Russian election: Western demonization of Putin has made him more popular in Russia

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Russian election: Western demonization of Putin has made him more popular in Russia
Western leaders and opinion formers believed sanctions and economic pressure would encourage Russians to turn against Vladimir Putin. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

If you’re not Russian, you probably haven’t heard of Aleksey Pushkov. He’s an influential academic, politician, and media personality who once ran the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma (the lower house of the parliament) and is widely considered to be close to the Kremlin.

In the early hours of Monday morning, as the extent of Vladimir Putin’s latest presidential victory became clear, he took to Twitter to make a very important point: “western demonization of Putin inspires the opposite effect in Russia. Instead, citizens rally around him. And the election results confirm this.” 

Pushkov is correct. Because Putin’s latest landslide was partially made in the West.

Slowing Tide

To understand why, we need to rewind the clock to 2011. Back then, on the surface at least, Russia was doing well economically. The ruble was trading around 30 to the US dollar and the price of oil was high. While the country’s reliance on the latter resource was always a poor long-term strategy, it provided easy money. And this meant Russians could afford to travel to places, and buy imported products, which Soviet citizens could only have dreamed of, two decades earlier.

Despite this, a considerable amount of people weren’t happy. And when the sitting president, Dmitry Medvedev, announced in September that he was stepping aside to support Putin’s (who was serving as prime minister) return to the Kremlin, anger grew in some sections of society, especially the pro-business and liberal factions. You see, for them, Medvedev represented the promise of liberalization and westernization, and the return of Putin was seen as a step backwards towards nationalism, conservatism, and even authoritarianism.

In December, the Duma election took place, with United Russia, the party associated with Putin and Medvedev, failing to win a majority of the vote. Some alleged the contest had been falsified and the party’s real share was even smaller.

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As a result, protests kicked off, largely centered in Moscow. But there were also demonstrations in many provincial cities, including Khabarovsk, more than 8,000km from Moscow, where I resided at the time.

At this moment, one thing was very clear: many Russians sought a new sense of identity, and the various post-Soviet factions were heading for a showdown. One which took place over the following months.

In December, the Western media had decided to christen the unrest as the ‘Snow Revolution’, a meme which conjured memories of similar events in Ukraine and Georgia, labelled ‘Orange’ and ‘Rose’ respectively.

And this was a serious error because Russians weren’t looking for the overthrow of their state. And, at least in the heartland, many feared a return to the anarchy of the 1990s. Thus, while certain capital city circles sizzled with talk of revolution, where I was living, people seemed horrified by the very idea. “This is the rich Moscow elite marching, these guys have nothing in common with me,” was a typical statement. While others seemed to think the protestors were ungrateful, because, after all, their very prosperity was mostly down to Putin, who had inherited a basket case economy in 2000 and greatly improved living standards.

Nevertheless, things became very tense for a while, with no less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev publicly calling for Putin to resign.  Of course, Putin didn’t heed Gorby’s call. Instead, he continued his presidential campaign and in March 2012, won handsomely, with a score of 63% nationally, but only 46% in Moscow.

Mixed Signals

Now, this is where I need to explain something: the 2011/12 protests were, more or less, a “big smoke” phenomenon. And it explains  why Western media correspondents, who are all based in Moscow and have little understanding of the rest of Russia, beyond its occasional novelty value, made their readers and viewers believe something substantial was stirring when the reality was less dramatic. Because, in a place like Khabarovsk, the movement gained no traction beyond a bit of muttering in cafes and between close family and friends.

Putin realized this and learned a lesson. In his first two terms, he’d probably spent too much time worrying about the Moscow elite. From now on, he was going to focus on his base, the ordinary folk who keep Russia working. And little did he know at the time, but the West was about to lend a helping hand.

The Kremlin believed Hillary Clinton had interfered in Russia’s 2011/12 unrest, but her influence was limited, even if Putin’s team regarded it as a betrayal. However, America’s behavior in Ukraine in 2013/14 was another matter entirely. This was the US openly intervening in street protests in Russia’s neighbor and Clinton’s former assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, was leading the charge – eventually even going so far as choosing a new government in the aftermath. 

For Russians, it was incredible. Ukraine, home to entire regions where ethnic Russians constitute a significant majority, was, as they saw it, being destabilized in a Western-backed coup. Something which meant that Crimea, part of Russia for hundreds of years until Nikita Khrushchev signed it away in the 1950s, could have feasibly wound up housing NATO bases.

Thus, when Putin decided to reabsorb the peninsula in the spring of 2014, his popularity ratings reached unprecedented levels. Because Russians believed the West had betrayed them. And, since then, the EU and the US have played into his hands.

Wide Awake

Russians are fully aware of Western scaremongering about their country and the demonization of their president. They see it on news sites, across social media, and on TV. And the ones who can’t understand English can even read Russian translations of the Western press on a dedicated website, Inosmi (which, incidentally, is state funded). Furthermore, in addition to the constant barrage of media delirium, the NATO countries’ sanctions policy has created a besieged fortress mentality in Russia.

Indeed, Andrey Kondrashov, Putin's campaign spokesman, summed this up on Sunday night. “Turnout is higher than we expected, by about 8-10 percent, for which we must say thanks to Great Britain,” he said with tongue surely in cheek, referring to the fallout from a spy poisoning drama in the UK. “We were pressured exactly at the moment when we needed to mobilize [voters]. Whenever Russia is accused of something indiscriminately and without any evidence, the Russian people unite around the center of power. And the center of power is certainly Putin today.” 

In 2012, Putin was under pressure in Moscow, but this weekend he secured over 70% of the vote in the capital. And in St. Petersburg, where he managed 58% six years ago, he can now boast a 75% score. And it has happened at a time when Russians have endured a deep recession, with falling real wages, during a painful, but necessary, economic restructuring after the previous resource-driven model exhausted itself.

Today, even liberal, educated, and cosmopolitan dwellers of the two big cities generally support the status of Crimea and now resent the West for its anti-Russia hysteria. Whereas in 2011-12, many saw the US as a country to aspire to, now they are disappointed with Washington and believe the US to be fundamentally opposed to respecting any of Russia’s vital interests.

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Thus, ironically, a Western policy aimed at weakening Putin and reducing Russian resolve has completely backfired. Eighteen years after he first entered the Kremlin, the president’s position has never been stronger, or more secure. And he can thank the dysfunctional and self-destructive policy of the United States and the European Union. A lot of which is influenced by too much reliance on “Russia experts” who don’t really understand the country at all. And it shows.

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