In July of 2014, 51 percent of Republicans in a YouGov poll reported that they held a very unfavorable opinion of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Just 9 percent of GOP voters had a very or somewhat positive impression of Putin.
Democrats and independents largely shared that overwhelmingly negative sentiment. For example, 44 percent of Democrats said they had a very negative opinion of Putin, and just 11 percent viewed him at all favorably.
By July of 2016, however, a truly remarkable transformation had occurred.
According to YouGov, sentiment among Democrats hadn't changed over that two-year time period; some 45 percent still had a very unfavorable opinion of Putin. Among Republicans, however, the number expressing a very unfavorable opinion of Putin had plummeted from 51 percent to 22 percent. Putin's overall net negative rating among Republicans -- his very and somewhat negative score, subtracted from very and somewhat positive -- had fallen from 66 percent to just 22 percent.
You look at those numbers, scratch your head and wonder:
What had Putin done in that two-year-period to so significantly improve his standing among Republicans, and only among Republicans?
Since that 2014 poll, Russia has been hit with international sanctions as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and its semi-covert use of Russian troops to threaten Ukraine. The Russian economy has tanked, foreign investment has fled and the value of the Russian ruble against the dollar has fallen by almost half. In part to distract from the economic mess, Putin has committed Russian troops and warplanes to support the Syrian dictatorship, which at this very minute is retaking the city of Aleppo and according to the United Nations is committing the mass execution of civilians, including women and children.
Putin has also cracked down harder on Russian media and his political opposition. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot several times in the back as he walked across a bridge in Moscow, right outside the walls of the Kremlin. Nemtsov, a physicist by training, had recently expressed grave fears that Putin had targeted him for elimination.
As Putin critic, Russian exile and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov put it at the time, Nemtsov's murder "shocked even those of us who thought we had lost the ability to be shocked by events in Vladimir Putin’s Russia." "The western administrations that have passively watched Putin turn Russia back into a dictatorship – and invade his neighbors – are out of excuses," Kasparov wrote.
That record would not seem to explain why so many Republicans were suddenly willing to hit the reset button on Putin's behalf. So instead of looking overseas for the answer to our mystery, maybe we should be looking closer to home. Maybe it's the fact that a week before that July 2016 poll, Donald Trump had accepted the GOP nomination for president at the party convention in Cleveland.
The rise of Trump, an unabashed Putin fan and ally, has put the Republican base in an uncomfortable position. How can they reconcile their embrace of Trump as party leader and now president while maintaining a deep dislike for Trump's friend Putin? The feat had become psychologically difficult, and something had to give. To resolve it, they have begun to discover merits in the Russian leader that they hadn't previously seen.
If that theory is valid, I suspect Putin's popularity among Republicans has grown even more since the July YouGov poll. It grew with Trump's surprise election victory, and it probably grew again just this morning, when Trump announced the nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO and Putin supporter Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Tillerson was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin. He has been an ardent advocate of ending economic sanctions against Russia. You can't continue to perceive Putin as a threat to American interests and values and also believe that Tillerson will make a great secretary of state, so again, I suspect that the perception of Putin in certain circles will have to change, even though the ex-KGB agent himself hasn't changed a whit.
It's really something watching a plan come together like this.