Putin's Popularity Is Much Stronger Than the Ruble

Evan amid an economic crisis, the Russian leader managed to secure his fifteenth straight "Man of the Year" title.

There's an old Russian proverb that goes, "The economy is a good servant, but a bad master." Apparently, the saying doesn't apply to Vladimir Putin. The Russian ruble is currently in the midst of an historic landslide; Russia's central bank jacked interest rates up nearly seven points on Tuesday to counter the currency's two-day, 20-percent fall. And yet today also brought news that the Russian president had emerged from a public-opinion poll as the country's "Man of the Year"—for the fifteenth straight year.

The Kremlin-touted survey—conducted by the Russian polling group Public Opinion Foundation on December 7 among 1,500 respondents across 43 Russian regions—found that 68 percent of Russians placed Putin in first place on a list of national politicians and public figures who deserved the title "man of the year," Russia's Interfax news agency reported. In 2013, only 32 percent of Russians gave him the nod.

By that (admittedly dubious) measure, Putin's popularity has doubled in the months since he annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine (Putin's approval rating hit a peak in August and still remains high). During the same period, the Russian economy has gone from being a relatively good servant to a pretty cruel master. International sanctions levied in response to the Ukraine crisis have stung Russia and the price of oil has dropped, dealing another blow to the oil-exporting country.

The Price of Oil, the Russian Ruble, and Russian Interest Rates, Over Time
Reuters/Central Bank of Russia

Tuesday's emergency, middle-of-the-night surge in interest rates is Russia's sharpest hike since 1998, just a year before Russian pollsters and news outlets first honored Putin with the "Man of the Year" honorific. Just how bad is the economic situation in Russia? The Economist christened today's events "Russia's Black Tuesday." "It's a pretty bad situation," one analyst told CNBC. "The only place worse off is Venezuela." An emerging-market strategist told Bloomberg, “I am speechless.”

The crisis is not going unnoticed in Russia. As Washington Post's Adam Taylor notes, "For some Russians, it is bringing back painful memories of 1998, when the nation defaulted on debts and many families' savings were wiped out."

But Russians aren't necessarily blaming Putin for the dire economic situation. Some analysts have argued that the ruble's crash may only strengthen Putin, especially if growing international isolation produces a surge of nationalism in the country. As Russia's RT recently put it, paraphrasing the president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, "the people’s love for Putin was a manifestation of their love for Russia."