Having It Both Ways: Russians Both Support and Oppose War
Realistic assessments of scenarios for the Russo-Ukrainian war increasingly agree that neither side is likely to achieve a clear military victory. Two variables will determine the overall balance of power: the balance of forces on the battlefield and the ability of each side to mobilize resources and personnel to continue the war. Militarily, the West will try to counteract Russia’s advantages so that Putin cannot win. Each side’s mobilization success will remain key to its ability to wage a war of attrition.
Putin’s resources seem superior owing to Russia’s much greater population and a relatively successful partial call-up last fall. But on a closer look, this is not entirely true. Russia’s much-anticipated winter offensive did not materialize. Russia’s social media are overflowing with complaints from the mobilized and their relatives. The gist of those appeals is simple: the mobilized refuse to go on an offensive, citing high casualty rates and lack of training.
This brings us back to the issue of the Russian citizenry’s real attitudes toward the war against Ukraine. Is it changing as the war rages on for over a year, as the population becomes more involved, and as the death toll rises? One year into the war, what, if anything, do we know about Russian public opinion?
The Picture: Three Sources
Three independent polling groups conducted surveys in Russia throughout the war’s first year. The data are surprisingly comparable and consistent. According to these polls, public support for the war rose in the spring of 2022, declined in late summer and fall, and rose again slightly in early 2023.
The Levada Center, Russia’s veteran independent pollster, found that respondents who said yes to the direct question of whether they supported the war fluctuated between 74 and 76 percent in April and August, declined to 71–74 percent in September and December, and climbed back to 75–77 percent in January and February. The Chronicle, a year-old polling startup, saw support rise in the first months of the war from 59 to 66 percent, then decline to 51 percent, its lowest point, at the end of September. Support, according to the Chronicle, then returned to 59 percent by February 2023.
The Russian Field, also a relative newcomer, saw a support level of about 60 percent in the beginning that later stabilized in the range of 66–68 percent. The difference can most likely be attributed to survey design. The Levada Center maintains face-to-face polling, while the other two organizations use telephone surveys. The Chronicle project offers respondents the option “I do not want to answer” in addition to the usual “undecided” option, which has reduced the share of both war supporters and war opponents.
Limitations: A Distorting Mirror
In all surveys, when answering a straightforward question, the majority of respondents support the war. Yet these responses should be treated with caution. The question “Can you freely talk about your attitude toward the actions of the country’s leadership, or are you afraid, feel uncomfortable?” when posed to the respondents of the Levada Center polls showed that among those who approve of Putin, 42 percent answered yes, while 7 percent chose the answer “afraid, feel uncomfortable.” At the same time, among those who do not approve of Putin, 18 percent said yes, while every third respondent (31 percent) chose the “I am afraid” option. In the Russian Field poll, among those who supported the “military operation,” one in six (16 percent) said they were afraid to participate in polls, while 43 percent of those who do not support the war were afraid to be polled.
It is clear that loyalists are more likely to agree to be surveyed than regime opponents. On the one hand, the data from the various independent polls are consistent and capture the dynamics of the respondents’ moods in similar ways. On the other hand, the distributions we see in the polls are highly likely to have a bias: loyal respondents are overrepresented and nonloyal respondents are underrepresented.
The Result: Three Majorities
Keeping these findings in mind, we can move on to analyzing the quality of support for the war among those who agreed to talk to the pollsters. In analyzing the Chronicle’s data, we looked at respondents’ attitudes toward the war on two levels.
Answers to the direct question (“Do you support the Russian army’s military operation in Ukraine?”) demonstrated declarative support. In the current repressive conditions, a negative answer to this question is almost a criminal act. With this in mind, the Chronicle’s survey asked respondents additional questions designed to clarify their attitude toward certain political decisions and beliefs related to the war (“Are you ready to support Putin’s decision to stop the war immediately?,” “Do you support prioritizing military spending over social spending?,” “Do you condemn those who evade mobilization?”).
This analysis allowed us to divide respondents into several groups. Among the 60 percent of those who said they supported military action, only slightly more than half gave pro-war responses to clarifying questions. This group, constituting approximately 35–38 percent of all respondents, forms the core of the war’s supporters. This means that 22–25 of all respondents, while exhibiting declarative support for the war, do so with reservations (they want it to be over soon, they want more social spending, they sympathize with mobilization evaders). About two-thirds of those who, in the Chronicle poll, said “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to answer” to the direct war question gravitated toward an antiwar stance in answering the clarifying questions. Finally, 10 percent of all respondents openly stated they did not support the war.
In other words, alongside the group of core supporters (35–38 percent of all respondents), there is a majority group of roughly 55 percent that maintains a nonresistance attitude toward the war. They either convey declarative support, but with reservations (22–25 percent), or shy away from declarative support altogether (30 percent). This nonresistance group maintains a range of lukewarm attitudes toward the war, neither particularly sympathizing with it nor opposing it. As a result, whenever we deal with open and direct attitudes of support or opposition, the bloc of supporters of the war (the 35–38 percent core group) ends up being three to four times larger than the bloc of those who openly oppose the war. This is explained by the fact that expressing direct opposition to the war is much more costly than expressing direct support for it.
We can glean a third majority from those same data. About 55 percent of those who responded to pollsters hold views that cannot be described as pro-war. We can put together this non-pro-war group from those who conveyed declarative support but with reservations (22–25 percent), those who did not express any view (20 percent), and those who openly opposed the war (10 percent).
To wrap this up, the three majorities are the group that expresses declaratory support for war (60 percent), the nonresistance group (about 55 percent), and the non-pro-war group (about 55 percent). These three sets overlap.
The Nation of Half-Supporters
Finally, one more study sheds light on the structure of Russia’s public opinion regarding the war. A group of independent sociologists from the Public Sociology Laboratory conducted in-depth interviews with respondents over the course of this past year. A total of about 300 interviews were recorded. The latest wave of interviews at the end of 2022 focused on the positions of those who are more likely to support the war.
The study demonstrates that mass surveys (including those referred to above) are unlikely to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether Russians support the war. In-depth interviews reveal a large group of people who simultaneously support and do not support the war. Their attitudes toward the war are a patchwork of contradictions, a mixed bag of narratives from both sides. In other words, it would be accurate to speak of a significant group of Russians whose attitude toward the war contains more support than opposition to it and of a significant group of Russians whose attitude toward the war contains more opposition than support for it. As repeated interviews have shown, the ratios of support and opposition in these groups are fluid: respondents do not change their views radically, but the focus on arguments of support or nonsupport may shift depending on the circumstances. Attempts to define clear-cut groups do not take us far.
This situation is not unusual. A median respondent’s views are often inconsistent. In this case, however, this inconsistency is associated with a high level of polarization of the two spaces—the official media and speakers inside Russia and the independent and antiwar media and speakers outside Russia. The antiwar rhetoric of those in the second space is imbued with the spirit of a total break with the regime and is therefore unacceptable to people inside the country, for whom adopting that spirit would mean moving into a state of confrontation with the regime.
One way or another, the most important conclusion to draw here is that while the Putin regime has managed to maintain an "imposed consensus" around the war in Russian public space, in reality, the "support for the war" of the median electorate is internally contradictory, unstable, and unconsolidated. Events can lead to unexpected shifts.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more