In Showing Off Physical Strength, Putin Tries to Hide Political Weakness
Policy + Politics

In Showing Off Physical Strength, Putin Tries to Hide Political Weakness

Over the weekend, to the great joy of the Internet, the Kremlin released a set of pictures, as well as a short video, showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev clad in workout clothes and hitting the gym in one of Putin’s private residences before cooking steaks on a grill with a curiously American-looking “BBQ” label.

To a U.S. audience, the appearance of Russia’s two most powerful men in sweats did more to evoke memories of the classic Saturday Night Live Hans und Franz sketches than to paint Putin and Medvedev as virile leaders.  

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But the Kremlin’s dissemination of pictures and videos of Putin engaged in manly looking pursuits, be it riding a horse or toting a hunting rifle while shirtless or, more recently, going to the bottom of the Black Sea in a tiny submarine, has a long history in his political career and often pop up when his typically sky-high public approval ratings start to dip.

As has been the case before, the appearance of new Kremlin photos meant to reinforce the idea of Putin as a man’s man coincided with a small but significant drop in the Russian president’s public approval rating.

One poll, by the government-run Public Opinion Foundation, found that the percentage of Russians who said they would vote for Putin again fell to 72 percent in August, down from 76 percent three months earlier. Another poll, by the Moscow-based Levada Center, found his general approval rating at 83, down from 89 in May.

Clearly, Putin’s numbers are incredibly high by international standards, though, in an increasingly authoritarian country, there are plenty of reasons for citizens to be careful about expressing their honest opinions to government pollsters.

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Putin’s falling approval ratings suggest that the Russian people’s increasing frustration with the economic privations brought on by the combination of plummeting oil and natural gas prices and international sanctions are both taking a toll.

Both problems can be credibly laid at Putin’s feet.

The unexpected plunge in energy prices isn’t his fault, but this isn’t the first time Russia has gone down this road. The economy has been knocked off balance by global oil shocks before, and his government did little or nothing during the years when oil was selling near historic highs to use the revenue it derives from natural resources to diversify the country’s economy.

The economic sanctions against Russia, likewise, are a direct effect of decisions made by Putin’s government. The invasion of Crimea and the subsequent illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory provoked European and North American countries to apply strong sanctions meant to economically punish the Putin regime. The Kremlin’s subsequent support of armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine only increased them.

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The combined result has been huge economic pain for the Russian people. A recent report by the Moscow Times, for example, found that clothing prices were likely to increase by 20 percent in September, even as general inflation remains well above 15 percent.

Under circumstances like that, Putin will have to lift an awful lot of weights to maintain the image of a leader able to pull his country through an increasingly difficult time.