Putin’s popularity soared after Russia invaded Crimea. This time, it’s different

FAN Editor

A woman holds a portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin with a bloody hand on his face as members of the Ukrainian community protest in front of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation on February 25, 2022 in Montreal, Quebec.

Andrej Ivanov | AFP | Getty Images

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, in which Crimea was annexed, his popularity ratings soared in Russia.

Back in February 2014, just ahead of the Crimea invasion, Putin’s popularity stood at 69% (having languished at 61% in November 2013), according to the independent Levada Center, but it rose to 82% in April 2014, after Russia made its move on the Ukrainian peninsula.

That was despite global condemnation of Putin and sanctions imposed on Russia that prompted the Russian ruble to slump against the dollar, causing living costs to rise for many Russians.

Things could be very different this time around for Putin, however.

Russia’s broader invasion of Ukraine has been widely deplored, and this time the West has taken united and unprecedented steps to punish Russia, imposing massive sanctions not only Russia’s economy but targeting its financial systems and ability to function — or be visible — on a global stage, with cultural and sporting institutions like the Eurovision Song Contest and FIFA suspending Russia’s participation in events.

It hasn’t taken long for ordinary Russians to feel the pain of sanctions and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The ruble has again plummeted against the dollar, prompting Russia’s central bank to raise interest rates to 20% on Monday, from 9.5%. The move prompted desperate Russians to queue at banks and ATMs in a bid to withdraw their money in haste.

With the economic pain likely to be much harsher this time round, analysts say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to give Putin a popularity boost.

His popularity ratings in February stood at 69%, according to the Levada Center, but that was a poll of 1,626 Russian adults conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 2 — that is, before Russia invaded Ukraine and sanctions were imposed and before Russia conceded that its own military had seen casualties during its assault.

It’s hard to get an accurate death toll on either side — Russia does not publish such figures — but an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday that around 3,500 Russian soldiers had been killed or injured so far during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister put the number higher on Sunday, at 4,300, but said the figure had not been verified.

Max Hess, senior political risk analyst at AKE International, told CNBC that he didn’t believe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would boost Putin’s popularity, noting “it certainly won’t have any impact like after Crimea, not at all.”

“Even if it all ends now … it seems already — based on Ukraine numbers — that probably more Russians have died [during the invasion of Ukraine] than died in the Chechen conflict in the 90s,” he said Monday.

Hess likened the war between Russia and Ukraine as “a fratricidal war” in a number of ways and particularly given the close historical ties between the neighbors, which has lent an ambivalence to Russian attitudes toward the invasion. Indeed, there have been protests in Russia against the invasion.

Noting how he had spoken to a range of people about Russia’s invasion, Hess said that, anecdotally, he was shocked to hear how fast “faith has evaporated in Putin.”

Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, has noted that he believes Putin has “spectacularly miscalculated” when it comes to Ukraine.

“It’s now pretty clear that Putin’s game plan (planned for years) was to encircle Ukrainian troops in Donbas, take out key military and economic infrastructure, encircle Kyiv and Kharkhiv and assume Zelensky would throw in the towel, Ukrainian troops would not fight and the Western sanctions response would be muted. I think he also planned to install a puppet regime in Kyiv,” Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in emailed comments Sunday.

“He has been spectacularly wrong on all counts,” he noted. “Thousands of Russian mothers will be grieving the loss of their sons. Russians will see their living standards drop and their savings melt.”

Will Ukraine offensive backfire?

Russia’s offensive against Ukraine is widely seen as motivated by Putin’s desire to see regime change in Kyiv and to oust the current pro-Western government under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine’s stoicism under attack and the plucky bravery of its citizens and leadership has drawn plaudits from around the world, and has prompted Zelenskyy’s popularity to soar with one poll finding that 91% of Ukrainians support his defense of the country against Russia.

The poll conducted by the Rating Sociological group, a Ukrainian non-governmental polling organization, found that 70% of respondents said they believed Ukraine would be able to fend off Russia’s invasion while 16% said they were not sure.

Analysts fear that, with a huge convoy of Russian military vehicles approaching Kyiv, it’s likely that Russian forces are about to launch a large-scale attack on the Ukrainian capital, and one expected to cause widespread casualties.

Russia has already been accused of indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilians and of using cluster munitions and planning to use a vacuum bomb, which Russia has denied. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called such allegations “fake news” and said Russia only focused on military targets, not civilian ones.

Cluster munitions scatter smaller bombs indiscriminately over a wide area and more than 100 states have signed up to a 2008 UN treaty banning their use although Russia has not signed the treaty (neither has Ukraine nor the U.S., for that matter).

If Russian forces attack Kyiv, analysts predict the human toll will be immense.

“We’re surely looking at thousands of casualties on both sides, and likely tens of thousands among the Ukrainians,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said on Monday, issuing a bleak prediction that, “presuming the invasion continues apace, it’s a matter of days to 2 weeks before the capital is captured and the Ukrainian government falls.”

“The Ukrainian forces can’t match Russia’s military strength, at nearly 5x the personnel and 10x the military spending. Almost one week of fighting in, Russian troops are on the outskirts of Kyiv,” he said in an emailed note.

However, Bremmer noted that Russia was “losing the communications war” and is now almost globally seen as the villain, as opposed to the heroism perceived in Ukraine and its president.

“To the international community, Putin looks angry but addled and inconsistent, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, not particularly popular or respected before the war, has emerged as a heroic figure. Ukrainians have been more motivated to fight (and western countries to support them)—which would have been more challenging if Ukraine’s internet had been shut down.”

Posing the question — what do the Russians do with Ukraine once they “take” it? Bremmer believed that the Ukrainian population “will be overtly hostile” to any new government installed in Kyiv by Russia.

“It will prove expensive for Moscow to manage; close to an economic basket case even before the fighting and now facing economic collapse, plus it will face all the sanctions as [are] now being imposed on Russia. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian government in exile will be viewed as legitimate by all of Europe, providing arms to partisans willing to fight the Russian-supported Ukrainian regime,” he noted, concluding that “Russia’s own political legitimacy will be challenged from the outside accordingly.”

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