Do most Russians support the war in Ukraine?
Polling reveals a picture that is more nuanced than the headline figures suggest: In August, less than half of survey respondents (46%) reported that they “definitely support” the Russian military’s activities, with 30% saying that they “mostly support” it.
By Andrei Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov*
The West and the Kremlin have one thing in common: both like to point out that Russian President Vladimir Putin has an 80% approval rating, and opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Russians support the war in Ukraine. What was once carefully referred to as “Putin’s war” has now become “Russia’s war” – or so it seems. In fact, polling and focus groups conducted by the independent Levada Center reveal a picture that is more nuanced than the headline figures suggest.
For starters, support for the Kremlin’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine is not necessarily wholehearted. In August, less than half of survey respondents (46%) reported that they “definitely support” the Russian military’s activities, with 30% saying that they “mostly support” it (figures that have barely changed since April).
NO WHOLEHEARTED SUPPORT FOR THE WAR
For the latter group, backing the war is probably less a matter of conviction than of conformism. Some respondents have commented, for example, that they cannot know exactly what is going on, indicating that the government knows best. People in this group might have some doubts – they are more likely to express fear and anxiety over the conflict and unlikely to express pride – but the desire to remain in their psychological and intellectual comfort zone prevails.
That comfort zone is built largely on the belief that, fundamentally, this is a defensive war. First, most Russians are convinced that the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine – particularly in the eastern Donbas region – was under attack. In fact, most of those who expressed support for the war highlighted the need to protect this group. For them, this imperative justifies actions that might otherwise seem unthinkable.
Second, Russians – especially older Russians – largely believe that their country had to “fight back” against those that would seek to destroy it. In February 2022 – just before Russia’s latest invasion – 60% of survey respondents reported that the United States and NATO were to blame for the conflict in Donbas, where war has been raging since 2014. That figure was up ten percentage points from the previous November.
THE WAR HAS PLENTY OF DETRACTORS IN RUSSIA
As widespread as these beliefs are, the Ukraine war still has plenty of detractors in Russia. Currently, about 17-20% of Russians say that they do not agree with their country’s actions in Ukraine, up from 14% in March. This group is dominated by young urban dwellers who consume news from the internet, rather than state-controlled television, though people who fit this description were still more likely than not to support the “special operation.”
The only category of people in which a majority opposed the war comprised those who broadly disapprove of Putin, the Russian government, and the State Duma. These people voted against the 2020 amendments to Russia’s constitution (which enabled Putin to reset the term limits of his office and prolong his rule until 2036), have a history of supporting opposition figures, and attended anti-Putin protests early last year. This group is also more likely to hold positive views of the West.
THE ANTIWAR RANKS HAVE GROWN
But Russians with long histories of dissent are not alone; more Russians oppose the fighting in Ukraine today than did after the violence first erupted in 2014. No more than 10% spoke out against the annexation of Crimea – half the number who declare their opposition to the war in Ukraine today – and only 11-12% of people said they were dissatisfied with Putin eight years ago, compared to 15-16% today.
Even as the ranks of antiwar Russians have grown, however, the likelihood of antiwar protests has plummeted. It is not difficult to understand why. Taking part in unsanctioned protests is now punishable by hefty fines and prison sentences for repeat offenses. Moreover, Russians can face criminal charges for inciting “others to take part in unsanctioned protests” or for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” And the nationwide ban on mass events, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, has yet to be lifted.
The will to rebel is further depleted by simple desensitization. “People have gotten accustomed to what is happening and have simply stopped paying attention,” one survey respondent explained. As long as there is no military mobilization and the most dissatisfied Russians are able to leave the country, a sense of normality prevails.
WISHING FOR AN END TO THE WAR
Of course, there are challenges that cannot be ignored, such as higher prices and the loss of savings. But, much like the pandemic, the conflict is viewed as a storm that must simply be weathered. While most Russians hope it will end soon – even among the war’s supporters, many would like Russia simply to declare victory and agree to peace terms – they are bracing themselves for an extended conflict and confrontation with the West.
Regardless, Russians seem willing to assume that things will eventually return to normal. “I think everything will work out soon,” one respondent noted. “It will sort itself out one way or another,” said a second.
In the meantime, there is little reason to think Putin’s regime is in any real danger. Russians largely blame their current struggles on the US, Europe, and NATO – an impression that sanctions have done nothing to dispel. Moreover, both the political opposition and civil society have been destroyed, and the threat of repression looms large. Putin is also ready to suppress those ultra-nationalists who think he is too soft. Imperialism and war are his niche, and he will surrender it to no one.
The question is whether the further deterioration of socioeconomic conditions could cause Russians to turn on Putin. After all, anti-government protests in Russia have often been sparked by unexpected developments in unexpected places. And before long, Russia will be headed into its next presidential election campaign, which will require Putin to articulate a powerful new vision to Russians. The war in Ukraine alone is not enough. That bullet has already been fired – and hasn’t stopped ricocheting.
*Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Denis Volkov is Director of the Levada Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.