Vladimir Putin is an interesting blend of an autocrat and a leader who is acutely aware of his Q-rating. It doesn’t take a cynic to believe he has reinvented the Kremlin of today to mirror the Soviet model he served under as a KGB officer. You would be hard pressed to find someone, perhaps even in Russia itself, who would argue he is a properly elected public servant. Since he assumed the title of President in 2000 he has maintained an iron grip on every aspect of Russian politics, making a parody of multiple elections.
Despite his entrenched position as the ruler of Russia, he seems particularly sensitive to his popularity rating. Weekly surveys are conducted by the state-run ‘Russia Public Opinion Research Center – VTsIOM’ throughout all 11 time zones canvassing opinions on a wide variety of subjects from foreign policy to the economy.
Shortly after taking office, Putin’s approval rating soared to, and maintained, an astounding 80% approval rating. Numbers unheard of in our democracies. Though a number that challenges credulity, the state-run research center’s figures closely match those of independent Russian (http://www.levada.ru/eng/indexes-0) and Western polling organizations. The Russian people have, for the most part, loved their Putin.
However, beginning in 2011 as the Russian economy continued to sour despite being propped up by high oil prices, the approval rating dipped into the 60th percentile for a sustained period of time. These rating numbers continued to erode, paralleling the ailing economy until March of 2014, when they suddenly popped back up into the 80% region. This date correlates perfectly with a dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy. What was the source of the renewed approval from the Russian people? The invasion and annexation of Crimea.
Since that date, Russian forces have flexed their might globally on an ever increasing scale. It seems clear that despite the double economic effects of Western sanctions and the collapse of the oil markets, the more Putin jabs at the West, the more his people love him.
What does that mean to our military forces? The answer is illustrated by the experiences of the USS Cook (DDG 75) earlier this year as she cruised the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. Two Su-24 Fencers conducted multiple low passes, flying below bridge level and coming as close as 75’. (https://youtu.be/vkkCZwiENh8) The planes were ‘clean wing’, meaning they carried no ordinance. But the message was clear, “We are here to poke you.” The Virginia Pilot compiled the multiple angles into one video, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJFnDfvUVGc&feature=youtu.be).
It seems clear that Putin intends to buttress his popularity by continuing to antagonize the West though a combination of saber rattling and projection of Russian military power. There are perils to this type of brinksmanship however. The obvious hazard is that a mistake could be made, on either side, which would result in loss of life or accidental conflict. Less obvious, but perhaps more likely, is that the twin forces of a continually worsening economy coupled with low oil prices for the foreseeable future will compel Putin to take more dramatic steps to distract his populace. There are few things as dangerous as a desperate despot.