RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has something to celebrate on this, his 63rd birthday. His air campaign in Syria may be controversial in the West, but new polls show that Russians are overwhelmingly behind him. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Vladimir Putin can celebrate today knowing that he's still popular with the Russian people. That's despite a sagging economy that's pushed about a fifth of all Russians below the poverty line. Putin and his top officials have blamed most of this misery on the West, which they say is out to crush Russia's independent foreign policy. The air campaign in Syria is the latest manifestation of that policy. And so far, at least, it appears to be playing well with people on the streets of central Moscow.
VITALY KRASIKOV: (Through interpreter) Russia is protecting its national interests since we want to destroy terrorism. This fire could spread to our territory in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
FLINTOFF: That's Vitaly Krasikov, a 52-year-old laborer who believes that Russia is facing a campaign of lies by the West.
KRASIKOV: (Through interpreter) The propaganda war is underway. We are standing up to the pressure. Putin's speech at the U.N. was better than Obama's. Putin was more convincing and made a better impression.
FLINTOFF: Nikolai Nemtinov is a 50-year-old autoworker. He, too, thinks that Putin's doing the right thing in Syria, but he worries that it isn't Russia that's winning the battle for world opinion.
NIKOLAI NEMTINOV: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: He says, "it's the United States, of course, because they have a strong dollar. Unfortunately, our politicos don't think about that." Margarita Dvurechenskaya, a 74-year-old pensioner, is more skeptical.
MARGARITA DVURECHENSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: "Frankly," she says, "I don't know what Russia is doing there or why it entered into this conflict. The Syrians should sort it out themselves." Despite that skepticism, though, Russians are still overwhelmingly behind their president. A nationwide poll this week showed his approval rating at 80 percent, down from 89 percent in June. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.