The story of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last few years has been one of his steady descent from a leader welcomed and even feted around the world to one who has had allegations of murder and corruption levied at him.
Last month, a British public inquiry concluded Putin probably signed off on the 2006 murder of a former Russian spy in London by Federal Security Service (FSB) agents. And, a U.S. Treasury official told the BBC, Putin was corrupt in enriching his friends and amassing hidden wealth.
The highest offices on both sides of the Atlantic are vocally backing up the allegations.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the inquiry into the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko "confirms what we always believed."
In Washington, the Treasury official in charge of U.S. sanctions, Adam Szubin, last week called Putin corrupt – an assessment that “best reflects the administration’s view,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
David Satter, author of a book to be published in May titled "The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin," says he has no doubt the allegations against the Russian president are true.
"Putin became president because it was necessary to protect Yeltsin and the Yeltsin family from criminal prosecution," he argues. "And who better to do that than someone who was a criminal himself and connected to the FSB?"
Russia shrugs off accusations
The Kremlin swiftly denied and condemned the allegations, calling the murder accusation “absurd theater,” and said they were politically motivated. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Friday said the U.S. officials’ corruption remarks were "insulting" and showed Washington was both displeased with its policies on Syria and Ukraine and was trying to undermine Putin’s possible 2018 bid to be re-elected president.
Most Russians, used to Western criticism of Putin, seemed to shrug off the allegations. A public opinion poll by the independent Levada-Center showed many were unaware of the details surrounding Kremlin critic Litvinenko's murder. The inquiry report, issued January 21, found two FBB agents poisoned his green tea with polonium, a highly radioactive substance.
Moscow-based political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky was one of the first to put a figure on Putin’s alleged hidden wealth, $40 billion – a claim he repeated in the BBC program "Panorama" that broadcast Treasury official Szubin’s comments.
Belkovsky told VOA that few Russians knew of the detailed corruption allegations dogging Putin throughout his rise to power.
"Federal television channels, which are the most important part of [the] total propaganda system of Mr. Putin, do not transmit ... such information," he said. "The vast majority of [the] Russian population is quite unaware of any allegations nor accusations regarding Mr. Putin and corruption."
Opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, a leader of the 2011-2012 protests, has unleashed a steady stream of corruption allegations against Putin’s inner circle. Though ignored by state media, they’re gaining more attention than in the past. And numerous media reports claim there is a blurred line between Putin’s administration and organized crime in Russia.
"The perception is that corruption is everywhere, on the highest level," says Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. With Russia, "the population was ready to tolerate the relatively or even very high level of corruption because the corruption coincided with improvement of incomes and of the level of life for everybody."
But, Baunov cautions, that tolerance could weaken if Russia’s economy does not start growing again. The country’s economic output, stung by plummeting oil prices, shrank by 3.7 percent last year, its Federal Statistics Service recently reported.
Yet Levada polls show Putin’s public approval rating remains at more than 80 percent, buoyed by Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russia rebels in east Ukraine.
Putin’s ratings peaked at 89 percent in October, after the start of Russian airstrikes in Syria forced the West to engage Moscow in dialogue, says Aleksei Grazhdankin, Levada’s deputy director.
"The conflict with the western world gives Putin an opportunity to show his qualities of a strong national leader in mass consciousness," Grazhdankin says. "He acts quickly, vigorously, roughly. That's the way most people view a state leader."
But the Russian public may tire of new targets of military force as expectations focus on an improved economy, Baunov says. "Of course, there are ultra-patriots who are always expecting something like this. But, [the] general mood is: 'OK, you were great in Ukraine – in Crimea at least. You were great in Syria. Now, show how great you are at home.'"
Satter notes Putin is constrained by a weakened economic position.
"But, on the other hand, he may well feel increasingly cornered, in a situation in which support for him is weakening," the author says. "And, to bolster that support, he may take measures that are economically counterproductive but, from his point of view, necessary in order to strengthen his hold on power. The most likely venue would be to reignite the war in eastern Ukraine, which they are capable of doing at any moment."
Russian authorities have used western sanctions over Ukraine to avoid much of the blame for economic problems.
"That's why the rise of protests can be expected only in case of a catastrophic situation in the country's economy or under the growing economic well-being and prosperity of the population, which results in mass demand for civil and political rights," the Levada Center’s Grazhdankin says. "I can't say how probable the first or the second scenario is. At least the latter one is very improbable."