Since he took power in 2000, President Vladimir Putin has been promising to make Russia great aga in. By any traditional metric, he has failed. The country has been trapped in recession since oil prices collapsed in 2014 and the West imposed sanctions over Putin’s land grab in Ukraine. The president and his oligarchs continue to live the high life in Moscow, but living standards have plummeted for ordinary Russians. Average monthly wages sank 8 percent last year to less than $450—lower than in China or Romania—while the poverty rate hit nearly 16 percent. Rocketing inflation has caused food prices to double, and 50 percent of Russians now grow vegetables to help feed their family. A quarter of Russian men die before age 55, most because of alcoholism. People “don’t have work, nobody needs them, so they drink,” one Siberian told The New York Times. “It’s a Russian tradition.”
And yet Putin’s approval rating from the Russian people consistently hovers near 80 percent. That’s because he’s created a surge of nationalist pride in the motherland, while relentlessly utilizing international interventions, hacking, and propaganda to show Russians that the democratic West is no better. His bombing campaign in support of the Syrian regime has pushed waves of refugees toward Europe, causing bitter infighting on the Continent about these asylum seekers. Those divisions are being widened by Moscow’s clandestine support for far-right, anti-EU parties in France, Greece, Italy, and Hungary. And while Russian meddling in the U.S. election may not have been the decisive factor that won the presidency for Trump, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate (See Best Columns: International), it has caused chaos. The intelligence community and the president are now openly feuding, and accusations that the president and his team have mysterious ties to Russia are deepening the nation’s partisan chasm (See Main Stories). Inside the Kremlin, Putin must be smiling.