The Kremlin has offered several explanations for deploying hundreds of thousands of troops, including tanks, artillery, and aircraft, along Russia's southern border with Ukraine.
The Kremlin has said 50 battlefield tactical groups' maneuvering toward Ukraine is merely routine training. Vladimir Putin has also demanded immediate guarantees that NATO will stay out of Ukraine.
Most defense analysts see Ukraine's increasingly friendly relationship with the United States, NATO, and the European Union as a red line for Putin. To prevent the West from edging ever closer to its borders, many likewise believe a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could occur, potentially coming in the next few weeks.
Without a doubt, the Kremlin views further NATO expansion eastward as being an existential threat. There is, however, another reason for Russia wanting to ramp up its threat narrative: the sickening feeling by Putin and his allies at the loss of internal power.
There's plenty of evidence suggesting Putin feels his reign of power is on unstable ground. Last year, FSB agents tried to eliminate Putin's most staunch critic, Alexei Navalny, by poisoning him with the typically deadly nerve agent Novichok. When that didn't work, Putin just had him imprisoned.
After mass protests broke out over Navalny's arrest in early 2021, the Moscow City Court deemed many opposition organizations (including Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation) to be "extremist organizations." Russian citizens can now be arrested and jailed for merely expressing support for opposition organizations. In the lead-up to this year's state elections, the Putin camp went to extreme measures (even by their standards) to ensure its United Russia party remained dominant in power.
None of this seems like the actions of a democratic leader feeling empowered by his constituents. On the contrary, these are the behaviors of a desperate despot clamping down to maintain control.
There are a few statistics likely causing the Russian president some consternation. According to the Russian independent nongovernmental research organization, the Levanda Center, in November, 45% of Russian citizens had a favorable opinion of the U.S., while 42% of respondents had a negative view of America. The results marked the first time in two years that Russians had a more favorable than unfavorable view of the U.S. In the same survey, 48% had a good opinion of the EU instead of 38% who viewed the EU unfavorably.
In 2020, Putin's approval rating in Russia dropped to 59%. Still considerably high compared to the typical approval ratings of American presidents. However, for Putin, this was a historic low going back to his ascent as prime minister in 1999.
So, what's an authoritarian to do when facing unpopularity and increased public favor for its traditional enemies? Go back to the same playbook that's worked in the past.
In 2013, Putin's approval rating fell to 62%, the second-lowest of his tenure. However, the following year after Putin plunged Russian forces into Ukraine and seized Crimea, public support surged to nearly 86%, making him the world's most popular politician at the time.
Perhaps more pressing than repelling the West, Putin likely sees providing Russians with a common enemy and invading Ukraine as a means of drumming up popular support. At least enough adoration to maintain the illusion of democracy coming into the 2024 Russian presidential elections.
However, going back to the same well that worked before could backfire.
Recent polls show that only 16% of Russians feel Russia is "surrounded by enemies on all sides," down 10 points from 2014 before Russia annexed Crimea. Twenty-three percent of Russians believe Russia and Ukraine should be friendly but separate nations. In comparison, only 17% supported the unification of the two former Soviet states.
Out of the young people who would invariably be called to fight in the outbreak of war, an astonishing 66% of Russians 18-24 years old have a "very positive attitude" toward Ukraine. Young Russians' favorable view of Ukraine is, in some cases, more than double how favorably NATO allies view each other.
Suppose NATO and the U.S. hold firm in their promises to support Ukraine and impose severe sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine. In that case, Putin could be backing himself into a corner. The further spiraling of the already beleaguered Russian economy could have the exact opposite intended effect on public opinion of the Putin presidency.
History has shown that once an authoritarian determines they can no longer maintain public favor, they can become unpredictable and dangerous. Fortunately, it doesn't seem Putin is there just yet. Unfortunately, depending on what he decides to do in Ukraine, that could change.
Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant, investigative reporter, and co-founder and executive director of the Debrief. His writing covers defense, science, and the intelligence community. Follow him @lttimmcmillan.