According to a new Gallup poll, Vladimir Putin is now enjoying record-high popularity with the Russian public. His approval rating now stands at 83 percent, up from a low of 54 percent last year. Meanwhile, approval of the United States and European Union has fallen to an abysmal low: 4 and 6 percent, respectively.
The poll was taken in the spring, amid violence in Ukraine and escalating Western sanctions against Moscow but before the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine last week. But it does partly explains why the incident may change the situation less than many are anticipating. Even if U.S.—and sooner or later, EU—sanctions start to have more of an impact, it’s not clear to that Putin will be blamed for it. The Russian public has a very different understanding of events in eastern Ukraine, and that includes culpability for the MH17 crash.
I'm not sure that U.S. and European leaders hoping to alter the Russian government's behavior can count on public opinion working in their favor. The bigger concern for Putin may be reports that Russian business leaders are furious about the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and Russia’s increasingly isolated political position. So far we haven’t seen any major business or political figures publicly breaking ranks. If that starts to happen, it will be time to start talking about whether this was a game-changer.