On June 16, President Joe Biden held what will probably be the tensest meeting of his presidency until Republicans retake either house of Congress: a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. Surrounding the meeting, both sides set a confrontational tone. Putin described Russia-U.S. relations as at “its lowest point in recent years,” while Biden stated that the meeting was “not about trust.” This tension is reflected in U.S. public opinion, where Putin has only a 10% approval rating, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
This stands in sharp contrast to public opinion of Putin in Russia, however. According to the same poll that gave Putin such low approval in the U.S., Putin enjoys favorable views from 61% of the population. This contrast, along with Putin’s notoriously poor human rights record, has led many U.S. political commentators to attempt to explain Putin’s popularity in his home country, with varying results. One of the most popular explanations is that Putin taps into resentment about the collapse of the Soviet Union, a relatively true assertion I’ll examine later.
But others are simply ridiculous. For example, one especially popular theory when comparing Putin to former U.S. President Donald Trump is that Russians just love strongmen. Beyond the questionable moral implications of the idea that any nationality is predisposed to authoritarianism, the notion that a history of dictatorship always prevents a nation from being a democracy today is simply ahistorical. Looking at a nearby country, Poland had never been a stable democracy until 1989, when its Communist government fell. Today, while it is ruled by a rather reprehensible right-wing government with illiberal tendencies, Poland remains a fairly free and democratic country, especially in comparison to Russia. Russia’s seeming aversion to democracy today likely has more to do with its experience during its decade of post-Soviet democracy, a decade of national humiliation and destruction of living standards, and how Putin has — for his many faults — reversed both.
For a bit of background, after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia was taken over by Boris Yeltsin, who had previously served as the President of the Russian Soviet Republic. During his rule over the next eight years, he undertook radical changes to Russian governance, enacting mass privatization of state-owned enterprises and pursuing closer relations with the U.S.
The results were disastrous. On the economic front, for all but two years of Yeltsin’s administration, Russia saw negative GDP growth rates, with rates reaching as low as negative 14.5% in 1992. Life expectancy declined by over three years, virtually unheard of in peacetime. Daily caloric intake fell by over 20%. There’s a reason why the “Russian mail-order bride” meme dates to this period. Russia was an awful place to live under Yeltsin, and he made little effort to improve it.
While Russians were starving at home, they were increasingly humiliated abroad, which is where the Soviet nostalgia argument mentioned earlier comes into play. For starters, they lost a war of secession to Chechnya, a small territory in the country’s Caucasus region that briefly became its own sovereign country from 1996 to 2000. For comparison, regardless of one’s opinions on Puerto Rican independence, imagine the effect on U.S. national morale if Puerto Rico were able to successfully wage a war of independence against the rest of the U.S. It would be, for better or worse, an embarrassment. However, it would still be less of a national embarrassment than how Yeltsin let the U.S. treat Russia.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO enlarged several times, gradually adding countries that were closer and closer to Russia’s border, despite promising not to. This did nothing to hinder Yeltsin’s attempts to cozy up to the U.S. Worst of all, the U.S openly meddled in Russia’s 1996 Presidential election, with then-President Bill Clinton openly aiding Yeltsin in his campaign against Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov. We looked at the damage that Yeltsin was doing to Russia and decided that his adherence to neoliberal economic orthodoxy was worth meddling on his behalf. Finally, Yeltsin’s personal image — that of a drunk who wandered into the streets of Washington, D.C., in his underwear trying to buy pizza — made Russia look buffoonish on the world stage.
In this context, it becomes clear why anyone who could remedy this disastrous situation would instantly command great respect among their people. Putin did just that. GDP soared throughout Putin’s first term, with yearly growth rates reaching as high as 10%. Statistics regarding life expectancy and hunger improved drastically. Putin retook Chechnya, albeit with brutal force. While Putin’s elections are not free or fair, they are not openly being meddled in by the U.S. — if anything the reverse seems to be true. And in contrast to Yeltsin’s image as an inept drunk, Putin projects authority and competence and outpolls Trump in popularity around the world.
None of this is to say I approve of Putin’s leadership — far from it. I find his attacks on journalism, his repression of LGBTQ+ rights, and his invasions of Georgia and Ukraine appalling. But it is to say that if the U.S. ever wants to have a productive relationship with Russia, it needs to understand that Putin is popular largely because the U.S. failed to back effective leadership in Russia when it could. Instead, they prioritized privatization and backed a leader who left Russia in a state of ruin. This should serve as a lesson for the future: If the U.S. continues to prize loyalty in foreign leaders above all else, backlash will come, and it will be ugly.
Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.