The Russians’ pro-Putin sentiment can quickly change. Many opted for Putin as seemingly the only alternative to the Yeltsin-era chaos. After several years of orderly statehood under Putin, many voters no longer see the strong-hand policy as the priority. Putin’s rape of the Russian constitution, whether by remaining in the office for a third term or switching state powers to Putin-the-prime-minister, won’t be popular. Russians vividly remember the lawless Soviet years, and many won’t welcome Putin’s illegal moves to stay in power. Putin the perpetual leader painfully reminds many adults of the Soviet Secretary-Generals. Putin has no opportunities to continue showing his attractive strength. The Oligarchs are humbled, the war in Chechnya entered the truce phase, and Putin is on the brink of falling into the cognitive mold of the petty generalissimo. Putin’s only remaining sphere for a show of force is anti-American politics, but the Russian people, though they enjoy it, are unwilling to enter an arms race or political standoff.

Putin the outgoing leader aroused sympathy among Russians. They remembered his achievements, such as curtailing the rampaging theft of state property, and valued his decency in leaving the presidential office within the constitutionally set time-frame. The Putin who betrayed their hopes for a law-abiding leader would be much less popular.

More Russians will vote for Putin in the presidential elections than have voted for his party. But among the third of the population who voted for the party, many were intimidated into doing so, others succumbed to massive propaganda whose influence is fleeting, and still others saw Putin’s party as the only credible political force opposed to Russia’s despised liberals. Only perhaps a quarter of Russians strongly back Putin. That’s far short of the support required to maintain benevolent authoritarianism.