The American Interest

Putin’s Uneasy Balancing Act

“Putin, the master of the game, controls all the pieces on the chessboard and carefully divides up the areas of power,” writes influential French columnist Christine Ockrent in her most recent book, Les Oligarques.  Her view is shared by most Western analysts and media commentators, regardless of their position on the person and policies of the Russian president.  Until a year ago, I was broadly inclined to share this assessment.  Five trips to Moscow since last March have made me change my mind.  It is clear that the reality is more complex.

Putin’s sky-high approval rating, consistently above 80 percent, is mostly thanks to his foreign and security policy.  That level of support may waver if the sanctions start having a detrimental effect on Russian living standards.  The ruble has already lost some 40 percent of its value against the leading Western currencies over the past nine months, and inflation—while still in the upper single digits—is on the rise.  More importantly, Putin’s personal rating does not reflect the Russians’ attitude to their government as a whole.  When asked about some specific institutions, such as the cabinet of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, many Russians express misgivings that translate into approval levels of 60 percent—still very high by Western standards, but well below those of the president.

Putin’s...

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