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Journalist’s Notebook: As the war in Ukraine drags on, Putin’s high popularity rating in Russia is in question


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Lev Gudkov insists his March opinion poll giving Russian President Vladimir Putin high marks is honest. He says he gets asked about it every day because people want to know if Russians are telling pollsters the truth or hiding their feelings for fear of repercussions.

But he is convinced that his interlocutors did not lie about Putin and this war. Gudkov, who is director of the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling firm, says the idea that Russians are afraid to tell the truth about politics is a concept mostly spread by dissidents, because they are the ones who know the high price of speaking out and have a heightened sensitivity to it.

Gudkov insists everyone in Russia is pretty much under the spell of the state TV propaganda that has been pumped into their brains incessantly over the past few years, repeating Kremlin lines.

For collaborating with some American universities, the Levada Center has been labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. This means it is under constant threat of “repression or liquidation”, Gudkov said, and Russian organizations have been ordered not to work with the group.

Yet it continues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Yerevan, Armenia.
(Shutterstock)

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Levada’s latest March poll found that 83% of Russians approve of President Putin’s actions and that number has been rising steadily since the summer. It was 61% then and rose to 65% in January, 71% in February and 83% now that the war has started. About 81% specifically support the war.

“That’s normal,” Gudkov explains, “for the start of a military mobilization. In the fall of last year, propaganda and demagoguery really intensified.”

“Anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian sentiment was stirred, and we had never seen such fear of the real possibility of war before. Seventy-three percent of people were afraid of a world war,” he told Fox News.

Gudkov said that due to Russia’s censorship and extreme lack of independent media, the high ratings – what many would call surprisingly high – for the invasion of Ukraine reflected the power of the Kremlin propaganda.

Putin, following Biden comments, says Russia knows "how to defend our own interests."

Putin, following Biden’s comments, says Russia knows “how to look after its own interests.”
(Reuters)

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Gudkov explained, however, that opinions varied between villages and small and medium towns and large cities. In major cities, he said, the prevailing mood was “shame, despair, depression, anxiety and discouragement” about the war, he said.

“Where people are more educated, more informed, I would say that the atmosphere is rather panicky. The big cities were the first to feel the effect of the sanctions and to understand the catastrophic situation that this will cause in a few months,” Gudkov said. explained, adding that the economic hardships hitting the cities will eventually travel to the heart of the country – and when that happens, opinion there could also change.

There was something called the “Crimean Consensus” which Putin achieved after annexing the fabled peninsula. Then his popularity soared to 89%. There was broad consensus that the patriotic moment is over, and so is the boost the president got from it. It is unlikely that this war with its thousands of dead soldiers will have the same impact on society.

“It doesn’t compare to 2014, when there were strong emotions and euphoria about Crimea and the feeling that Russia was once again a great power,” Gudkov said.

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He said anti-Americanism was on the rise. About 73% of Russians had a negative opinion of the United States. Gudkov said feelings about America rise and fall in proportion to the volume and tenor of propaganda released by state media. It was intense during the NATO bombing of Belgrade, the war in Georgia, the capture of Crimea – and as a result anti-Americanism soared at those times.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has not produced credible evidence of a “Nazi” problem in Ukraine.

“Of course there isn’t,” he replied. “It’s a way to discredit the enemy. For Putin, a successful Ukraine integrated into the European Union is a threat to the stability of his regime.”


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