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World As the Russian economy and Putin’s popularity tumble, the war drums grow louder and critics take cover

In another country, opinion polls showing that support for the President is falling would be cause for optimism among the political opposition. Not in Russia.

As support for Vladimir Putin tumbles to its lowest level in five years, anxiety – rather than hope – is growing among his critics. Some fret that a continuing crackdown on dissent will widen as the Kremlin seeks to head off any expression of the growing dissatisfaction. Others worry the Russian government may instigate new fighting in neighbouring Ukraine as a way of whipping up both patriotic feeling and support for the President.

A buildup of troops and tanks along Russia’s border with Ukraine and the deployment of new missile systems to Crimea suggest Mr. Putin is at least considering a major military operation against Ukraine, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst. In response to the buildup, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared martial law in 10 provinces, including all those that share a border with Russia, and called up some reserve soldiers for training exercises.

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“Both sides are readying for a major regional war,” Mr. Felgenhauer said in an interview. “The situation is very precarious.”

Mr. Putin still has an approval rating of 66 per cent, a level few Western leaders could dream of achieving. But that’s Mr. Putin’s lowest support level since 2013, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and down 16 points just since spring, according to regular surveys conducted by the independent Levada Centre. Another Levada poll found that only 39 per cent of Russians named Mr. Putin as the politician they trusted most, down 20 points from a year earlier.

The plunging poll numbers are widely attributed to Mr. Putin’s October decision to sign a law raising the country’s retirement age, and delaying pension payouts, by five years. The move revealed how grim Russia’s economic picture has become after years of sanctions and low oil prices. The same hard economic truths – the country’s gross domestic product shrank in 2015 and 2016 before beginning a modest recovery last year – mean Mr. Putin’s administration has a limited number of policy tools with which to assuage public anger.

With few carrots to offer, the Kremlin appears to be resorting to the stick. On Dec. 5, veteran human-rights activist Lev Ponomarev was arrested and given a 16-day jail sentence for his role in an October demonstration against the torture of political detainees. Supporters believe the real motivation for Mr. Ponomarev’s arrest was to warn others away from joining an unsanctioned peace march that he was helping to organize.

About 50 people did gather on Sunday in front of the state security building in the centre of Moscow. At least seven people were arrested.

A police officer detains a man as human-rights activists gather on Sunday, Dec. 16, outside the headquarters of the FSB security service to protest against political repression and torture.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

“By jailing Ponomarev, who is a very prominent figure in Russia’s human-rights and democracy movement, and who is 77 years of age, the authorities are sending a very strong symbol to the public, to those prone to taking part in protests: that there are no limits. Your age and your status are not going to be taken into account,” said Tanya Lokshina, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. “I think the Kremlin is very worried.”

Mr. Putin appeared to confirm as much last week when he expressed his support for the verdict against Mr. Ponomarev. “We don’t want to have events that resemble those in Paris when cobblestone pavements are torn up and everything is set on fire, and the country descends into a state of emergency,” Mr. Putin said, in a reference to the violent “yellow vest” protests in France that were initially motivated by French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise fuel taxes.

Some believe the low polling numbers for the President could also influence the Kremlin’s calculus as tensions escalate with Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists in the southeastern Donbass region have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014, a conflict that has killed more than 10,500 people.

Mr. Putin saw his popularity soar both after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s victory in a brief 2008 war with neighbouring Georgia. Some worry that he’ll be tempted to seek another such boost, with the Azov Sea, a strategic body of water between Russia and Ukraine, seen as a potential target this time.

Mr. Poroshenko has warned that a Nov. 25 incident near the entrance to the Azov Sea – which saw Russian warships fire on and then seize three Ukrainian military boats, taking all 24 crew members prisoner – could be a prelude to a larger Russian military move.

While Mr. Poroshenko’s domestic rivals accuse him of exaggerating the threat in order to boost his own flagging political fortunes – polls suggest he is on track to lose his job in a March election – military experts say there are reasons to take the Ukrainian President’s warning seriously.

A report this week by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, concluded that recent Russian troop movements suggest that “Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine.”

Mr. Felgenhauer, the Moscow-based analyst, sees the same thing. The recent naval clash, he said, was significant because it was the first time Russia’s military, rather than a proxy force, had openly attacked Ukrainians. A video of the incident captured a Russian officer suggesting, in an expletive-filled rant delivered as his warship rammed a Ukrainian tugboat, that he and his men were acting on orders from Mr. Putin himself.

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“They were shooting on orders from Putin,” Mr. Felgenhauer said. “That’s nasty and dangerous and means someone has gotten hysterical in the Kremlin.”

Alexander Mikhailov, a retired major-general who served in Russia’s FSB security service, told The Globe and Mail that he too expects the fighting in Ukraine to spike in the near future, though he said Russia did not need to get directly involved. He hinted that Russia could instead transfer more weapons and troops to the pro-Russian separatists, allowing them to break the stalemate that has seen the front line in eastern Ukraine remain largely static since 2015.

“The military power of the Donbass [separatist militia] is much bigger than that of the Ukrainian army,” said Mr. Mikhailov, who now sits on the semi-governmental Council for Foreign and Defence Policy. “They have plenty of weapons they haven’t used yet.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which claims the Ukrainian side provoked the Nov. 25 naval clash, is also warning that fighting in Donbass could soon escalate. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a press conference in Moscow last week that the Ukrainian military was preparing a major offensive against the separatist-held areas that could be launched “within several days.”

Yevhen Fedchenko, a Kiev-based journalism professor who studies information warfare, said the Russian claims about a looming Ukrainian offensive are meant to confuse the narrative about whatever happens next. He said Ms. Zakharova’s statement was reminiscent of how Russian officials repeatedly foreshadowed chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a Russian ally, with warnings that anti-government rebels were the ones preparing to use chemical weapons.

“If Russia says someone is preparing to attack, then it likely means they [the Russians] are preparing something,” Mr. Fedchenko said. “Disinformation is always connected to things on the ground.”

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He said Russia’s military buildup didn’t necessarily foreshadow an invasion. The real aim, he said, could be simply to escalate tensions in hope of influencing Ukraine’s coming election. Mr. Poroshenko’s main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, has positioned herself as the candidate who can negotiate peace with Mr. Putin.

The paradox for the Kremlin is that any new military campaign – even if it creates the desired surge in popular support for Mr. Putin – would likely trigger new Western sanctions targeting the already fragile Russian economy.

Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister under Mr. Putin from 2000 to 2004, said he believes Mr. Putin would rather have improved relations with the West and an end to the economic sanctions. But the souring public mood at home may cause Mr. Putin, who Mr. Kasyanov said keeps total control over the country’s foreign policy, to make rash decisions.

“I don't think Putin needs [an escalation in Ukraine]. He is really very much concerned about sanctions. He understands that the economy is just in a terrible situation right now. He understands that the country needs normal relations with the West,” said Mr. Kasyanov, who is now an opposition politician.

“But in terms of foreign policy, it’s important how the regime feels inside Russia. People’s anger is growing. People’s dissatisfaction is growing. People are looking for answers and cannot find them.”

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