The Levada Center's September poll shows that Russian attitudes towards the war in Ukraine have changed dramatically. That is not to say that support for the war has collapsed; on the contrary, the decrease was insignificant, falling from 76% in July to 72% in September. However, public perceptions of the war have drastically changed in other ways.
To start with, there has been a sharp increase in the attention being paid towards the events in Ukraine. Attention had been waning over the last five months: 64% of people monitored the news in March, but by August that figure stood at only 51%. The war was becoming background noise. By the end of September, this trend hadn’t just reversed but exceeded figures from March: there was an abrupt 17% increase in the number of people following the events in Ukraine; in March this figure stood at 68%. Attention had increased among all age groups, but the most dramatic rise was among those aged between 24 and 39, where the number of those following events jumped from 33% in August to 55% in September. Among other age groups, the average increase was 8 percentage points.
A similar trend is evident in responses to the question of whether respondents were worried about the events in Ukraine: in August, 74% of respondents were concerned by events, in September this number had jumped to 88%. This increase was also fuelled by younger people; those aged between 18 and 39 (a +25% increase). This means that respondents of military age formed the backbone of this increased attention, and were reacting to the mobilisation announcement. The Kremlin, which had been successful at censoring information about the war prior to this, had undone all its efforts all at once and forced people to take notice of what was happening in the conflict.
After several months of increasing escapism, the Russian people were confronted by the events of the war in a new way. The prevalent perception that the “special operation” was proceeding successfully has now all but collapsed. 68% of respondents in May called the "special operation" "a success”. In June this figure stood at 73%, and even at the end of July, when the Kremlin was obviously failing on the battleground, 62% of those polled by Russian Field (RF) still held that opinion. In the Levada Center’s September surveys, only 53% considered it a success, while 31% considered events to be unfolding unsuccessfully, and 16% found it difficult to state their opinion (which in this case can be understood to mean more “unsuccessful” than “successful”).
However, respondents interpreted the failure of the "operation" in a somewhat ambivalent way, manifested both in the terms used to describe events, such as "being delayed", going on for a long time (27%), and in the very fact that mobilisation was announced (23%). Other, more serious and political interpretations of this failure include: “a lot of people are dying”, “the war has no purpose, it should not have been started”, or references to “unprofessional command”, “lack of equipment”, or “corruption”. These opinions were voiced by about 30% of respondents. However, a similar number expressed a belief that the military efforts need to be stepped up and more decisive action must be taken.
Despite the fact that mobilisation was the catalyst for the swift change in public opinion towards the war, Russian citizens are quite aware of the reasons behind this process, namely, the successful counteroffensive conducted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 77% of respondents have been closely following the news or have heard something about events on the battlefield, despite the fact that news coverage by official media channels was limited. This demonstrates that Russians do not live in an information bubble, or rather, they live in one, but they nonetheless fully understand what is happening outside of this bubble. In August the number of those who wanted a continuation of hostilities stood at 48%, while those who would prefer peace negotiations was 44%. The responses to this question have now changed, with gender playing a crucial role in respondents’ replies: 57% of men are in favour of continuing hostilities while 34% of women are against this.
The decline in approval ratings and trust in government bodies and political leadership (primarily in the President, a decrease of 6 percentage points) has been quite moderate. As noted by Re: Russia, this has not yet counteracted the effects of the “rally around the flag” phenomena, which saw an explosive growth in these aforementioned ratings at the onset of the “operation”. And while the September 22-28 poll by the Levada Center may not have fully captured these sentiments, in general, the shock of the announcement of mobilisation has significantly altered the public’s understanding of the war. This effect can be described as acute and unfocused anxiety. The poll was conducted rapidly and it is difficult to come to any definite or well-articulated political conclusions. In data from FOM, government ratings had not sunk significantly (-5 percentage points for Vladimir Putin), but the general mood of respondents had experienced a dramatic shift: the number of respondents who noted the anxiety of the people around them had doubled (from 35% to 69%), while the share of criticism directed at authorities rose by 9 percentage points (from 34% to 43%).
Since the end of February, the independent research group Russian Field (RF), together with Maxim Katz, the head of the City Projects Foundation, has conducted eight versions of an all-Russian survey on attitudes towards the war. One of the objectives of the study was to test the data of large polling centres, to expand on their findings with additional questions, and to measure the actual willingness of respondents to talk to sociologists.
On the whole, the data produced by RF and the Levada Center appears to be fairly consistent. Data from RF shows that the number of respondents answering positively to direct questions about their support of the "SMO" increased throughout the spring. While at the very beginning of hostilities 59% of respondents were in support of the “operation”, by the end of July that number had increased to 69%. The Levada Center’s data at that stage demonstrated significantly higher support, but by the end of the summer the difference between its findings and that of RF had decreased and were fairly equivalent: 70-75% said they supported the actions of the Russian troops, of these answers a little more than half said that they fully supported those actions, while the rest “mostly” supported them.
Another indicator that has also been quite consistent across RF and the Levada Center’s data is a noticeable improvement in how respondents evaluated the state of affairs in Russia after the start of the "operation". Here, the Levada Center’s data elicited more positive responses (+10 percentage points) compared to RF, but taken together, both datasets indicate an overall trend. This increase in optimism is also the result of the consolidation effect (an upsurge in patriotism in response to geopolitical challenges, known as the "rally around the flag" effect). This phenomena was similarly observed after the annexation of Crimea, and in 2022 it even led to a renewed willingness to vote for United Russia, which had been steadily losing popularity. However, this growth in satisfaction might also be explained by the fact that the sharp deterioration in living standards, that people had expected due to the war and sanctions, failed to materialise. Data from the first round of RF’s polls showed that respondents were extremely pessimistic about their personal financial prospects at the end of February, but by their eighth poll at the end of July, almost half of those surveyed said that they did not feel the impact of sanctions on their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
The RF study helps shed light on another disputed issue: to what extent does the decision to respond to surveys remain neutral during conditions of war, repression and propaganda? Do replies reflect the respondent’s opinion on sensitive topics? Reports from RF, gathered by means of telephone survey, recorded in detail the willingness of respondents to participate in surveys (their response rate). According to RF researchers, since the beginning of the war, the number of refusals has increased by 25%, and the number of unfinished questionnaires by 34%. Across all eight surveys, the average bounce rate hovered around 88%, or 14.3 bounces and interruptions per target questionnaire. At the same time, around a third of those who refused to continue the conversation did so in response to a direct question about their support of the "SMO".
In the fourth round of the survey, respondents were directly asked whether they were afraid of taking part in research on the events in Ukraine? 21% of respondents confirmed that they held such concerns, but this fear was almost twice as prevalent among those who opposed the "military operation" than among its supporters (48% versus 28%).
Interestingly, this data is also consistent with the Levada Center’s findings. In 2015, the number of people who felt able to freely express their political opinions was the same among those who supported and opposed Putin. In 2022, the number of those opposing Putin who felt able to express their opinions freely was 50% lower than among those who supported the President. The number of respondents who were afraid to express their opinion was four times higher among Putin’s critics than among those loyal to the regime. These figures leave little room for the assumption that the willingness to participate in surveys is the same among respondents who support Putin and those who don’t. That being said, experts from the Levada Center insist that there has been no change in the willingness of respondents to take part in surveys.
Direct questions concerning people’s opinions of the war in Ukraine are an extremely sensitive topic for Russian respondents. Expressing an anti-war position publicly can be prosecuted according to "military" legislation, and almost everyone in Russia is aware of cases where such prosecutions have taken place. But besides the fear of potential repercussions for sharing such opinions, expressing sentiments about the war is very difficult for most Russians. While the war is ongoing and “our people” are dying, they must ask themselves which side they are on?
For this reason, sociologists supplement direct questions about opinions of the war with projective (indirect) questions. In this regard, RF polls significantly bolster our understanding of public opinion on the events in Ukraine. In the third round of polling, respondents were asked if they had the opportunity to return to the past, whether they think it would have been better to start the “operation” or not. While on average 70% of respondents declared their direct support for the SMO, only 56% would have started it if given the opportunity. This suggests that for about 15% of respondents who declare their support for the war, the reasons for starting it do not outweigh the costs. They do not think that the threat posed to the country was serious enough to warrant such a military response. It seems that these people "support" the war, not because they believe that it was a necessary measure, but rather because it is already underway.
In another question, respondents were asked whether they would now prefer to continue the SMO or move on to peace negotiations? RF polls in May-July showed that a little more than half of the respondents were in favour of continuing the war. In the Levada Center’s August poll that number stood at 48%. This means that only half of respondents believe that the current threat posed to the country demands a military response, and that those threats are serious enough that the war should continue. Finally, respondents were asked about their readiness to personally participate in the “special operation”. More than half of men surveyed (60–64%) answered that they would not take part; of the 30% who demonstrated a willingness to participate in the “SMO”, only about half were of military age.
The RF survey data reveals a number of paradoxes in people’s perceptions of the war. If the decision to stop the "military operation" were to be taken by Vladimir Putin, two-thirds of respondents would support his decision. But a similar number of respondents would also support the opposite decision, namely to launch a new offensive against Kyiv. This is a testament to the loyalty that those participating in the survey demonstrate towards Putin and his decisions. It is especially interesting that, within this context, 27% of respondents would not support Putin if he decided to end the war now. These people appear to have absorbed propaganda arguments justifying the necessity and existential nature of the war.
Of course the situation is not so black and white, and we cannot classify people as entirely for the war or against it, even when poll questions suggest this is the case. The very same questions often allow us to see various gradations in respondents' attitudes towards the war. We will attempt to summarise what we know from the Levada Center and RF surveys, especially since there is little differentiation in the basic distribution of their findings.
Overall, 27% of respondents consider the threats used as a pretext for the war to be so serious that, in their eyes, if Putin were to decide to stop the conflict it would appear more like a declaration of defeat. 35-40% of respondents say they fully support the war. Somewhere in this range are the true supporters of the war (27-40%): those who believe that there are serious and deep-seated reasons for the war, and feel it was both inevitable and necessary. About 50% consider the underlying threats behind the war to be ongoing, although not all of them demonstrated total support for Russia’s actions. Finally, despite the fact that 70-75% of respondents spoke openly of their support for the "military operation", only 55% thought that the war should have been started in the first place.
Thus, the gradation of attitudes towards the war can be approximately defined as follows: about a third of those who answered the questions constitute a real "war party", about 20% support the war with some reservations, and another 20% support it, although they believe that it could not (or should not) have been started. In addition to this, about 10% find it difficult to answer such questions, about 20% openly oppose the war, and, very likely, there is also a “silent party”, those who hold a negative opinion towards the war but prefer to avoid talking about it altogether.
We can flesh out the picture created by this survey data by turning to the dominant narratives Russia uses to explain the war to its citizens. Two main versions of the war are presented on Russian TV. Viewers of the shows of famous Kremlin-backed hawks (Soloviev, Kiselev, Skobeeva) are plunged into an atmosphere of total war between Russia and the West, the goal of which is Russia’s total defeat as the West supposedly cannot abide its very existence. The themes of apocalypse and the “last battle” dominate the rhetoric, the enemy is at Russia’s doorstep, the Ukrainian leadership and army are Nazis, and there is a genocidal war being raged against Russians.
But if (before the announcement of mobilisation) we were to switch to regular news broadcasts on the same state TV channels, we would see another war, or a “special military operation”. This “operation” is being carried out by a highly professional army and is aimed at liberating the people of Donbas, who are suffering under Ukrainian nationalism and dream of being reunited with Russia. This is a "just war" based on the doctrine of "a responsibility to protect", which has limited and predominantly humanitarian ("liberational") goals. Russia’s confrontation with the West also makes an appearance here, but as a secondary factor.
A large-scale study by the Public Sociology Lab, which analysed more than 2,000 in-depth interviews with Russian citizens about the war, demonstrates the use of the same basic narratives by ordinary Russians. According to the authors of this study “the justification of the war (by interviewees) relies on three narratives: salvation (of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics), confrontation (with Ukraine and the West), and geopolitics (the “great power” struggle for influence)”. They also note the presence of various reservations and doubts regarding these ideas: there are those who believe that, since the war is already underway, it is necessary to support "our guys"; those who are unable to articulate the goals of and reasons for the war, but rationalise this as a result of their own incompetence and express confidence (or hope) in the competence of the authorities; finally, there are those who support the war but express doubts about its ultimate aims and achievements, etc.
All of this helps to provide nuance to the picture of support for the war outlined above.
Firstly, we can single out a "party of total war". For these people, war is a response to a “covert” or planned attack on Russia by the West “via Ukraine.” For them, war is close, it is practically on their doorstep and it requires citizens to stand up for the Motherland.
The second party is the “just war” party, whose goal is the liberation of the Russian population in eastern Ukraine. For them, the war is far away, it is a "special military operation" of professional Russian troops with a specific and localised task.
Finally, the third party is the party of conformists who, in one way or another, avoid discussing the fragility of the war’s reasons and aims, but support the Russian troops, as the war is already taking place. For this party, the war is also happening "somewhere" far away. It should also be noted that the issue of support/non-support for the war is not an abstract choice for respondents. The position of non-support is complicated by two important issues: firstly, confrontation by the "majority" who support the war and the authorities; secondly, it comes with the risk of losing their job, being repressed, etc.
In addition to these three aforementioned groups, we can also identify one and a half more parties within Russia’s social reality. There is a party of those who oppose the war, who consider it aimless, irrational, morally criminal and unfair (about 20%). And another of doubters and evaders; those who might find it difficult to pinpoint their exact opinion regarding the war, or avoid participating in opinion polls.
In his address to the nation regarding his decision to carry out mobilisation, Vladimir Putin frequently used the rhetoric of the "total war" party. He mentioned Russia’s confrontation with the West and reminded citizens that "the enemy is at the doorstep", making it necessary to defend the Motherland. If the “special military operation” began as a cosplay of the Great Victory of 1945 and Putin had hoped to host a double parade in Moscow on May 9th, following in Stalin’s footsteps, the war quickly turned into a reenactment of 1941 (“Arise, great country...”). Many believe that this will ultimately undermine the “imposed pro-war consensus" in Russian society.
Indeed, for many who support the war, this support can be categorised not so much as a response to any immediate threat, but rather to Putin's foreign policy decisions, with which respondents sincerely (the "just war" party) or not quite so sincerely (the conformists) agree. The announcement of mobilisation undermines this interpretation and poses a threat to the consensus among these groups. It is precisely these groups who are accounting for the spike in attention and anxiety towards events in Ukraine. A sharp change in mood is evident in 15-30% of respondents.
If these people, or a significant portion of them, are converted and join the camp of the war’s opponents, then this camp will cease to be a minority. This, in turn, might encourage some of the “silent ones'' to speak up also. However, this is complicated by the fact that doubters or moderate supporters of the war appear unlikely to absorb anti-war narratives. As researchers from the Laboratory of Public Sociology have noted, there is a certain hostility between the anti-war party and doubters. In the eyes of doubters and moderate supporters of the war, its opponents and their arguments appear to be marginal, moralistic and “irresponsible”. Moderate war supporters might be influenced by the outcome of the societal divisions brought about by mobilisation. In this respect, the protests in Dagestan and Yakutia, which were organised by relatives of those mobilised, are much more important than protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, organised by anti-war activists. In order to join the ranks of those opposing the war, they need to hear voices from an "alternative majority". These will inform them that the war’s failures and hardships are due to the incompetence of the country’s leadership and corruption, and that the start of the war was an unnecessary act, conducted because of internal political strife and Putin’s desire to remain in power at the expense of ordinary citizen’s wellbeing.
However, there is also one more potential scenario. Vladimir Putin is extremely well-versed in authoritarian manipulation of public sentiment. With his recent speeches, he has attempted to expand the support base for "total war". His mobilisation call, reinforced by the work of the machine of repression, is aimed at forcing the party of "doubters" into greater loyalty and engagement. He wants the “doubters'' to finally pick a side. The massive loss of life among mobilised men will be used to justify people’s personal losses, and the war in general. The regime will be able to label those who chose the wrong side as outcasts, a minority; this tactic has already been proven successful in earlier stages of the war.
These calculations have a logical underpinning. While the inhabitants of large cities, the more economically advantaged, are able to flee from mobilisation, people on the periphery simply take themselves off to the military recruitment centre. They are not eager to fight, they are confused and frightened, but they are not ready to break free from the shared national consciousness, which Vladimir Putin stands at the helm of, shaping their aspirations and thoughts. This coerced decision will increase their hostility towards those who make the opposite choice.
However, the first week of mobilisation dealt a serious blow to Putin's seemingly rational calculations. The process turned out to be so chaotic and frantic that it undermined ordinary citizen’s confidence in the state machine, in its efficiency and focus on the “common good”. This meant that it also undermined the sense of unity between the state and the nation on which Putin was counting.
To sum up, the fate of Vladimir Putin’s war largely depends on the sentiment among the two parties described above; the “total war” party and the conformist party. The increasing costs of mobilisation to the average citizen, the radicalisation of the military narrative meant to explain the meaning and nature of the war, and the managerial inefficiency witnessed during the course of mobilisation itself have created the necessary conditions for a change in sentiment that will undermine the Kremlin’s imposed pro-war consensus. However, it would be premature to say that this has already happened and to predict that it is inevitable would be presumptuous.