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Putin's approval rating has hovered in the mid 80s since last May

Analysts differ in trying to explain the reason

CNN  — 

The economy’s in the tank, the currency’s crumbling, and he’s risking diplomatic isolation for doubling down on Ukraine.

So how is it that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is at a whopping 86%?

That’s the conclusion of a poll conducted this month by the Levada Center. Last month, Putin’s approval rating was at 85%.

The Levada-Center describes itself as an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization.

And it has found that Putin’s approval ratings have been holding steady in the mid-80s since around May last year, which incidentally is when the Ukraine/Crimea conflict bubbled up.

What gives?

The answer is simple, says Ben Judah, author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.”

“That figure is made up,” he told CNN last month.

The numbers lie

“An opinion poll can only be conducted in a democracy with a free press,” he explained. “In a country with no free press, where people are arrested for expressing their opinions, where the truth is hidden from them, where the media even online is almost all controlled by the government – when a pollster phones people up and asks, ‘Hello, do you approve of Vladimir Putin,’ the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

“So what that opinion poll is, is not a poll of approval but it’s a poll of fear.”

There’s another factor at play.

Putin has remained defiant in the face of Western sanctions and political pressure to stand down in Ukraine. And that defiance is earning him political points at home despite the impact on the Russian economy.

The numbers don’t

Henry Hale, an international affairs professor at The George Washington University specializing in Russian politics, said on the whole, the polls reflect the reality on the ground of popular support for Putin.

“I don’t think Russians are really hiding their feelings,” Hale told CNN in December, adding that the polls indicate support for Putin, but not necessarily the depth of that support.

Media propaganda plays a key role in bolstering Putin’s popularity, Hale said, especially in the portrayal of Ukraine’s popular revolt as a fascist takeover and in portraying the annexation of Crimea as, essentially, a rescue mission.

The numbers may change

Nationalism’s OK, but families have mouths to feed.

And if Russia’s economic problems get worse, that could bode ill for Putin.

“Even if he can keep strong popular support, Putin has to worry most of all about keeping happy the oligarchs, the wealthy Russians who back him in exchange for continued prosperity,” says Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald, in a piece for
“Economic sanctions and a shrinking economy will not make them happy.”

This report incorporates information previously published in a piece by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond in December. CNN’s Richard Allen Greene in London and Alla Eshchenko in Moscow contributed to this report.