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Putin Forever? Russian President's Ratings Skyrocket Over Ukraine

According to pollsters, Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings have been soaring since his country's annexation of Crimean in March.
According to pollsters, Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings have been soaring since his country's annexation of Crimean in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying almost unprecedented job-approval ratings in his country.

And the only reason for this popularity surge, sociologists say, is Russia's tough stance on Ukraine.

"A fierce anti-Ukrainian campaign was launched," says leading sociologist Lev Gudkov, the head of Russia's independent Levada polling center. "Authorities have used the language of war, the language of the 'fight against fascism,' of mass consolidation and unification."

Despite Western anger at Russia's role in fomenting separatist unrest in Ukraine – including its dramatic annexation of Crimea -- Moscow's crusade against what it portrays as a neo-Nazi threat emanating from Kyiv is paying off at home.

According to a survey published last week by the Levada Center, a staggering 83 percent of Russians approve Putin's performance as president.

It is an 18 percentage-point hike since the beginning of the year and just short of his 88 percent record, reached in September 2008, the month after Russia's war against Georgia over the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia.

That Putin should be especially popular when his country is locked in bitter military standoffs is no coincidence.

During each of the three conflicts waged under his leadership -- in Chechnya, Georgia, and now in Ukraine -- Putin has tapped into Russian national pride and a deep-seated feeling that Russians are misunderstood by the West.

"Every peak is accompanied by this kind of militaristic, belligerent rhetoric, by a patriotic surge," Gudkov says. "If you look at the history of attitudes toward Putin, the first rise came during the second Chechen war, the bombings in Moscow. At the time, ratings literally hit the roof in the space of two months."

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A separate study conducted in April by Russia's state-funded polling agency VTSiOM showed that 82 percent of respondents thought their country played an important role in global affairs, compared to only 58 percent six years ago.

One-quarter said Russia had a "very large influence" on global affairs, and more than half labeled its role "quite influential."

In spite of international sanctions slapped on Russia in recent weeks, Putin may actually owe his political survival to Ukraine.

Before the crisis erupted in Kyiv last fall, his ratings had been at an all-time low.

In September 2013, a Levada poll assessing Putin's personal popularity, as opposed to his job approval rating, found that fewer than half of Russians viewed him positively.

Even the lavish $51 billion Olympic Games held in February in Sochi, Putin's pet project, failed to boost his ratings by more than 3-4 percent. "I thought this fall was irreversible," Gudkov admits.

Of course, Putin did not engineer the Maidan protests in Kyiv that sparked the Ukrainian crisis.

But as Russian "Vedomosti" journalist Maksim Trudolyubov points out, Putin has "an incredibly good feeling for situations" and was able to use the turmoil to his advantage.

With the situation in eastern Ukraine rapidly descending into chaos and bloodshed, however, analysts say the Russian president is playing with fire.

Trudolyubov says the annexation of Crimea, in particular, could eventually lead to a backlash against the Kremlin.

"The political processes launched in recent months are uncontrollable," warns Trudolyubov. "No one can be 100-percent sure that the conflict in Ukraine will be manageable, that it can be heated and cooled down at command. It was an effective but also extremely risky move."

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