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What are Russians really thinking about the war?

The TMC 2022 roundups: Russia and Ukraine

- December 29, 2022

Ten months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some 70 percent of Russians support the war, according to the latest survey by Levada, Russia’s most respected independent polling organization. In December 2021, analysis here in TMC pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of Russians wanted to see Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.

So what happened over the past year?

For the first weeks of the war, the public mood in Russia was unsettled. Polls registered fear (31 percent), shock (12 percent) and outrage (8 percent), alongside pride (51 percent). But within a month, Russians’ initial anxiety began to dissipate. Surveys showed a large majority (80 percent) supported “the actions of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine,” or “the special military operation” — not the “war,” a term the Kremlin quickly outlawed. Dina Smeltz and Lily Wojtowicz attributed this rise to the simple resonance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-NATO posturing.

While opposition within Russia to the war has remained fairly stable — even after the announcement of a draft this fall — uncertainty about the war now appears to be rising, according to the Russia Watcher survey project and other sources. Meanwhile, Levada surveys suggest the number of Russians who definitely support the war has declined. These trends track worsening perceptions of Russia’s performance over a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that retook the only regional capital Russia had occupied since the war began, as Ivan Gomza and Graeme Robertson explain. And recent polling by the Kremlin’s own pollster shows that partial mobilization was disastrous for the public mood. Three months after the announcement, Russians are still far more likely to describe those around them as anxious (57 percent) than calm (38 percent).

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Many of the more than 70 articles we’ve published on the war in Ukraine provide insights into Russian support for Putin’s moves, along with clues about polling data and how the numbers might change in the coming year.

To believe or not to believe (that is the question)

Over the past year, the Russian government ramped up its use of both outright repression and the law to dissuade and punish antiwar sentiment. These tools prove effective because “Russians generally believe that people should obey the law and that people should be punished for violating it,” as Lauren A. McCarthy explained.

Given Kremlin efforts to limit the public expression of political opinion, political scientists such as myself ask three questions: Are Russians less willing today to respond to surveys? Are they less willing to answer sensitive questions? Are they lying to pollsters about their sensitive opinions?

In a recently published article, I show that, overall, survey cooperation rates didn’t fall significantly after the start of the war in high-quality face-to-face probability samples — the gold standard for public opinion research. Still, though the overall number of Russians refusing to participate in surveys hasn’t increased appreciably, that’s not the case among young Russians, in particular.

Are surveys missing growing opposition among Russian youths, a group that has also been much more openly opposed to the war? Because they make up only a small share of the population, undercounting their opposition has little effect on the overall picture of support for the war as Vladimir Zvonovsky explains. Still, the overall picture may be misleading if young Russians turn decisively against the war.

And there’s little evidence that survey respondents are hiding their opposition with “don’t know” responses, which generally remain low for potentially sensitive questions. An analysis by Nadia Evangelian and Andrei Tkachenko concludes that these “don’t know” responses reflect respondents’ lack of clear opinions on the war (and other political issues), rather than an effort to avoid disclosing opposition. One possible exception: Draft-age men seem less willing to share their thoughts on the war, as Sam Greene explained.

There is, however, good evidence that some Russians opt to lie to pollsters. In an online sample skewed to younger, educated urbanites, political scientists found that support for the war falls by about 10 percentage points when respondents are asked indirectly, in a way that protects their privacy, rather than directly.

Perhaps most importantly, however, support can vary up to 20 percentage points based on question placement and question wording. It matters greatly, for example, whether a question conflates Putin and the war (as when pollsters ask about Putin’s decision to undertake the “special military operation”) or asks about the actions of Russia’s military, thus priming support for the troops.

Fundamental patterns continue

Though surveys capture somewhat different levels of support for the war, some fundamental patterns appear to persist. Will Pyle and Michael Alexeev shared insights based on their analysis of 20 years of polling data from two major multicountry surveys of public opinion (the World Values Survey and the International Social Survey Program). They explained why Russian patriotism is distinctive: Russians feel a stronger obligation to support their country, right or wrong, than people in virtually any other country surveyed. Russians have also consistently expressed greater willingness to sacrifice their material well-being for their country’s military might.

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And Russia’s social structure constrains the extent of antiwar resistance. As Tomila Lankina explains, drawing on her book “The Estate Origins of Democracy,” unequal access to education and employment have endured in Russia since the czarist era. The legacies of widespread illiteracy and state-dependent mobility limit Russia’s stock of critical citizens — and concentrate opposition to the war within a narrow slice of urban intelligentsia.

It’s not just Russia’s social structure — the country’s economic structure shapes public support for the war. As my book, “The Autocratic Middle Class,” explains, a heavily state-dependent economy helps the Kremlin mobilize pro-regime opinion in schools and workplaces. Sanctions have boosted economic dependence on the government, and public employees come under heavy pressure to conform to the government line and help mobilize other Russians to support the war. Patriotic pro-war displays, such as the rallies at the start of the war and after the announcement of partial mobilization, rely heavily on public-sector participation.

Public displays of affection (and disaffection)

Such public patriotic displays are more than mere window dressing. Buckley and co-authors found that telling Russians that Putin’s approval rating was declining (it was before the war) made them less likely to support him. Putin’s support depends on perceptions that he is popular — the same is probably true of his war.

Keeping up the appearance of popular support likewise discourages elites from public dissent. Given Russian elites’ economic dissatisfaction even before the war, Sharon Werning Rivera explains that the Kremlin cannot ignore the potential for elite dissent.

Thus, as the Kremlin looks ahead to 2023, one likely goal will be to continue to project unity.

What does “unity” look like, exactly? Overall, 70 percent of survey respondents may say that they support the war. But the claim “Russians support the war” unwittingly adopts the language of the war’s protagonists in the Kremlin. As the eminent scholar of nationalism Rogers Brubaker writes, it is a statement not about “a thing in the world,” but a perspective on the world. The claim misses both the diversity of support (passive, active, stable, precarious) and the existence of opposition.

As Evgenia Olimpieva and her co-authors write here in TMC, repression enabled by blind patriotism has no doubt driven resistance in Russia underground. “Stealth resistance” to the war in Ukraine — acts of sabotage, resistance art and even activism to support Ukrainian refugees — has replaced street protest as the principal form of societal resistance. Look for these tactics to multiply in 2023 if Russians’ anxiety and economic uncertainty continue to grow.

Bryn Rosenfeld (@brynrosenfeld) is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University, and TMC editor. She is the author of “The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy” (Princeton University Press, 202o).