Recent polling data indicates that “group-think” is taking hold of Russian society, causing in a big boost for President Vladimir Putin’s popularity and stoking dangerous nationalist passions.
According to several nationwide polls conducted in March and April by the Levada Center, one of Russia’s leading national pollsters, the annexation of Crimea is fueling a frenzy of national pride. The polling results showed 79 percent of Russians believe that “Russia is returning its traditional role of a superpower and asserts its interests in the post-Soviet space.” Meanwhile, 80 percent of respondents said they approved of Putin’s handling of Crimea crisis -- a rating that is among the highest he has ever enjoyed. It’s also worth noting that in late 2013, his approval rating stood at 62 percent. Overall, 71 percent of Russians said they now fully or mostly trust Putin, according to the Levada polls.
The data additionally shows that Russians are viewing the outside world though an increasingly dark lens. An all-time high of 78 percent of Russians now believe that their nation faces grave threat from enemies, both external and internal; and an all-time high of 77 percent of Russians said that Russia needs “a strong hand,” in other words an authoritarian leader, to guide the country “in certain situations, such as now.”
Sixty-one percent of respondents expressed negative views of the United States, which is one of the worst showings since the end of the Cold War. The number was only a little higher after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Also, 53 percent of respondents held a negative view of the European Union, by far the worst showing ever. The previous spike in anti-EU sentiments was during the Russian-Georgian war, but even then the number peaked at 39 percent.
Some of the Levada data seems to suggest that, under a blitz of Russian government propaganda, Russians have taken collective leave of their senses. For example, more than two-thirds of Russians, or 68 percent, believe that that the imposition of stringent sanctions by Western governments would provide a boost to Russia’s economic growth.
In another head-scratcher, when asked “How do you think people in Ukraine feel about Crimea’s accession to Russia?” a staggering 73 percent of Russians believe Ukrainians feel “absolutely” or “mostly good” about Russia’s grabbing Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, public opinion surveys in Ukraine consistently demonstrate that the majority of Ukrainians – even in eastern regions that the Kremlin calls “pro-Russian” – are opposed to Russia’s land grabs.
The polling data suggests that Putin’s Kremlin enjoys a broad public mandate in Russia to continue, even intensify aggressive and destabilizing policies aimed at Ukraine. It would also seem that Putin can expand a crackdown on his internal opponents without having to worry about a popular backlash.
Where does this leave Russia? The experience of inter-war Germany offers an example of one path a society can take when it becomes obsessed with correcting perceived historical injustices. Let’s hope history won’t repeat itself in this case.