He’s among the West’s most distrusted politicians, but at home in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s popularity is unrivaled. In a culture that admires strength, the president’s muscular style of nationalism resonates, as he flaunts his country’s “invincible” new nuclear weapons and defies the West over military interventions in Syria and Ukraine. In power longer than any Soviet leader other than dictator Joseph Stalin, he’s come to symbolize a concept of managed democracy and conservatism that values political strength over individual freedoms. His personal appeal has been tested by economic hardship caused by a fall in oil prices and sanctions provoked by his government’s assertive behavior. But his standing with Russians has hardly been dented.
Putin cruised to a fourth term in March elections with a landslide victory, though Russian and international observers complained the vote wasn’t fair. His victory came amid an escalation of tensions with the West after the U.K. accused Russia of staging a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his visiting daughter, the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II. Relations were already strained by allegations of Russian cyberattacks and efforts to influence elections in the U.S. and Europe. Before that, Putin had been isolated over his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and his role in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine. U.S. President Donald Trump expressed interest in improving relations with Russia. But an investigations into whether his election campaign colluded with the Russians deferred that impulse, and ties actually worsened. With a three-year Russian military campaign in Syria that shored up President Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies, Putin challenged America’s dominant role in the Middle East. In his 2018 state-of-the-union address, he played videos showing off new Russian weapons — at one point targeting what appeared to be the U.S. — and said the arms proved the West had failed to contain Russia.