of the Russians.
Consequently, given that Putin like almost all Russian rulers behaves according to type – that is, does the same thing again and again and again – it is unfortunately likely that he will try to get some foreign policy “victory” to win back his popularity which given how much he manipulates the media and polls he clearly cares about.
There are many possibilities, of course. But three should be on anyone’s watch list. They are:
· First, a further land grab in Ukraine to secure a land bridge to Crimea and total control of the Sea of Azov. Putin has been building up forces for both, although it remains unclear whether he could take such a step without sparking outrage in much of the West if not with Trump or would win as much support as seizing Crimea in the first place did.
· Second, a military-political move to break or absorb a former Soviet republic. The two most likely candidates are Belarus which Putin has always wanted to become part of the Russian Federation and Georgia which he invaded once before and which he has been pursuing a proxy war via South Ossetia recently because of Tbilisi’s drive to become part of the West. Such steps would disturb much of the West but might not given him the boost at home he seeks.
· And thus third, a move in the Middle East designed to destabilize one or more countries in order to drive up oil prices, weaken Israel and the United States, and win support at home by returning Russia to the “fat” years of high oil prices. That certainly would boost his approval rating at home, and it might not hurt him that in the West especially if he did it in a proxy fashion.
Thus, while one can only be pleased with the decline in expressed support for Putin among Russians shows that they are not forever linked to him no matter what he does, unlike apparently the supporters of some Western politicians, one must be worried, as the The Bell’s Artem Gubenko says, because of what Putin may do in response (thebell.io/uroven-odobreniya-putina-upal-na-14-za-10-dnej-iz-za-pensionnoj-reformy/).
The only certainties are that he will do something and that it will further threaten the international order.