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Tobin Harshaw

How Does Putin Stay So Popular While Losing the War in Ukraine?

A Q&A with Russian polling experts Denis Volkov and Andrei​ Kolesnikov on tracking public opinion in Russia.

Man of the people.

Man of the people.

Photographer: Ramil Sitdikov/AFP/Getty Images

Seven months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re faced with a serious paradox: As things go from bad to worse for President Vladimir Putin’s troops on the ground, he remains overwhelmingly popular at home. But what does overwhelming popularity actually mean in a nation with virtually no political opposition, little free press and a siege mentality?

For an answer, I turned to the people behind some of those polls: Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center in Moscow — which has been surveying Russian public opinion monthly since before Putin assumed the presidency — and his frequent collaborator Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center. And their answer was ... well, it’s complicated. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Tobin Harshaw: Putin gave a speech this week proclaiming that Russia was annexing four territories in Ukraine . How  is this being received by the Russian people?