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A nation must think before it acts.
Since February 24, the day that Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the issue of the Russian people’s attitudes toward the war has been raised many times. Numerous surveys published in recent weeks show that the majority supports the war. Even as polling results, especially in authoritarian regimes, are often questioned, hard numbers hold a lot of symbolic value. Yet, Russian perceptions of the war are a complicated subject, and a more detailed analysis helps the public to better understand the Vladimir Putin regime and the roots of the conflict.
An early February poll conducted by CNN and released on the eve of the invasion showed that, when asked about whether it would be right to use military force to prevent Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or to “reunite” with Russia, respectively, 50 percent and 36 percent of Russian respondents said yes. It is noteworthy that the word “war” did not appear in the survey. Moreover, only 13 percent of Russians actually thought that their country was “likely to initiate military action” against their neighbor.
Fast forward one month after the full-fledged invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has boasted that over 75 percent of Russians support what is officially described in Russia as a “special military operation” (it is now against the law to call it “war,” with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for doing so) and that this gives the president “strength to go forward.” This number is backed up by surveys produced by two state-controlled polling companies, WCIOM and FOM. According to a March 23 survey by WCIOM, 74 percent of Russians support the “military operation” in Ukraine, while 17 percent do not, with 9 percent undecided. An earlier FOM poll showed that 65 percent of respondents believe that Russia’s launching of the “military operation” was the right decision, while 17 percent disagreed, with 18 percent undecided.
Many observers questioned the validity of these data given that official numbers could be easily manipulated to fit the needed narrative. But some political insiders and independent pollsters offered similar estimates. Well-known political commentator Valery Solovei, who is sometimes linked to the Kremlin, citing his sources, published a demographic breakdown of public attitudes to the war. His results reveal a more complex picture. According to his data, 75 percent of young Russians (aged 23-25) are against the war, but this attitude shifts with age. In the middle-age group, for example, only 35 percent are against the war, and among those over 60, the figure is 22 percent. To put this in context, young people (aged 15 to 30) constitute roughly a 20-percent share of the country’s population of 146 million, so the overall attitude tilts toward older and usually more conservative groups. Within the same vein, a February 28 survey conducted by the marketing research firm Russian Field and political activist Maxim Katz showed that almost 59 percent of respondents supported the “special military operation,” but the level of support was lower among younger people (18-29)—slightly over 40 percent—and higher among the older ones (60+)—over 70 percent.
What about those who don’t support the war? Opinion polls show that their numbers are smaller, but the situation is already different from the 2014 Crimea euphoria when 88 percent of Russians supported annexation, according to independent data. There are other signs of dissent. Tens of thousands of Russians have protested against the war across the country, with over 15,000 detained since February 24. The Change.org anti-war petition, started by human rights veteran Lev Ponomarev, gathered over a million signatures in just a few days. Numerous public letters were signed by various professional communities calling for the president to stop the war—another unprecedented development. According to some estimates, about 200,000 Russians fled the country in the first three weeks of war, and the number has likely grown.
While opinion polls suggest that the majority of Russians do support the “military operation,” these numbers may not reflect what most people actually believe due to a lack of independent data, the framing of the polling questions (e.g., word choice of “military operation” and not “war”), and the general unreliability of Russian opinion polls. Judging by public discourse, there is an aggressive, war-mongering minority (some experts estimate it could be 20 or 25 percent of the adult population), a potentially smaller group that openly rejects the war (let us say that it is the 17 percent reported by WCIOM), and a less outspoken majority whose actual views often remain unclear. What can we infer about Russian perceptions of the war then? Some explanations can be found in the nature of the Putin regime, Russian political culture, and the Kremlin propaganda’s narratives.
Putin’s regime has been often defined as “personalist authoritarian”—a type of autocracy with a dominant “strongman” leader. Since Putin’s assuming of the top office, Russian people—exhausted by the economic hardships of the 1990s, insecurity, and internal violence—largely accepted his “bargain” of safety and stability in exchange for political freedoms and rights. The public was encouraged to mind their own business and not interfere with politics, which was presented as dirty and amoral. Cultivating political apathy and disengagement was a key goal of the regime. Those who dared to cross the red lines drawn—quite arbitrarily—by the state were punished in show trials. The bargain worked for a while: Russia’s economic boom of 2000s allowed the public to turn a blind eye on the growing centralization of power in Putin’s hands. But after the infamous “swap” between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev resulted in the largest protests in Russia’s modern history, the bargain was broken, and the regime tightened the screws—silencing dissent, scapegoating, and sending a clear message to the rest.
Russia’s political culture is also paternalistic. If in his first decade of rule Putin was portrayed as a masculine, macho leader, then, in his second decade, his image was reinvented as a “father of the nation,” an ultimate arbiter, who is “above the fight.” Through centralization of power and propaganda, Putin emerged as a sacred leader of unquestionable authority. At the same time, Russia’s tragic history of communism, totalitarianism, and mass repression has made it hard for many Russians, especially the older generation, to challenge any authority, let alone that of a strong leader. Some scholars argue that weak leadership and the “crisis of failed manhood” in the post-Stalin as well as post-Soviet periods has shaped the public appeal for a strongman and “broader narratives of masculinized nationalism.”
The impact of the powerful Kremlin propaganda on the public mind, while extensively discussed, is still to be properly understood. While every government engages in propaganda or spinning of favorable narratives to promote policies or shape public opinion, Russian authorities have gone far beyond the standard propaganda techniques by pushing every possible limit of truth, factuality, and decency and by spreading outlandish conspiracy theories. By identifying Russians’ grievances and insecurities (e.g., the sense of national humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Kremlin’s political technologists and propagandists hijacked the political discourse and flooded it with poisonous messages that directed public outrage toward the “enemy du jour”: the United States, NATO, Ukraine, and others.
Since Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech, in which the Russian president listed his own grudges and criticized the West for ignoring Russia’s security concerns (e.g., NATO expansion), his regime’s opposition to the West—particularly, the United States—has informed his political course and propaganda. As part of the narratives promoted by the Kremlin, Russia is presented as a superpower and a unique civilization standing alone against the hypocritical and decadent West, which exerts influence by installing puppet regimes around the world. This juxtaposition is further seen as an existential struggle between good (Russia) and evil (the West). Another powerful narrative taps into the USSR victory in World War II, which has been exploited to boost national pride and Russian exceptionalism, but essentially morphed into a cult, with the popularization of military slogans, such as “We Can Repeat” or “To Berlin,” implying that Russian army can reach Berlin again, as it did in 1945.
This brings us back to Ukraine. For the Putin regime—which might have fallen under the spell of its own propaganda—Ukraine, with its historical significance for Russia as a cradle of the Russian nation and a flank protecting Russia from the enemy—has become a crucial battleground in the standoff against the “empire of lies,” as Putin has recently described the West. Which is why, for eight years since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Kremlin propaganda has hammered, through every possible media outlet, a simple message: Ukraine is not a real country, it is controlled by forces hostile to Russia, and something needs to be done before it’s too late. Having all major TV networks, newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the internet under state control has allowed the Putin regime to amplify these messages and narratives.
When one considers these factors—the nature of the Putin regime intertwined with Russian history, political culture, and propaganda narratives—it becomes clear why, as the above-mentioned WCIOM survey revealed, 46 percent of Russians believe that the main goals of the “military operation” are to defend Russia, demilitarize Ukraine, and stop NATO expansion; 19 percent believe the goal is to “denazify” Ukraine; 17 percent to defend Donbass; and 5 percent to occupy and annex Ukraine. In other words, about half of the people who acknowledge that they support the use of force in Ukraine justify it as a preemptive strike, an act of defense: If Russia hadn’t attacked, then it would have been invaded.
This perception is clearly a propaganda construct, albeit a powerful one. It doesn’t, for example, reconcile in people’s minds with the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a Russian-speaking Jew who won a free and fair election and is thus the legitimate leader of Ukraine. Also, according to the above-mentioned Russian Field survey, 88 percent of Russians apparently want to be friends with Ukraine—a country that Russian troops have already been bombarding for several days at the time the survey was conducted. These examples of cognitive dissonance point to the lack of understanding and critical thinking with regards to Russian aggression and war crimes in Ukraine. It appears that propaganda narratives may have been injected directly into the unconscious, but they do not constitute a coherent belief system: It is difficult to imagine how one can both support the bombardment of the allegedly Nazi Ukraine and want to be friends with it at the same time.
Delusion and denial could be related to the central elements of Russia’s national identity that envisions itself as the “country that won against fascism”—not an aggressor but rather the country that has always had to defend itself against (mostly Western) invaders. The power of national pride rooted in Russia’s sacrifice in World War II has been so all-encompassing that for the small number of Russians who woke up on February 24 to the horrifying news that their motherland had launched a full-fledged war against Ukraine, have been living an endless nightmare since that day. That part of their identity has collapsed. To those Russians who continue to support the war, the myth of WWII victory has served as a protective shield from the truth. It is not clear how long this denial will last, but, if history is any indication, sooner or later it will crash, and the consequences of being exposed to the horrible truth will be devastating.
As the Putin regime struggles to win the war in Ukraine, Russian people now live under the de facto conditions of war censorship and martial law, and despite the propaganda’s bravado and the “hypnotic” effect of the regime’s high approval ratings, there is no “patriotic uplifting” in the country. The unprecedented sanctions imposed by the West will soon be felt by every single Russian, although, as shown by the examples of Iran and North Korea, it remains to be seen if this will impact beliefs or actions of those who support the war, whether they constitute an apathetic silent majority or an aggressive warmongering minority. The current crisis remains extremely dangerous, volatile, and unpredictable, but one day, when this regime is gone, Russian people will have to face the truth—and those who are willing to accept responsibility for their government’s war crimes will need to do a lot of soul-searching to give a straight answer to the question posed in a famous Soviet song “O, do the Russians long for war?”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.