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It's Not 'Putin's Russia' - It's 'Russia's Putin'

It is not Russia which is a reflection of Vladimir Putin, but rather Putin who is a relection of his country's politics and values

Originally appeared at Gordan Hahn's Blog


Western observers often use the term ‘Putin’s Russia’ in discussing developments in Russian politics, economics, society, and culture. This has become a ‘meme’ of sorts. Its use is usually an effort to imply the Russian political regime’s authoritarianism—relatively soft, in this author’s view—under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Raising the point of Putin’s authoritarianism in one’s work, preferably at the outset of any piece of writing, is requisite if one hopes to get published nowadays. The phrase ‘Putin’s Russia’ is often intended to lead the reader to make the inferences, such as ‘the Russia of Putin’, the ‘Russia that Putin controls’, ‘Putin controls Russia’, ‘Putin controls part (most) of Russian life’, or the preferable ‘Putin controls everything in Russia.’ However, but the real operational dynamic in the relationship between Putin and ‘his’ Russia is quite the reverse – ‘Russia’s Putin.’

Putin like most other Russians today is very much a product of the late Soviet and post-Soviet Russian experience. This includes all those born before 1980 or so, meaning they experienced the Soviet demise. For these Russians the formative political experiences were the Soviet meltdown and collapse. To one degree or another, the political, economic, social, cultural, and civilizational preferences of these generations of Russians reflect those of Putin, and Putin’s reflects those of Russia and Russians. We can ignore the phenomenon or aspect of Russia’s Putin and consider Russia to be in some twisted state of inorganic subordination to Putin—one manufactured by Putin and his allies. But we would be better off appreciating the extent to which Putin actually represents Russia and its population’s dominant preferences and then make policy accordingly.

A key pillar in the ‘Putin’s Russia’ meme is that the Kremlin controls all mass media in Russia and thus shapes the minds of Russians to Putin’s needs and liking. I have discussed numerous times elsewhere the extent to which this is a misleading exaggeration. In addition to the regime’s having far from full control over television in Russia, the Internet remains almost entirely free, and there are a plethora of independent radio channels and print media. Moreover, there is significant pluralism of views on state-owned, ‘Putin’s media’, including, for example, state-run television, the main source of news for most Russians. In fact, on a series of political talk shows on state channels one regularly meets anti-Putin Americans and other foreigners living in Moscow openly expressing their disdain for Putin, Russian policy and even Russia as a whole.

We can ‘bust’ the misconception communicated by the ‘Putin’s Russia’ meme as well as that portraying a mythical total and totalitarian effect of television and state media in general on public opinion by comparing Russian public opinion with Putin’s views on the eve of his rise to power. This period–the late 1990s–was one in which neither Putin nor the state controlled mass media in Russia to any significant degree whatsoever. In order to explore and verify the ‘Putin’s Russia’ and ‘state television society myths, I will analyse public opinion and Putin’s opinion on three key foreign policy issues—NATO expansion, Ukraine, and Syria—in the late 1990s and more contemporaneously. I might address the consistency or lack thereof between Putin and Russia on domestic policy issues perhaps at another time. Here, I will demonstrate that a meme of ‘Russia’s Putin’ is no less part and likely a much more salient aspect of today’s Russia than that of ‘Putin’s Russia’.

NATO Expansion, ‘Putin’s Russia’ and Russia’s Putin

Continuing expansion of NATO and the Yugoslav wars created a strong majority against NATO in Russian public opinion. By March 1999, 69 percent of Russians, according to a VTsIOM opinion survey, felt to one degree or another that Russia had something to fear in countries joining NATO, only 31 percent did not think so.[1] By June 1999, VTsIOM found that 73 percent of Russian citizens had a negative view of NATO, 27 percent – a positive view.[2] This was particularly true regarding NATO expansion to former Soviet republics.

NATO’s reputation among Russians deteriorated with each round of expansion and especially with the alliance’s bombing of Yugoslavia. For example, in April 1996, a VTsIOM poll found that 55 percent of survey respondents opposed NATO membership for the Baltic states, Ukraine and “other” former Soviet republics now independent states, while 19 percent approved and 26 percent were indifferent.[3] As the Yugloslav crisis deepened, the West began discussing NATO intervention in the war, and NATO prepared to accept the Visegrad three into the alliance at its April 1997 summit, Russians responded in a repeat VTsIOM poll revealing that now 61 percent were opposed, 17 percent were for, and 21 percent were indifferent.[4] One month later, as NATO bombs fell on Yugoslavia, another repeat VTsIOM survey showed 64 percent were now opposed, 19 percent were for, and 17 percent were indifferent.[5] By the time Putin had come to power, a 2001 survey showed a strong majority of Russians, 75 percent, were increasingly convinced that NATO was subordinated to the American national interest rather than those of all its members (25 percent).[6]

As the number of accessions to NATO and MAPs for the NATO accession process grew through the 2000s, Russians developed an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards NATO. According to VTsIOM opinion surveys, between November 2001 and November 2011 most of what positive sentiment towards NATO and by extension the U.S. and the West remained among Russians after the 1990s had disappeared. In November 2001 and November 2011 VTsIOM polls, respondents were asked to choose among Russian policy options in relation to NATO; 16 precent and 4 percent, respectively, supported an effort to join the alliance; 36 and 43 percent chose trying to improve relations with it; and 16 and 29 percent supported formation of an alternative alliance.[7] Similarly, polls showed that from 2005 to 2009 the percentage of Russians supporting the creation of a counter-alliance had more than doubled from 16 to 39 percent, and the proportions who supported seeking cooperation with NATO dropped from 52 to 33 percent.[8] Moreover, the portion of Russians that saw NATO as a Russian national security threat doubled from ‘only’ 21 percent of respondents in 2003 to 41 percent by 2009.[9] In 2009-2011 approximately 60 percent of Russians, with marginal variation (59-62 percent), considered NATO expansion to the east as a threat to Russian national security.[10]

A rare case of Putin going sharply against the grain of Russian (and his own) opinion came a month after his inauguration when he suddenly changed colors and said it was possible Russia might one day join NATO. Indeed, a VTsIOM poll found that only 30 percent of respondents approved of Putin’s statement, 31 percent expressed bewilderment, 21 percent – outrage, and 19 percent – indifference.[11] This turns the favored Western expression ‘Putin’s Russia’ on its head. Putin’s views on NATO expansion are well-known.

Less well-known is the concurrence between Putin’s standard opposition to NATO expansion and that of his predecessor, expressed in very similar terms. It is now long-forgotten that the Russians and Yeltsin personally began to resist NATO expansion early on at least with regard to the former Soviet republics. The first open break over NATO came at the 1 December 1994, when Russian Foreign Minister traveled to Brussels to sign a Partnership for Peace agreement with the alliance but instead refused to sign in protest of a NATO communique` released earlier in the day proclaiming a policy of NATO expansion. On December 5th, Yeltsin protested against attempts “from a single capitol”—(that is, Washington)—to decide “the destinies of whole continents and the world community as a whole” and warned this was pushing Europe “into a cold peace.”[12] That Yeltsin sounded precisely like his successor would over the next decade of continuing NATO expansion demonstrates that the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations has had more to do with that expansion than with ‘Putin’s Russia.’

Indeed, Putin seemed to channeling his late predecessor when he took to the rostrum on 10 February 2007 at the annual Munich Conference of Security Policy and castigated NATO expansion, unipolarity in international relations, and American unilateralism: “More and more we are witness to the flouting of the basic principles of international law. Above all the rights of one state are overtaking separate norms, indeed the entire system of (international) law. The United States is overstepping its national borders in every field: in economics, in politics, even in the humanitarian sphere….And this, of course, is very dangerous. …Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy. We are not going to change this tradition today.”[13]

This demonstrates considerable continuity, consistency, and relative ubiquity in Russia regarding the view that NATO expansion portends nothing good for the country’s national interests and security.

Russia’s then seeming acceptance of NATO expansion had more to do with Russians’ traditional sense of honor and ability to hunker down, re-group, and exact revenge like a wounded bear in winter. President Bill Clinton’s famous quip of sorts to his ‘Russia hand’ Assistant US Secretary of State for Russia and CIS Affairs Strobe Talbott in a private exchange during the April 1996 Moscow summit demonstrated great awareness and trepidation that the full-court press with which Washington and Brussels were pushing NATO expansion plans forward was creating grave tensions between President Yeltsin’s liberal camp and the hardline opposition: “We haven’t played everything brilliantly with these people; we haven’t figured out how to say yes to them in a way that balances off how much and how often we want them to say yes to us. We keep telling Ol’ Boris, ‘Okay, now here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more shit in your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with. … We’ve got to remember that Yeltsin can’t do more with us than his own traffic will bear. … I’ve got some domestic politics of my own—stuff I can’t do that I’d like to do, stuff I’ve got to do that I’d like not to. But he’s got a much harder deal than I do.”[14]

Putin decided to stop accepting Washington’s unilateralism—that is, ‘more shit in his face’—to the West’s dismay. With regard to NATO, we now are dealing not only with Russia’s Putin but ‘NATO expansion’s Russia’.

Ukraine and ‘Putin’s Russia’

Putin generally reflected Russian public opinion when as far back as 1994 – that is, during his democratic period when Putin was still St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak’s deputy mayor for international relations – he warned a group of foreign Russia experts about the 25 million ethnic Russians left abroad after the Soviet collapse: “For us, their fate is a question of war and peace.” A decade later, as Russia’s president Putin made a similar point more softly in reaction to the 2004 Orange Revolution: “We want to avoid a split between east and west in Ukraine. The Russians in Ukraine deserve a safe future. We cannot go back to the Russian Empire. Even if we wanted to – it would be impossible.” …. “We are not against change in the post-Soviet space. But we want to make sure that those changes do not end in chaos.”[15]

The Russian public clearly sees Ukraine as close, part of a broader ethnic Russian or Slavic culture. Although there is survey data on Russians’ self-identity as a Eurasian and/or European country, as noted above, there is little or no reliable data on average Russians’ views regarding Ukrainians’ relationship to any Eurasian civilization. Opinion surveys show a majority of Russians considering Ukrainians to be a ‘fraternal people’, brothers to Russians. Thus, in 1998, nearly two years before Putin’s rise to the presidency, 89 percent of Russians fully or mostly supported the idea of a “Slavic Union” including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.[16]

Russian-dominated Ukrainian regions and long-standing historical legacies, such as Crimea’s 300-year long history as a Russian territory, certainly play a role here. Thus, in opinion surveys since the 1990s Russians have consistently expressed their support for the return of Crimea to Russia in large majorities. In May 1998, for example, 77 percent supported Crimea’s return to Russia (in 2002 – 80 percent, in 2008 – 85 percent, in March 2014 – 79 percent).[17] In 1994, Russians in similar numbers – 70 percent – supported defending the 25 million ethnic Russians living in other post-Soviet states;[18] the largest diaspora being located in Ukraine, in particularly in its southern and eastern regions, most of all Crimea and Donbass.

Even at the height of the present Ukrainian civil war, 63 percent of Russians retained a very favorable (13 percent) or favorable (50 percent) attitude towards citizens of Ukraine, down from 81 percent ion 2006 and 75 percent in 2009. A distinction is made between the mostly Orthodox Christian, ethnic Russian and russophone population of Crimea and Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk/Luhanks) and the more ethnic Ukrainian and Uniate Catholic central and especially western Ukraine. Regarding Donbass, while a small minority supports the accession of Donetsk and Luhansk to Russia, a majority of Russians supports the Donbass rebels and looks upon the Donbass population more favorably than that of the rest of Ukraine, having in mind in particular the western Ukrainian provinces which are more or less hotbeds and the native land of Ukraian ultra-nationalism, neo-fascism, and hatred for Russia and ‘moskals’ (Muscovites, read: Russians). In 2014 80 percent expressed a good or very good attitude towards Donbassians, in 2015 – 79 percent. By contrast, only 53 and 55 percent viewed central and western Ukrainians favorably or very favorably.[19] Russians have expressed unequivocal support for the Donbass rebels and various kinds of Russian support for them, but reject Donbass’s annexation, preferring an independent Donbass state (41 percent) and Donbass’s autonomy within Ukraine (21 percent) to Russian annexation (15 percent) and Donbass non-autonomous status within Ukraine (7 percent).[20]

Putin’s Syria Intervention

I have already dealt with the compatibility between Russian public opinion and Putin’s Syria intervention elsewhere. To sum it up briefly here, a late September 2015 Levada Center survey found somewhat shaky support for Putin’s Syria military intervention relative to public support expressed in surveys regarding NATO and Ukraine: 39 percent approved of Putin’s policy (11 percent fully approved, 28 percent mostly), 11 percent disapproved (8 percent largely disapproved, 3 percent definitely disapproved), and 33 percent expressed no interest.[21]

The Levada Center conducted another poll from October 23-26 and found that 53 percent of respondents now approved of Russian policy in Syria, up from 39 percent a month earlier. Those who said they did not approve doubled to 22 percent from 11 percent.[22] It worth noting that it is in the age of the oft-alleged ‘total media control’ that a significant gap between Putin’s policy and Russian opinion emerges.


‘Putin’s Russia’ is a convenient meme for some. It portrays a totalitarian or harshly authoritarian ‘fascist Russia’ that under Putin’s full control. It reveals that eternal malady of U.S. foreign policy and DC policy community that personalizes regimes and countries; a pattern that oddly enough emerged at the end of the Cold War, when the focus was on demonizing or idealizing Mikhail Gorbachev. During the Yeltsin era some analysts warned against repeating this mistake, but this never really happened. It has now become fully entrenched in what has become America’s ‘hate affair’ with Putin.

It also fits into the U.S. orientation on regime change through democracy-promotion. The focus in American Russia policy discussions is almost entirely on Putin. When will he fall? He is about to fall. He is fatally ill. He has disappeared, where is he? He is crazy. He has a strategy. He has a goal to ‘re-establish the USSR’, etc., etc.. As long as these fundamental errors in assessing Putin’s personality and worldview, the nature of the Russian regime, and the goals of Russian foreign policy, Washington persist, we will continue to get Russia wrong. Unfortunately, this is likely to continue for many years and several more U.S. administrations to the peril of us all.



[1] “43. Est’ li osnovaniya u Rossii opasat’sya stran Zapada, vkhodyashchikh v blok NATO?,” VTsIOM, 30 March 1999,, last accessed 12 October 2015.

[2] “82_B. Kakoe znachenie immet dlya vas slovo: NATO?,” VTsIOM, 15 June 1999,, last accessed on 15 October 2015.

[3] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 15 April 1996,

[4] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 10 February 1997,

[5] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 20 March 1997,

[6] “50. Odni schitayut, chto NATO vedet samstoyatel’nuyu politiku v interesakh vsekh stran al’yansa; drugie – chto ono yavlyaetsya v osnovnom provodnikom interesov SShA. Kakaya iz etikh dvukh tochek zreniya kazhetsya vam bolee vernoi?,” VTsIOM, 15 March 2001,

[7] The fourth option available to respondents differed in the two polls. In the 2001 survey the fourth option was the policy of neutrality, which 32 percent chose. In the 2011 version, the fourth option was “too difficult too answer,” which 23 percent chose. “46. Chto iz perechislennogo, po vashemu mneniyu, bol’she otvechaet interesam Rossii: Vstuplenie Rossii v NATO,” VTsIOM, 15 November 2001, and Rossiya i NATO: Realnost’ i perspektivy vzaimodeistviya (Moscow: VTsIOM, 2011),, p. 12.

[8] Rossiya i NATO: Realnost’ i perspektivy vzaimodeistviya, p. 13.

[9] Rossiya i NATO: Realnost’ i perspektivy vzaimodeistviya, p. 9.

[10] Rossiya i NATO: Realnost’ i perspektivy vzaimodeistviya, p. 10.

[11] “67A. Kak vy lichno otnosites’ k zayavleniyu Vladimira Putina o tom, chto Rossiya v budushem mozhet vstupit’ v NATO: s odobreniem, s nedoumeniem, s osuzhdeniem, ili sravnitelmno bezrazlichno?,” VTsIOM, 15 June 2000,, last accessed on 12 October 2015.

[12] Coit D. Blacker, “Russia and the West,” in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., The New Russian Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Council of Foreign Relations, 1998), pp. 167-93, at pp. 179-80.

[13] “Vystuplenie prezidenta Rossii Vladimira Putina na Myunkhenskoi konferentstii po voprosam politiki bezopasnosti 10 fevralya 2007 goda,” Izvestia, 12 February 2007, For a video of the speech, see “Vystuplenie V. Putina na Myunkhenskoi konferentstii (2007g.),” Youtube, 10 February 2007,

[14] Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 201-2.

[15] Michael Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008), pp. 43 and 50.

[16] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k perspective obrazovaniya ‘Slavyanskogo’ bloka (Rossiya-Ukraina-Belarus’),” VTsIOM, 15 March 1998,

[17] Denis Volkov, “Rossiiskaya sotsiologiya ukrainskogo konflikta: vmeshivat’sya ne nado, no vse pravil’no sdelali,” Moskovskii tsentr Karnegi, 26 August 2015,

[18] Volkov, “Rossiiskaya sotsiologiya ukrainskogo konflikta: vmeshivat’sya ne nado, no vse pravil’no sdelali”.

[19] “Ukraina: vnimanie, otnoshenie, peremirie,” Levada Center, 26 February 2015,

[20] “Ukrainskii krizis: uchastie Rossii i ozhidaniya,” Levada Center, 4 March 2015,

[21] “Voina v Sirii: Vnimanie otsenki IGIL,” Levada Center, 28 September 2015,

[22] “Russians Increasingly Polarized by Syria Intervention,” The Moscow Times, 29 October 2015,–poll/540772.html.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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