Masha Gessen writes: Vladimir Putin has won. In Russia, support for his war in Ukraine is overwhelming. And his approval rating has finally recovered after falling drastically in December 2011, when the Russian protest movement erupted.
Putin claimed reelection to his third term as president in March 2012, as mass demonstrations were taking place in cities and towns across Russia. Official tallies said he won with 63 percent of the vote, but independent exit polls suggested he captured about 50 percent — hardly a show of overwhelming support for a virtually unopposed candidate (none of the four opponents he handpicked for the ballot had campaigned).
After the election, Putin began cracking down on opponents while mobilizing his shrinking constituency against an imaginary enemy: strong, dangerous, Western and, apparently, homosexual. Laws were passed restricting public assembly and the activities of nongovernmental organizations; about three dozen people of various political and social stripes were jailed for protesting.
The crackdown proved effective: When the risks of demonstrating became extremely high and the benefits apparently nonexistent, the number of protests and protesters dwindled; the loose leadership structure of the 2011-12 protest movement dissolved in a haze of mutual recriminations.
As for the mobilization effort, the results were mixed: Putin’s approval rating, as measured by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling organization, bounced back soon after his reelection but sank again and then plateaued. The high approvals that he enjoyed in his first decade at the helm, around 70 percent, were a distant memory. [Continue reading…]
For many of those observers who view Putin as having been pushed into a corner by Western governments who recklessly and foolishly hijacked Ukrainian politics, the Russian president is a cool realist acting in Russia’s national interests, doing what any responsible leader would do.
One of the multiple problems with this interpretation of what is currently unfolding is that it discounts the effects of the psychological imperatives to which Putin is now strapped.
A full-scale invasion of Ukraine might seem irrational now that Crimea is already fully under Russian control — 93% of voters are reported to have supported Crimea becoming part of Russia. But Putin’s next choices may be shaped much less by his assessment of Russia’s geopolitical interests than they are by the image of a strong leader around which he has drummed up so much popular support. He has been stacking up more and more reasons to continue his military advance, leaving less and less room to climb down without appearing to have lost his courage.