MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin may face international condemnation for his fast-track seizure of Crimea, but asset freezes and travel bans imposed by the West will not force him to alter course as he rides high in the polls.
Putin has seen his approval rating rise sharply since it became clear that Russia was taking control of Crimea, according to both state and independent polling agencies.
State polling agency VTsIOM reported his latest rating as the highest for three years at 71.6 percent, while even a survey by the opposition Fund to Fight Corruption found that 18.4 percent of Russians had a higher opinion of Putin since he threatened military intervention.
“Now his supporters are applauding: ‘Finally, we have a strong hand, we see a mighty leader,’ ” said political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya. “In domestic politics, all is well. Putin’s popularity is growing, his loyal electorate is rallying together and the core of his support is broadening.”
Added Alexei Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center: “So far, Putin is riding high and he will be riding high in the near future.”
The EU has unveiled travel bans and frozen the assets of 13 Russian officials, while the U.S. said it was imposing sanctions on seven officials and lawmakers.
But such measures are unlikely to frighten Putin. In the short term they will not affect him personally and will only boost his image as a leader who stands up to the West on matters such as Syria, gay rights and adoption.
Supported by a state propaganda machine that has gone into overdrive, this allows Putin to go out on a limb without his supporters flinching for now.
On Sunday evening, news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov jibed that Putin had given U.S. President Barack Obama a fresh crop of gray hair.
The wealthy elite likely to be affected by international sanctions may already be pulling assets from the U.S. but this is not something to worry ordinary Russians.
“Local sanctions towards individual members of the elite will not be noticed by society,” said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow.
Putin’s rating seems to be little affected by economic woes, with the independent Levada polling agency finding that even amid the ruble’s 2009 plunge, his rating fell by just a few percentage points.
Despite Putin’s failure in his long-held goal of Ukraine joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in the public eye he remains the victor.
Nevertheless, if economic sanctions bite, enthusiasm will falter, Makarkin said. “People aren’t ready to make serious sacrifices, they are not prepared for the possibility of a mobilized economy.”
As state television set the mood with hysterical rhetoric about “fascists” in Ukraine, Putin gave just one relaxed briefing. He even brushed off the prospect of Russia dropping out of the Group of Eight.
While around 50,000 turned out for an anti-war march in Moscow on Saturday, it barely merited a minute on state TV news.
The question now is whether Putin will seek control over other eastern and southern Ukrainian regions including the industrial heartland of Donetsk — a move that could stir farther-reaching consequences — or will he content himself with Crimea’s seizure.
“That would be a very risky game, too risky,” said Makarkin, since this would involve the far more drastic step of moving into a region where no Russian forces are based.
Still, Malashenko warned, the emotional impetus may spur the Russian leader on.
“Recently Putin has been living on emotions. So it’s 80 percent that he won’t go further — based on logic — but you have to consider his emotions.”