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Putin’s Ratings Fall: Back to the Soft Authoritarian Norm of his ‘Sistema’?

by Gordon M. Hahn

Much has been made in Russian and Western media about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declining approval ratings. However, despite the major ratings decline, Putin’s approval rating remains far above any Western leader. More importantly, his rating remains higher than it has been in long periods of is rule. In other words, the fall in Putin’s rating marks a return from normal after excessively and inordinately high ratings from late 2014 until early 2018.

In  a recent article, I asked: “Is the Vladimir the Great Balancer who has deftly mixed the carrot and the stick to maintain a tentative balance between the myriad regime, autonomous, and opposition elements that comprise Russia’s metastable politics losing his touch?” (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). I have noted many times that Putin is a soft authoritarian with a sharp sense of how much repression is needed in the mix of tools he uses to maintain political stability and his own popularity. I answered that in recent months he appears to have made several miscalculations suggesting he be ‘losing his balance’ or his feel for balancing means, but I also noted that “(n)one of this means that Putin’s sense of balance has declined to such a level that he is fundamentally destabilizing the regime, no less that Putin is about to fall from power” (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). This last point can be elaborated upon.

Putin’a approval rating has fallen precipitously this year in the wake of his 70 percent re-election victory in March. It fell some 16 percent points — from 82 percent to 66 percent — between April and October of this year (www.levada.ru/). Although this is a sharp decline, it has come in the course of several political moves and mistakes (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). Moreover, his rating remains higher than it has been at numerous times in his three previous terms as president, including for some rather long periods. For example, during his last months as prime minister in 2011-2012 through nearly all of the first two years of his third term (2012-2016), Putin’s approval rating was equal or lower than his October 2018 rating of 66 percent. During that nearly two year period, his approval rating was above 66 percent only from March to July 2012 and in that 4-5 month period it fell to 64 percent in June. In November 2013 Putin’s approval rating fell to 61 percent (www.levada.ru/). There was little to no talk of panic in the Kremlin at that time. This low approval rating was even looking up to Putin’s 63 percent rating after the Putin-Medvedev tandem’s announcement that Putin, not President Medvedev would be the Kremlin’s presidential candidate.

If there was any panic in 2011 or 2013, then matters returned to ease with the rise of the Ukrainian crisis that very same month. Through the February 2014 Sochi Olympics and Maidan revolt, the March 2014 counter-revolt in Crimea and then Donbass,  the April 2014 beginning of Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against the primarily ethnic Russian and Russophone population of Donbass, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the course of the Donbass civil war and Russia’s episodic military interventions through 2015, and the slow-burning civil war and creeping fascization of the Maidan Kiev regime Putin’s approval ratings remained high. Thus, Putin’s rising and then persistently high ratings from November 2013 to April 2018, attaining astronomical heights of 80-89 percent from June 2015 to January 2018 were the aberration. ‘Crimea is Ours’ fatigue began to whittle away slowly at Putin’s unusually high ratings from October 2015. Thus, it was the West’s policies which pushed a divided Ukraine to entertain EU and by implication NATO membership, sparking the revolt, and the new oligarchic-ultranationalist Maidan regime’s extremist policies that drove Putin’s approval ratings upwards. Further in terms of Ukraine, it is instructive to compare Putin’s 66 percent approval rating with Maidan regime president Petro Poroshenko, straggling far behind in single digits with a presidential election scheduled this year (http://kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=790&page=1&t=1 and http://kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=753&page=2&t=1). That is a real cause for panic.

Thus, the return of Putin’s approval ratings in the 60-70 percent range is a return to normality for the Kremlin. The glitch in December 2011 was the result of poor election management and crushed hopes of some for a perestroika 2.0 under the more liberal Medvedev continuing in the presidency for another term.

It will be interesting to see if Putin’s rating decline continues and whether it falls to what might be regarded as a watershed low of less than 60 percent. Upon reaching that milestone, the Kremlin may indeed experience some panic, especially those in charge of managing Russia’s soft authoritarian pluralism and limited competition such as First Deputy Presidential Administration Head Sergei Kirienko. At that point, they will have the right to panic, as another wave of precipitous decline could bring Putin to minority approval, the anteroom to instability and a possible regime transformation of some sort. They may act in panic and crackdown or calmly and purposefully begin preparing a strategy for extrication from Putin’s personalist, single party-dominant soft authoritarianism to a democratic transition if nudged by a strong, but moderate democratic opposition.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


  1. A bit of mean reversion, and a bit of Putin spending his hard earned popularity to get important stuff done.
    The sight of a leading politician spending his popularity rating on getting pension reform through must be a bit of a shock to western media.

  2. Mr. Hahn. You spent last year shilling for Navalny and his Children Crusade, insunuating (and even hoping) that Medvedev will be fired either soon before or soon after Putin’s re-election in March. It didn’t happen. Meanwhile, “persecuted” Navalny managed to travel abroad either solo or with his family 15 times this year alone.

    In your last sensationalist blogpost aboit “balance” you again made prediction (i.e. you were hoping) for some kind of political tensions and new wave of protests. It didn’t materialize.

    Mr. Hahn! Maybe it’s time for you to admit that you instead of doing research just re-post what’s trending among the handshakable anti-Kremlin oppos of RuNet? See, I’m not even suggesting for you to become a pro-Kremlin shill, just develop a bit of critical thinking and lose your biases.

  3. Also, this:

    “especially those in charge of managing Russia’s soft authoritarian pluralism and limited competition such as First Deputy Presidential Administration Head Sergei Kirienko.”

    What makes you calling Kirienko of all people the “competition” in any kind or form? Your own deeply informed views and hard data, or you are again re-posting nonsense from RuNet’s liberasts?

    “…to a democratic transition if nudged by a strong, but moderate democratic opposition.”

    Which does not exist.

  4. BTW – where is California’s civil society? 60 dead! If something like this would have happened in Russia, the screech from all handshakable MEDIAs would be up to Heavens, bemoaning the “barbaric, backwards Russia”, and assuring us, that “nothing like this would have ever happened in the Civilized country”.

    So – when shall we expect thousands strong protests demaning resignation of the corrupt governor of California and his Party ofthe Crooks and Thiefs? How about this – let’s make a deal. Russia supplies pro bono the US of A with throngs of handshakable dissidents, professional grant-suckers and eternally kvetching masses. Chalk it as a humanitarian aid and assistance in building your own civil society. Oh, you can keep them – no rush to send them back!

    1. Hey, Mr. Hahn! There are already 1 killed, 100+ wounded, 400+ arrested French protesotors and no end in sight. Downfall of the Macronite Regime when?

      1. And how about Mr. Netanyahu here? The man is actually bombing all of his neighbors, refuses to hold elections, and, besides being a Prime Minister, also holds the post of the Minister of Defense, Minister of Health, Minister of Repatriation (and also of Integration), not to mention Minister of Foreign Affairs. But for Mr. Khan these are all signs of mature democracy, I am sure. Some only see imaginable authoritarianism to distract from real one, it appears.

  5. Can we swop mr Putin for Theresa May?
    I am sure Putin would negotiate a thousand times better with the EU.
    I’m joking but I want to make a point.
    Countries sometimes need particular types of leaders at certain points in their development.

    From my tiny island it’s clear that Russia has far better leadership than most countries in Europe

  6. Macron, Merkel, Trump, May… – all of these world leaders suffer historically low ratings. yet Mr. Khan is desperately looking for panic in Kremlin, where its leader enjoys 66% approval rating IN SPITE OF the latest unpopular liberal reform. It seems that the only real reason for this post is the desire to arbitrarily use the ‘soft authoritarian’ label in regards to Putin – not because the rest of the world leaders are different in their application of power, but because the Hoover Institution doesn’t accept any other “analysis” when it comes to Russia.

      1. I would’ve not commented had I not known and respected your work, Mr. Hahn. The latest report by the US military lists 2 possible scenarios of confrontation with Russia:1) Russia’s attack on the Baltics in 2019, and/or Russia’s cyber attack on the US communications/infrastructure during Russia’s attack on Europe in 2020. Considering that Russia has neither plans, nor capabilities, nor stupidity to even consider these scenarios, one begins to wonder why is our leadership so out of touch with reality. You can’t win if you can’t even see where the danger is (or isn’t). And that makes me think that, in a large part, the fault lies with the experts who choose easy ideological narrative instead of more honest realistic one. To pretend that slight dip in approval ratings of an immensely popular national leader is a sign of the beginning of his downfall falls into the former category – and it’s regrettable.

      2. No, instead you:

        1) Spent most of 2017 and part of 2018 shilling for Navalny, “predicting” Medvedev’s inevitable downfall.

        2) Were making ominous predictions that there are good chances for the inner circle to oust Putin (a secret hope of all mildly Russophobic Westerners).

        3) Devoting 2 blogposts this September to “predict” things that are more in tune with not-mildly but full-bore Russophobic Westerners, like:

        “The pension reform debacle and recent losses for his ruling party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) in gubernatorial elections are two signs of something gone awry. ”


        “Whatever the causes, Putin and/or his regime appear to have let loose needlessly a ripple of instability. In politics, ripples sometimes grow into tidal waves. Putin and his allies would prefer to see still waters, as ice on a pound.”

        Granted, you are good at arse-covering act with all this “may”, “appear to”, “sometimes” and “maybe”. In that case everything you write is just worthless exercise in shamanism (of the Far North variety) – not a fact based science.

  7. Mr. Hahn, the French are protesting right now new hike in fuel prices. There are already dozens of thousands protesting. Sadly, according to the latest reports, 47 protesters are wounded and 1 dead as a result of the brutal police crackdown on the peaceful protesters that “clearly went beyond the pale of propriety in police conduct” (c).

    It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of the French people oppose his fuel policies, and it seems as though a large rift is growing between the French leadership and their people. How do you think – does it signify the beginning of end for the soft authoritarian Macronite Regime? Surely, France been a Republic with centuries long history, vibrant and mature civil society, a true Western liberal democracy and market capitalist country, this mean that the Citizens would not allow themselves to be trampled by the Tyranny! Doubtless, the International Community ™ will also demand restrain from the French Regime and sanction it severely for any instance of violence against its own citizenry.

    Right, Mr. Hahn?

  8. Over 100 000 protestors in France as of right now. 130 of them were ruthlessly arrested by the police, which, clearly, resorts to unprovoked violence against their peaceful fellow citizens.

    Macron – la-la-la-la! Down with the Neo-Bonapartist tyranny! Quick, send Zhirinovsky to Champs Elysee, where he’d be giving pelmeni and pirozhki to the revolutionary masses!

    P.S. Why international community, civil society, shy and conscientious intelligentsia are silent about this?

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