Stories by Aaron Schwartzbaum

Expert Voices

Putin's popularity comes back down to earth

Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a lunch with Turkmenistan's President
President Vladimir Putin during a lunch with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow at the Bocharov Ruchei residence. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

Russia's annexation of Crimea propelled President Vladimir Putin's popularity to stratospheric highs — up to 80% — where it hovered for years. Now, economic stagnation and unpopular policies such as a value-added tax hike and, critically, pension reform have dragged his ratings back down. Recent polling shows his approval down to the neighborhood of 60%.

Why it matters: Putin is still a popular leader by international standards, though his approval has dropped back to pre-Crimea levels — a time when he faced serious political protest. Unlike in 2012, however, Putin will find it difficult to pin the economic sources of the decline on a foreign plot, and, absent the right opportunity abroad, will struggle to divert the Russian populace's increasing dissatisfaction with its stagnant fortunes.

Aaron Schwartzbaum founded and writes a column for BMB Russia, a daily news brief from the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Expert Voices

Fixed Russian election still has stakes for Putin

President Putin gives a speech while campaigning for re-election
President Putin. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is all but guaranteed to win Russia's presidential election on Sunday. Voter turnout, on the other hand, is less certain. The Kremlin has set a target of 70% to secure the appearance of Putin's legitimacy, but, according to recent polling by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, no more than 67% of voters plan to show up. Should too few voters turn out, that might hand Putin margin of victory high enough to look illegitimate.

Why it matters: Putin isn't just looking ahead to his next term — he's looking at his own political future. He will need a resounding and legitimate-looking win to jump-start the term, as well as to plan for what happens beyond 2024 — when, for now at least, he is again barred from remaining president.

Expert Voices

Putin refocusing at home in 2018

Vladimir Putin seated at microphone during meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in December 2017. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Putin has delayed his yearly address to the Federal Assembly (Russia's equivalent of the State of the Union) until later in February — ostensibly to boost intrigue surrounding the election. Reports suggest he will use the speech to lay out the agenda for his presumptive next term, one that will feature potentially painful reforms such as tax increases or a higher retirement age, alongside popular spending increases on education and healthcare.

Why it matters: Due to years of economic contraction and stagnation, Russians are increasingly demanding measures to improve their living standards. Over Putin's last term, Russia's foreign policy was trumpeted at home largely in place of a real domestic agenda, with "making Russia great again" sufficient to garner votes.