Stability has always been the main promise legitimizing Vladimir Putin’s monopolization of political power in Russia. Restoration of stability was the winning slogan for Putin in 2012, in claiming the presidency back from his pliant stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev, who had tried to experiment with modernization. And Putin’s reelection in 2018 also utilized a stability-centered propaganda campaign. The shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the protracted pain from ensuing economic dislocation and political turmoil produced a strong desire for smooth sailing with a strong hand on the rudder among a majority of Russians; and the sharp crisis of 2008 only reinforced that preference. Yet, presently, this “majority” has shrunk to statistical insignificance. A recent opinion poll shows that 59 percent of Russians expect and see a need for profound changes, and 31 percent concede that at least some change is necessary (Vedomosti, November 6).
Polling in Russia is often merely a measure of propaganda effectiveness, and the Kremlin leader’s approval rating of 70 percent primarily illustrates the population’s understandable reluctance to express risky dissent from the “politically correct” mainstream (Levada.ru, October 31). The above-mentioned polling about the need for change, on the other hand, was part of an in-depth research project examining expectations among various age groups and in different Russian regions. Indeed, the survey found opposition to change only among members of the state bureaucracy (Carngie.ru, November 6). Youth discontent with the increasingly oppressive state was revealed by the summer wave of protests in Moscow; but there is also deep disappointment among 45–60-year-olds regarding the wasted years of stagnation (Novaya Gazeta, November 6). The impact of TV propaganda on Russians is diminishing, while the authorities cannot find effective means to curtail social networks or to censor the Internet—on which Putin remains exceptionally ignorant (Newsru.com, November 7).
The single most important source of public anxiety—and the strongest driver of the overwhelming desire for change—is the protracted contraction of household incomes (Forbes.ru, November 6). The government prioritizes the interests of oversized state corporations and their corruptly rich managers, and so it cannot suggest a way out of the tightening “low income trap” (RBC, November 6). For a few years, this problem was camouflaged by the stimulation of cheap credit, but now household indebtedness has reached a record-high level and generates more angst (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 31). No satisfying explanation exists for why Russia’s currency reserves continue to increase (now 7.5 percent of the GDP) while health care services appallingly deteriorate and the pension system seriously underperforms (Moscow Echo, November 5).
Russians’ worries about the pain of economic reforms are now evolving into impressions that the government is ignoring the grievances of the impoverished populace and is willing to sabotage all meaningful reform plans (Kommersant, October 29). The demand for economic improvement translates, therefore, into a growing desire for political change (Svoboda.org, November 7). Putin tries to neutralize this public mood by reshuffling the ranks of regional governors, but it has become quite obvious that these replacements make little if any difference, while the strong disapproval of the performance of the government remains unaddressed (Moscow Echo, November 6). The Kremlin gives elliptic comments about the public longing for change but is unwilling to acknowledge that this demand goes to the very top (RIA Novosti, November 6).
The most reliable deflectors of such popular aspirations used to be the exploitation of security-related discourse and the mobilization of public opinion against external threats. The fear of war is, in fact, strongly pronounced among Russians’ typical concerns, ranking above the fear of poverty; but at the same time, militarization conspicuously fails to produce any surge of support for the commander-in-chief (Levada.ru, October 29). Advertising of extra-modern weapons systems has become repetitive and much less convincing after the recent series of accidents, including the failed test and explosion of the prototype nuclear-propelled missile 9M730 Burevestnik—one of Putin’s pet projects (Novaya Gazeta, September 25). “Patriotic” propaganda paints the picture of a modern and combat-ready Russian army, but a much uglier reality is exposed by news reports of a brutal hazing resulting in a deadly multiple shooting at a unit guarding one of Russia’s nuclear storage sites (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 7).
Public support for an assertive foreign policy based on power projection is also on the wane. The four-year intervention in Syria has been increasingly unpopular since at least 2018: only 30 percent of Russians supported its continuation as of last April, while 55 percent wanted the troops to return home (Levada.ru, May 6). Putin has tried to reenergize residual support by putting a heavy spin on the deal done with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi, on October 23, 2019, but avoiding any mention of the costs related to the new troop deployments patrolling around the Turkish “buffer zone” (Valdaiclub.com, November 8). So far, the dubious “memorandum of understanding” granting Turkey sufficient fruits from its military incursion has not been tested by counter-strikes, but Russia is clearly not ready for the probable complications, nor is it able to invest meaningful resources in Syria’s post-war reconstruction (Rosbalt, November 7; see EDM, October 28).
The most consequential deadlock in Russian foreign policy is shaped by its aggression against Ukraine; no amount of diplomatic maneuvering around the Minsk agreements can convert the occupation of Donbass into a “victory,” while the rational choice of withdrawal would inevitably signify defeat (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 5). Putin pushes Gazprom to subject Ukraine to more blatant blackmail, expecting that a new “natural gas war” will be detrimental for Kyiv’s ties with Europe (Izvestia, November 6). Under this heavy pressure, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is performing above most expectations, and his far-reaching readiness to resolve Ukraine’s predicament constitutes a major challenge to Putin’s policy of making and exploiting persistent troubles.
Zelenskyy personifies the idea of an incredible but feasible political change, which erodes the foundation of the seemingly solid and patently undemocratic regime in Russia. And so this makes the Ukrainian head of state the single most important target for vicious slandering by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Putin tries to stretch his “father of the nation” role to cover all matters of public concern—from health care to linguistic debates to artificial intelligence—but these only demonstrate his archaic mindset and hostility to innovation. Many Russians may be confused and disturbed by the speed of change in everyday life, but resistance to such change is increasingly recognized as a losing political proposition.