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Why Putin is stronger than ever

A young Russian celebrating Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Stringer/AFP/Getty

After nearly five months of war, says Andrei Kolesnikov in Foreign Affairs, “Russians have moved on”. In a credible independent survey, half of respondents said the supposedly crippling Western sanctions would actually “strengthen the country and stimulate development”. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has settled above 80%, about 10 points higher than pre-war figures. Anyone hoping the economic cost of the invasion would be a deterrent has misread the Kremlin’s relationship with its citizens. In the words of Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, “we are all imperialists and militarists”.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may have been “an act of pure folly”, but in terms of holding on to power and boosting his popularity, it was “the right decision”. The danger for everyone else is that he has no way back. Russia’s economic prospects are bleak: the West’s blockade will eventually bite, its population is declining, its brightest minds are fleeing to better jobs abroad, and its education system has been degraded by propaganda. The only thing Putin has to offer his supporters is more “expansion and reconstruction of imperial territory”. Those who are “hard up, jobless, or desperate” will be called on to go and colonise new territories, as they are now in Ukraine, for “inflated salaries”. And for ordinary Russians just trying to get on with life, the war has become a “bad new normal”. Putin has outplayed everyone, “including his own people”.