Putin's tough stance burnishes his image

The Russian leader's popularity rises at home as many Russians see him – rightly – standing up to the West over Ukraine.

Alexei Nikolskyi, RIA Novosti/REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Federation Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, March 27, 2014.

Nina Moreyeva, a Moscow resident who lives on a pension, doesn't agree with the widespread perception in the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been too muscular in his actions in Ukraine. Quite the opposite. She believes Russia had the right to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea – even if it meant going to war with Kiev.

"Crimea is deep in our history," she says. "I have never accepted that it was given to Ukraine" by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Nor is she worried about the West imposing sanctions. "Russia shouldn't be under anyone's thumb," she says. "Let them keep their potatoes. We'll grow our own."

Her sentiments are hardly unusual. Mr. Putin's popularity is spiking to the highest levels in years largely as a result of the Kremlin leader's forceful handling of the crisis in Ukraine.

Many Russians say they strongly approve of Putin's decision to "draw the line" after what they see as two decades of Western expansion, via the enlargement of the European Union and NATO, into what was formerly the Soviet Union and its allied states.

The Russian media have hammered home the message that the street-backed rebellion that overthrew a legally elected pro-Moscow government in Kiev last month was sponsored by the West and brought a fascist-led interim government to power.

They argue that the revolutionary change of regime, which favored the wishes of the more pro-Western half of the country, entitled people in Crimea and the more pro-Russian eastern half of Ukraine to turn to Moscow for protection and help.

"Why should the West be meddling in our backyard? After all, remember how angry the US was when the USSR supported revolutions in Cuba, Grenada, and other places in their neighborhood?" says Igor Sukhov, a middle-aged Moscow bank worker. "But here they are doing it to us. It's a good thing we have a leader who won't accept this."

According to the independent Levada Center, Putin's "job approval" rating has risen steadily during the crisis in Ukraine, from 65 percent in January, to 69 percent the next month, to 72 percent in mid-March, after the annexation of Crimea.

Some of that increase might be due to the successful Sochi Winter Games, which cast Russia and Putin in a very positive light and were viewed by record high television audiences around Russia. A poll released by the state-run VTsIOM public opinion agency on March 24 found that 89 percent of Russians have always regarded Crimea as part of Russia, and fully 80 percent approve of its annexation – even if that means conflict with Ukraine.

"Maybe people in the West see it a different way, probably because they don't know the background," says Ms. Moreyeva. "They are creating this artificial conflict over something they know nothing about. Russian people are patient, but there's a limit. I have only recently begun to respect Putin, now that I see him standing up and acting independently in our people's interests."

Younger Russians, who have little memory of Soviet times when Crimea was a major vacation spot, tend to be more skeptical.

"This [conflict between Russia and Ukraine] is terrible. It's like brother turning against brother," says Maria Podolskaya, a popular Moscow-based blogger. "I never had any feeling that Crimea is our land, and I don't support Putin in this."

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