Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity is higher than ever, approaching a perfect ten. Of course some of that tabulated adoration is a result of individual Russians not wanting to be different from all the rest - not wanting be ridiculed or threatened if they give the wrong answer to a pollster - but the Russian population, for the most part, sees the Russian president as Putin the Great.
Much of this result can be assigned to the particular effectiveness of the Russian state media and propaganda apparatus. The sheer volume and shrillness of the narrative being delivered by especially Russian television is overwhelming. Anti-American, anti-Western, anti-gay, anti-anything not-Russian propaganda is spewed from a media firehose on a twenty-four hour cycle. The effort is having the desired effect.
The Russian people are becoming weaponized - a vehicle for Vladimir Putin and his palace guard at the Kremlin to use at their disposal. If Moscow wants to annex Crimea, the people will support it. If Moscow wants to support the regime of Bashar Assad with military force, as the latter drops barrel bombs on his people, the people will support it. If Moscow wants to further expand the Russian empire at the expense of some other nation-state, the people will, of course, support it.
The Kremlin's accomplice in this effort is the Russian Orthodox Church. During a recent stay in Moscow, I went to an art exhibit created and sponsored by the church. The subject matter was the art commissioned by the Soviet Union to be used as propaganda for the Communist Party, giving form to their utopia. I was struck by one part of the exhibit, where the church had offered its own analysis of the paintings hanging on the wall. The image of an old woman confronting the Nazis in her bare feet was really Moses confronting the Egyptians. The young boy reading a letter from a Soviet soldier at the front to the rest of his family was really spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ - and so it went, on and on. I found the analysis fascinatingly manipulative. Dozens of young Russians gazed in awe at the paintings, simply unaware of the real history of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. They believe what they are told.
Putin has used the church to wrap himself in the Orthodox religion, and this is another way to impact Russian emotions. In the Russian people's eyes, the president is doing God's work. He is making Russia into the Third Holy Roman Empire, a Christian stronghold opposing the Islamic forces of evil.
This is the essence of Putin's brilliance in manipulating the Russian people. He knows exactly how to push their hot buttons, what will make their emotions boil and their support for the Kremlin's policies strengthen.
The recent order by Putin directing the Russian armed forces to work with France as allies in the fight against the Islamic State and its terrorist attacks, is an example of that brilliance. Russians have a soft spot for anything French. Before the October Revolution, aristocratic Russians would only speak French. Wealthy Muscovites travel to France often, import French furniture, and adore French wine. All at once Putin drove a wedge into NATO, stroked the Russian public, and marginalized the United States.
The downing of a Russian airliner by the Islamic State, and the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 by Islamist Turkey, have further cemented Putin's grip on power. Yes, Russia's economy is shrinking, but Russians will suffer through this hardship gladly as long as Putin puts on the show. They will support the return of greatness for Russia, even if it means they can't travel to Europe anymore. They will tighten their belts further for the state. It's just what Russians do.
Events in the Middle East may yet turn around the price of crude oil, to the Kremlin's benefit. The French may work to ease sanctions on Moscow as Russians join France in its existential fight against ISIS. Putin is now simply invincible and will only leave office when he is ready to leave office, with a hand-picked successor firmly ensconced in the trappings of power.
Putin is able to do whatever he wants to do going forward in terms of expansionism and foreign policy. When paired with an extremely weak American president and a European Union coming apart at the seams, this makes for an extremely dangerous combination.