Perhaps no figure has loomed larger on the world stage of late than Russian President Vladimir Putin. His recent summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, U.S. concerns about future Russian interference after the 2016 presidential election, the Kremlin’s resurgence as a decisive player in the Middle East, and, of course, Putin’s easy reelection in March all seem to point to his continued strength. Yet they may also conceal a growing weakness.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in March 2014, was a boon for Putin’s approval ratings. Hovering around 61 to 65 percent before the seizure, they climbed to dizzying heights of above 80 percent thereafter. For many Russians, Putin’s territorial grab restored the country’s national greatness, and for that they rewarded him with increased support. In the last few months, however, rising public frustrations over domestic policy and a government proposal to weaken the social safety net have led to a sharp decline in Putin’s popularity. For Russia’s political class, this decline is a sign that Putin’s ratings have lost their cloak of invulnerability, a development that could have real implications for his new term and the potential succession fight to follow.
WHAT'S BEHIND THE SLUMP?
Putin’s recent fall in approval ratings has been steep. According to data collated by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, only 67 percent of Russians polled said that they approved of his activities in July 2018, compared to 82 percent in April and 79 percent in May. Other Levada data show that Putin’s trust rating declined from 60 percent in January 2018 to 48 percent in June. Some of Russia’s most popular officials have seen similar downturns: over the same six-month period, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trust rating declined from 31 percent to 19 percent and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s fell from 25 percent to 14 percent.
In a July 2018 Levada poll, 40 percent of Russians said they believed that Russia was heading in the wrong direction, up from 26 percent in April immediately after the presidential election.
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