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The Putin Method: How He's Built His Popularity, And The Risks Of Losing It

Support among the Russian public has increased for both Putin and his war in Ukraine. Russia's is a different kind of autocracy, dubbed an "Information Technocracy," where power is held through propaganda and popular support. But this requires Putin to maintain his popularity — and that can only happen if the war succeeds.

​Watching a live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual televised phone-in

Putin's annual televised phone-in, in a control room of the TKR-Ryazan TV company

Anna Akage

Kramatorsk, Bucha, Mariupol... The names of these Ukrainian cities are now known around the world because of the number of casualties and the destruction caused by the Russian army there. And despite this, based on surveys, Russians continue to support the actions of Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine. Why?

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According to the Russian Levada Center as of March 31, 2022, 81% of Russians support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Among the reasons for support are "protection of the Russian-speaking population" and "border security."

The Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported an increase in Vladimir Putin's rating since the beginning of the military operation. Sociologists registered a sharp increase in the ratings of the authorities after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine: 65% of respondents said they supported the war on Feb. 25; 68% on Feb. 27; 71% on March 3; 74% on March 17; and 76% on March 24.

Russian justifications for war

The day before the war began, the Russian sociologist Denis Volkov, in an interview for the Levada Center think tank, said that the motives of the Russians in the event of military action sounded extremely noble: it is necessary to save "our people." At the same time, all the blame for the conflict was shifted to the U.S., and Ukraine was perceived as a victim of Western political manipulation.

Economic hardships do not matter in the face of a noble cause.

Volkov says: "The data that we have collected in recent years, particularly at the end of 2021, gives us a rough idea of how people react. They have several approaches to understanding the conflict and what is happening in general. First: America is to blame. Not even Ukraine, but America and the West. They put pressure on Ukraine, which is plotting something against the unrecognized republics, and Russia should interfere on the side of these unrecognized republics because they are a Russian-speaking population, people with Russian passports. In general, they are our people. We have to help and protect them."

Rising prices and unemployment rates, store closures, the loss of important medicines, and the disappearance of sugar and flour from the shelves are not weakening this support. On the contrary, it seems to be only strengthening it.

Enduring hardships and sanctions

From this official propaganda comes Russians’ conviction that all their economic hardships do not matter in the face of a noble cause and that sanctions are not to be afraid of. “The USSR lived under sanctions, but developed and achieved tremendous success," said Vladimir Putin on March 11 at a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

But can we trust the positive responses of citizens in a country where any other answers are criminally punishable and where there are no sources of information other than official ones? A country where a man was arrested for a solitary silent protest on Red Square this Sunday, just holding in his hands a volume of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?

When war began in Ukraine, Russian TV channels started broadcasting at full capacity: no reality shows, no soap operas, no entertainment shows. Only news and political analysis, 24 hours a day. And all of this happened against the backdrop of the closure of all independent media outlets and the blocking of social media networks.

Activists and veterans clash with the police  after the National Security Council of Ukraine closed several pro-Kremlin TV channels

Activists and veterans clash with the police picketing the pro-Kremlin TV channel NASH in Kyiv after the National Security Council of Ukraine closed several pro-Kremlin TV channels

Aleksandr Gusev/Pacific Press/ZUMA

The long history of Russian TV propaganda

To understand the level of propaganda, one example will suffice: The other day, Russia 24 showed a "special report" about how the Ukrainian military was allegedly preparing a mannequin to present as the corpse of a resident of Bucha or Mariupol who was a victim of Russian attacks. There is no one to ask a banal question like, "Why would the Ukrainian army kill its own citizens?”

It is also important to note that the time that Russian television has been influencing Russians is decades longer than this war. Following a brief period of perestroika, or political openness, the media has been the mouthpiece of the party, not the voice of the people, for 20 years under Putin. And before that, for decades longer under the Soviet regime.

During this time, the Russian viewer became accustomed to the most important elements of propaganda, which replaced economic growth and freedom. Beliefs in Russia’s special path (the political and economic models of developed countries are allegedly not applicable to Russia); the omnipotence of the Russian army; a bipolar world where Russia opposes America; the brotherly Ukrainian people ruled by a “fascist junta”; the European Union as a gay mecca with Russia as the last bastion of traditional family values... The list goes on and on.

Ideas fed to the Russian public

These beliefs became a philosophy, but seemed relatively harmless beyond Russia's borders until this year.

For years, these ideas have been fed to the Russian public in a variety of sophisticated ways, supported by the most incredible "facts." And the public reacted accordingly: In one Russian city, locals recently poisoned pigeons in earnest, fearing that they, according to Russian TV, carry pathogenic viruses developed in secret laboratories in Ukraine that detect human DNA and infect only Russians.

We all saw the pictures of the weeping North Koreans at Kim Jong Il's funeral, a true cult of personality. If Putin died today, rather than an emotional outpouring, Russians would likely spend their energy wondering what external force had plotted his demise.

The propaganda is consumed in a vast country where everyone is a lonely viewer in front of a TV set.

This quasi dictatorial regime that Putin has built in Russia is very different from Pyongyang’s, not to mention the autocracies past and present that we know from the Middle East or Latin America. In particular, the Russian political scientist Maxim Katz identifies Putin’s rule as an “information technocracy,” a method of running the country based on the efficient management of information to control and win over support of the country's population.

Life and death need for battlefield victory

It is the manipulation of information, far more than fear and brute force, that has kept Putin so firmly in control. Information technocracies, unlike classical authoritarian regimes, tend to divide society rather than unite it. In a vast country where everyone is a lonely viewer in front of a TV set, the propaganda is consumed by people who do not gather in groups, do not discuss current events, do not share their doubts.

This is precisely why Putin has targeted even the most harmless environmental NGOs and human rights organizations, not to mention the shuttering of independent media outlets: reducing the places (physical or virtual) for opponents to gather and exchange ideas — especially on the day that the conversation switches to the country's leadership.

This "divide and inform" approach is the principle tool that explains Putin’s popularity across Russian society, from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Some have since argued that the war in Ukraine was the logical fulfillment of the message he's constructed over 20 years about the special destiny of his Mother Russia to reconquer its greatness. But more than ever, his own popularity is fundamental to the effort.

And with setbacks continuing to pile up, it becomes clear why Russia so urgently "needs a victory" on the battlefield. Without it, Putin risks everything — and that makes the prospects for the coming days and weeks in Ukraine more frightening than ever.

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