MOSCOW – Two years ago, a long process of growing authoritarianism and isolationism under President Vladimir Putin culminated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But even as much of the international community condemned the move, Russians seemed to welcome it. Indeed, the peninsula’s “return” to Russian control had a profound effect on public sentiment – one that seems to have strengthened Putin’s grip on power, even as Russia faces deepening political and economic challenges.
In March 2016, 83% of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea, while only 13% opposed it. Even progressives – including some who protested against the regime in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2011-2013 – have found in Crimea a reason to support Putin, albeit with some reservations. Indeed, Putin now enjoys an 80% approval rating, reflecting how closely he and Crimea are linked in Russians’ minds.
The reason why the annexation has attracted such wide support is simple. For most Russians, Crimea remains part of the “empire,” both culturally and geographically. To be sure, Russia does not possess the power and resources to recreate an empire, even within the confines of the abstract “Russian world.” But by focusing on Crimea, Putin’s regime was able to create a sense of restored historical justice and revive expectations of a return to “great power” status.
Of course, not everyone in Russia supports the annexation. And, in fact, opponents of the move are intractable, describing Crimea as occupied territory. Nonetheless, they comprise just a small minority and lack any real influence (the regime has seen to that). They are literally surrounded by people who unquestioningly support the authorities – and especially Putin.