(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) Analysts have identified many reasons President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022. One major explanation rests on Putin’s illiberal ideology and a desire to return Russia to Soviet-era glory, which, in his outlook, includes controlling Ukraine. Leading up to the invasion, however, Putin’s popularity had hit a historic low, but it sharply increased after the war began. It is also notable that Putin’s approval rating was dwindling just before Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine, and it rose dramatically afterward—similar to this year’s dynamics.
Putin’s beliefs play a large role not only in his desire to dominate Ukraine but also in how the Kremlin sells the war to the Russian public. According to Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson, Putin can be sensitive to public opinion as much as he tries to manipulate it. Although public opinion did not trigger the invasion, it will have consequences on the future form of the conflict.
Illiberalism and Justification for War
Illiberal ideology is a central component of Putin’s worldview, and for the most part, it has appealed to the Russian public. All issues—social, economic, cultural, and the war with Ukraine—have been filtered through Putin’s illiberal lens. In the new Journal of Illiberalism Studies, Marlene Laruelle defines illiberalism as “a new ideological universe that resists different forms of liberalism and advocates for majoritarian solutions that defend traditional social hierarchies, whether religious, national, patriarchal, or heteronormative.” A focus on national sovereignty and opposition to the “undemocratic liberalism” and hypocrisy of international organizations is a major component of illiberal ideologies. Illiberalism, it seems, can explain anything.
According to Putin’s illiberal perspective, if the Russian economy falters, it is the fault of what he considers illegal sanctions imposed by Western countries and international organizations, not because of Putin’s poor management or a failure of the government. Also, in keeping with illiberal ideology, the Kremlin simultaneously claims that Western military aid is preventing a peace negotiation and, illogically, is simultaneously ineffective in helping the Ukrainians defeat Russian attacks.
Russian illiberalism is crucial for understanding Putin’s view of his negotiating position in the current war and his justifications to the public. In the mind of Putin and many of his supporters, Russia must assert its right to its national sovereignty and should not be swayed by what they might consider the undemocratic and dangerous ideas advanced by international organizations and Western countries concerning minority rights and non-traditional values. Russia may suffer as a result of doing this, but the justification is that Russia must take these measures.
Russian Public Support for the War is Complicated
Public opinion did not drive the decision to invade Ukraine. Russians did not report high levels of support in December 2021, when only 8 percent of respondents supported Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was directly motivated by his declining popularity. Indeed, before the war began, some observers speculated that Putin was willing to invade even if the move was detrimental to Russia and unpopular.
Since the 2009 global financial recession, Putin has headed a government plagued by economic stagnation and lackluster social services despite repeated promises to improve schools, healthcare, daycares, and infrastructure. Many Russians in the early 2000s became accustomed to a standard of living that declined after the financial crisis. Observers frequently speculated about how long Putin and United Russia could keep up with this situation in which there were stagnating standards of living and poor state-provided social services. Protests erupted periodically, including complaints about things like raising the retirement age.
By 2013, Putin’s approval ratings hit an all-time low, with something like only a little over 60 percent of Russian citizens approving of Putin, a number that was exceptionally low for the long-standing president. This was quickly followed by an invasion of Crimea and fierce support for separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Russia’s invasion and subsequent acquisition of Crimea were enormously popular in Russia. Putin’s approval ratings in 2014 shot up into the high 80s. The problem of socioeconomic stagnation was temporarily solved.
Since 2014, however, social services and socioeconomic conditions in Russia have continued to decline. Putin’s apparent “rally around the flag” bump in 2014 gradually eroded. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia in March 2020, and it experienced one of the highest excess death rates in the world. The government’s response was inconsistent; it relied early and heavily on developing a vaccine that, ultimately, many Russians were unwilling to take. There were lockdowns across the country and the brief introduction of an electronic propusk (pass) system used as enforcement. In April 2021, Andrei Semenov noted in a policy memo that “It is not the first time the regime faces a combination of challenging factors. However, it is more than ever unclear whether the recipes that have worked so far will remain efficient.” The pandemic itself did not provoke an anti-government turn, but the accelerated decline in social services and economic conditions certainly did not help.
By 2022, Putin’s approval ratings were back down, with only a little over 60 percent of citizens liking his performance. The economy suffered from rising unemployment. Social services continued to suffer in many areas. Russians in rural areas continued to complain about poor infrastructure, including the poor quality of roads and suffered from a lack of decent healthcare services.
Amidst these declining socioeconomic conditions, Putin now falsely claims that there is a genocide against ethnic Russians committed by the Ukrainian government, which he also falsely claims is run by neo-Nazis. For now, he has also sold the public on his illiberal justification for invading Ukraine even though public opinion clearly did not drive the decision. Reliable and independent polling data from April 2022 shows high levels of support in Russia for the war against Ukraine, with 81 percent of respondents supporting the attack.
In late February and early March of 2022, however, there were signs of a vocal minority opposing the war. There were reports of protests across dozens of Russian cities and thousands of arrests, and thousands have left the country. Large-scale vocal protests, however, had died down by April 2022. While some public dissent remains, it is not clear whether mass protests against the war will return. Protests are especially hard to organize because there are no obvious opposition leaders with the clout to organize mass protests. The prominent opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, was jailed in January 2021 and transferred recently to a harsh, maximum-security prison.
The Russian government’s authoritarian tactics, already increasing before the war, ramped up even more to address opposition to the war. There are virtually no free and independent media remaining in the country. Independent outlets in Russia have been forced to close, the Kremlin cracked down on social media services like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and many Western media outlets have left the country. A new law was implemented against spreading “fake information” about the war against Ukraine that comes with a 15-year prison sentence if convicted. The remaining media outlets in Russia have been instructed not to use words such as “war” to describe what is happening.
The big unanswered question is how deep and enduring support for Putin’s war against Ukraine will be. Will Russian citizens really continue to support a war that further isolates them day-by-day and requires an increasing number of young conscripts to die? Even support for the first war in Chechnya declined significantly in the 1990s. In this war, the breadth of sanctions and isolation are already imposing high costs on Russians and their everyday lives. Putin’s illiberal ideology may be helping him sell the war for now, but with Kremlin narratives already shifting, the question is how long that can last.
In previous times, brave journalists like Svetlana Alexievich wrote about the horrors of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and others like Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya wrote about the atrocities in Chechnya. We might hope that another daring figure would emerge to bring to light the horrific war crimes being committed by Russia in Ukraine today and, in turn, perhaps dampen public support. With the Russian state in full authoritarian mode and opposition leaders like Navalny imprisoned, we might have to wait a long time before public opinion turns against Putin, his ideology, and his war.
Sarah Wilson Sokhey is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder.
 See: Samuel Greene, “The Informational Dictator’s Dilemma: Citizen Responses to Media Censorship and Control in Russia and Belarus,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 780, June 2022.