Middle-Age Deprivation: Why do most Russians want an end to war, but will not support an anti-war candidate in the elections? And, is that really accurate?

On the eve of the presidential elections, Russian citizens see the optimal political programme as the end of the war or, at the very least, a ceasefire with Ukraine. They desire increased government attention to internal social and economic issues, lifting of sanctions, and even the restoration of relations with Western countries. At the same time, they are aware that Vladimir Putin has different priorities, yet they are still willing to vote for him or a candidate with slightly less militaristic views. Behind this contradictory picture lies substantial polarisation and three distinct factions. While younger respondents staunchly advocate for peace, and are willing to support an anti-war candidate and unilateral troop withdrawal from occupied territories, older demographics are dominated by pro-war sentiments. In between these points of view lies the 'peace, but not defeat' faction — those who are ready to support an immediate transition to peace if initiated by Putin or the commencement of peace talks, but are not willing to support unilateral troop withdrawal or an anti-war candidate alternative to Putin. In other words, scenarios where the war is acknowledged as a mistake and its cessation appears to be a more pressing issue than the conditions of peace. War fatigue and the desire for it to end increasingly dominate Russian public opinion, but the question of the pathways to achieving peace continue to divide society. Moreover, the 'unconditional peace' faction is likely underrepresented in polls by about a third.

Desired future, undesirable present, and the 'better-than-Putin' candidate

While direct polling questions about attitudes toward the war paint a fairly monotonous picture and add little to our understanding of Russian public opinion, indirect questions about different aspects of wartime, conflict resolution scenarios, and specific political decisions reveal a contradictory picture of pro-war and anti-war sentiments and emotions.

As the 'desired future,' residents of Russia envision the end of the war or, at the very least, a ceasefire with Ukraine. They also desire increased government attention to internal social and economic problems, the lifting of sanctions, and even the restoration of relations with Western countries, as shown by the latest wave of the 'Chronicles' survey. At the same time, they are well aware that these expectations are far from the set of priorities of Vladimir Putin, yet they express their readiness to vote for him in the presidential elections.

Each third of the respondents from the sample (1602 people) were asked by the 'Chronicles' pollsters one question each: 1) what do they expect Putin will do after the elections; 2) what the 'ideal' presidential candidate should do; and 3) what development of events they themselves would wish for in the coming year. They were given the same set of answer options for each question. The survey results showed that Putin's programme is far from the image of the 'desired future' and even from the action plan of the 'ideal' presidential candidate. Only 15% of the respondents believe that a new round of mobilisation is needed, but almost 40% are convinced that Putin will announce it. 58% of those surveyed would like at least a ceasefire with Ukraine, but only half as many believe that Putin will agree to it. 56% would like the lifting of sanctions, but only 19% think that Putin will act in that direction.

Expectations of residents of Russia within different future scenarios, % of those surveyed

In general, the desired programme for the future is one of ending the war and a normalisation of the situation, and it is supported by the majority — from 56% to 83% of respondents. However, this programme presupposes Russia achieving the goals of its 'military operation’, which are not clearly defined. Essentially, this means ending the war in a way that would not appear as a defeat for Russia. A schism is also observed regarding military spending and the restoration of relations with the West, with opinions evenly split even in the 'desired future' scenario.

The gap between the image of the 'desired future' and what Putin is likely to do is very significant, ranging from 23 to 37 percentage points, averaging 28 points. Surprisingly, even the 'ideal' candidate in the respondents' perception significantly deviates from the image of the 'desired future' (an average of 19 points across all agenda items) and appears to be a kind of 'peaceful' Putin (differing from Putin by only 7 points). This likely means that a more radical shift towards peace appears too contentious for respondents. At the same time, the gap between respondents' perceptions of Putin's programme and the image of the 'desired future' is striking, suggesting that a hypothetical alternative candidate in the presidential elections could garner significant support.

Peace, not defeat

The data from a survey conducted in February by the Russian Field project paints a vivid picture of pre-election deprivation. On one hand, they demonstrate war fatigue and a desire for peace. For instance, 75% are ready to support a hypothetical decision by Putin to sign a peace agreement and halt the 'special operation' tomorrow, while 17% would not be ready to support this (a similar ratio was observed at the beginning of October 2022 during mobilisation). 49% would prefer a scenario of transitioning to peace negotiations instead of continuing military action (supported by 40%), marking a significant shift as these groups were equal in 2023. The proportion of those who would cancel the decision to start the 'special operation' if given the chance continues to slowly rise (38% compared to 49% who would not cancel the decision). 54% say that news related to the 'operation' evokes negative and extremely negative emotions, while only 16% experience patriotic and positive feelings. 71% believe the operation has dragged on (compared to 58% in October 2023). However, only a quarter believe the war will end within a year.

At the same time, 54% of respondents would rather not vote for a presidential candidate who opposes the 'military operation,' while only 30% would. When asked, 'Which military strategy would you support?' 60% chose the strategy of further advancement (with some respondents believing it to be the optimal path to a peace agreement). 64% agree with the strategy of holding positions and refraining from further advancement. A third of respondents (33%) support the unconditional withdrawal of troops from Ukrainian territory as a path to peace.

However, among younger age groups (up to 30 years old), almost 60% support this scenario, while only 30% do not. In contrast, among older demographics (45+), only a quarter support it, while over 60% do not. Similarly, an anti-war candidate would win the elections by a landslide (48% to 33%) if only voters under 30 voted. If Russian citizens under 45 voted, the chances of the two candidates would be 50-50. However, among older age groups (45+), the anti-war candidate would not even garner a quarter of the votes.

‘Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a presidential candidate in Russia who opposes the “military operation”?’ % of those surveyed by age groups.

‘Based on your perception, should Russia continue the “military operation” on Ukrainian territory or transition to peace negotiations?’ % of those surveyed by age groups

As we can see, there's a clear polarisation between older and younger age groups — the 'peace camp' versus the 'war camp'. Consequently, the balance of power is determined by the position of middle-aged individuals. On one hand, these age groups would support an immediate transition to peace initiated by Putin or a move towards peace negotiations, which they perceive as a controlled process. However, they would not support the unilateral withdrawal of the army from Ukraine or an anti-war candidate alternative to Putin. In other words, they would not endorse scenarios in which the war is acknowledged as a mistake and its termination is seen as a more significant and high-priority issue than the conditions of peace.

War, peace and fear factions

The position of this intermediate group, which is most represented by middle-aged individuals, is apparently shaped by several beliefs. First, victory over Ukrainians still seems to them a safer and more likely scenario than victory over Vladimir Putin with his militaristic aspirations and the 'war faction' supporting him within Russia. Therefore, the desire for an end to the war is channelled into the expectation of a decisive advantage on the battlefield, which would force Ukraine to negotiate on Moscow's terms. Second, a scenario that resembles a defeat for Russia also appears highly undesirable and dangerous to this group. Therefore, the continuation of the discomfort of war seems more acceptable to them at this point than an uncontrolled end to the war through the unilateral withdrawal of troops from Ukraine or the victory of an anti-war candidate. This paradox is also explained by the survey conducted by the 'Chronicles' project, where the 'ideal' presidential candidate seems much closer to Putin than to the image of the 'desired (non-military) future'. This candidate does not provoke internal conflict but steers events towards a more peaceful direction.

However, the picture of public sentiments during wartime surveys is likely skewed. In the Russian Field study, 25% of respondents who had already agreed to speak with pollsters reported being afraid to participate in surveys. However, among those who would cancel the decision to start the 'special operation' if they could go back in time (the broad anti-war faction), such concerns were expressed by 38%, while among those who would not cancel the decision (the broad pro-war faction), only 12% did (similar results were obtained in the previous 'Chronicles' survey: among those who did not support the 'military operation', the risk of participating in surveys was rated 2.5 times higher by respondents than by those who support it — 41% versus 16%). If we project this difference onto a hypothetical situation regarding survey participation, out of 10 people who somewhat support the 'special operation’, nine would likely agree to participate, while only six would participate from those belonging to the other faction. In this model, the 'peace faction' is represented in the survey at two-thirds of its potential.

In such a scenario, the ratio of those who would cancel the decision to start the 'special operation' and those who would not, could be 48% versus 41%, rather than the 38% versus 49% as observed in the actual survey. Accordingly, in the question about an anti-war candidate, 39% would support him, while 47% would not. Finally, in the question about withdrawing troops from Ukrainian territory, the groups in favour and against this step would be almost equal — 42% versus 44%.

Of course, this is only a hypothetical calculation. However, it demonstrates how fear of Putin and the 'war' group can initially lead to the underrepresentation of the anti-war factions's opinion, and then compel the average citizen to temper their desire for peace out of fear of confrontation with the 'war faction', which in their eyes appears stronger than it actually is.

In any case, the main conclusion that can be drawn from these questions is that war fatigue and the desire for peace are the dominant sentiments in public opinion and continue to grow, but the question of how to achieve it still divides society.

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