RD Interview: John Pat Willerton, a professor at the University of Arizona, gives his take on recent developments in Russian society and the reasons why President Vladimir Putin is so popular in Russia.

"This is a great challenge for Russia and the weakness of a system that is so tied to one leader." Pictured: A souvenir shop selling T-shirts with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Photo: AP

Russia Direct continues to publish interviews with foreign experts on Russia who participated in the 2015 convention of the Association of Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in Philadelphia. 

John Pat Willerton, a professor of the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, gives his take on recent developments in Russian society, analyzes why Russian President Vladimir Putin is popular among Russians and offers insights into the weakness of Russia’s political system.

Russia Direct: How can you account for Putin’s popularity among Russians despite the current economic challenges?

John Pat Willerton: It seems to me that many people look at the current economic problems in the context of what’s going on in Russia over the last 25 years. In other words, Russians understand the current environment and the economic challenges have to be looked at from a long-term perspective. After all, many people are aware where the Russian economy was in the 1990s.

They see that Putin’s policy improved the economic lot of average citizens in general. You judge a government by its overall program over time. Of course, we are most concerned by today and the immediate future, but, in fact, most Russians know that their economic positions improved dramatically over the last 15 years, during Putin’s term.

At the same time, let’s be honest about it, some other factors are contributing to the downturn. International conditions, over which, it seems to me, no one country has complete control — the lower value of oil, or the issues that came up over the struggle over Ukraine, a country which has long-term historical significance to Russia.

John Pat Willerton, a professor of the University of Arizona. Photo: Russia Direct

When you look at the sanctions, the counteractions, the energy prices, we have a lot of things going on and, I think, an average Russian believes that the economy is affected by these numerous factors and doesn’t simply reflect the policy of the Russian government. Russians are just judging their government according to the complexity of the domestic situation and the complexity of the international system.

RD: How do you think that Russian society has changed since the Ukraine crisis, in terms of ideology?

J.P.W.: Russia has gone through what I call a quadruple revolution: there was political, economic and social change that began in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and those three challenges joined with what I would call the forced challenge of finding a new national idea after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s elites understand that they are not going to back to the Soviet Union and try to find a new identity: What is Russia in the 21st century? What does it mean to be a Russian? What is the role of Russia in the world?

RD: Do you consider Putin to be a good strategist?

J.P.W.: As a student of Russian politics, I think that his team has been extremely effective. Yes, he and has team has a long-term vision and there is a logic to a program that has evolved over 15 years. I am not a person who sees things as black or white, that Putin is great or terrible. I am somewhere between. To me, his policy and legacy is grey. It is a mix of things.

For a very different take read the Q&A with Carnegie Moscow Center's Andrei Kolesnikov: "Why the Kremlin neglects strategic thinking"

Is he a strategist? Yes, there is a strategy. After all, the Putin government has a whole range of policies and the discussion has evolved every time. This is how Putin presented himself when he came back as president. Again, you can look at general policy, you can look at budget decisions or the whole range of [his measures], and you see logic, a vision, and a strategy. So, he is a strategist, and I also mean his team. I prefer to talk about his team.

RD: Yet some would argue: “What Russia wants to do is what Putin wants to do.” To follow their logic, it is Putin who makes decisions: His team just fulfills his will.

J.P.W.: To me, it is a very simplistic approach. I understand it is common for the West, because we usually view Russia as an authoritarian country. So, when you are dealing with an authoritarian country, you describe it in terms of the leaders of the country. We’ve been talking about American policy in Syria and Putin’s policy there.

The reason we don’t do this is because U.S. President Barack Obama is not seen as a dictator in an authoritarian country. So, you see, literally, the very logic of our words presents an image - the image that you have a strong man, a dictator, who has makes every decision. And I live in a country where we have a president who is elected, who has a team. Well, the truth is that you have a team and we have a team.

The matter is that, obviously, Russia is guided by what I call a paramount leader: This is a leader who is very strong, who enjoys strong support from both the population and the elite. He seems to have an ability to balance the forces of power in Russia and in that regard he is really powerful. He has a power that Obama would never have in the United States.

RD: But is it really fair and good to be such a paramount leader? Some people say that Putin’s team uses this idea as a robust political tool to keep afloat and stay in power, to persuade people that there is no alternative to Putin.

J.P.W.: I think it does not come from the Kremlin. I am not motivated by such arguments. I prefer to look at Russia survey research, ratings, [the record of] insinuations and certain individuals. The performance of his team or other politicians on different policy areas is below his rating.

Every government actor is below Putin. So, when I look at this, Russia’s major public opinion centers WCIOM and Levada show the same results. Take 2008, when Putin leaves office and Medvedev becomes president. But Medvedev’s presidency was not successful, while Putin has a certain standing. He always rates higher than Medvedev.

He comes back [in 2012] with a solid victory. The reason is that he brought to average Russians and to the elite the sense of confidence. I understand that some in Russia are very troubled with him, but I do think that his standing is solid and this is the way it will remain.

 Also read: "Why is Putin so popular among Russians?"

A critic would say it is because Russia is basically an authoritarian country and he is a dictator. In my standpoint, as long as he chooses to be engaged, he would be the figure of power, the way that we could rely on someone as a paramount leader.

RD: If his policy fails, can he lose this standing?

J.P.W.: I am skeptical about it. I think he is almost in an untouchable position. And that would probably mean that if you oppose him, it must be absolutely maddening, frustrating, infuriating. I don’t see how this is going to change. Let’s say that one of his policies doesn’t go well — I don’t see him gone, but rather people would blame the government, Medvedev and others, not Putin. Is this because the Kremlin is spinning [the news]? I don’t know.

RD: What is the most important challenge for Russia’s political system?

J.P.W.: As an observer, I’ve always been struck that you have a one-thousand-year history and your country had often strong leaders. I am also struck by the fact that if you have a strong leader, usually you have trouble having another one. So, there is a weakness in your system that you rely so much on one leader, no matter how good he is. So, to me, this is a great challenge for Russia and the weakness of a system that is so tied to one leader.

Dr. John Pat Willerton talks about the Russian Soul at TEDx University of Arizona. Source: TEDx Talks