Public opinion on the war remains key to understanding potential future developments both on the frontlines and within Russia. Although there is doubt over the accuracy of surveys during times of war and under repressive pressure, we lack any alternative measure. Furthermore, as previously reported by Re: Russia, survey data from three independent projects (Levada Center, the Chronicles project, and Russian Field) indicates not only similar distributions of responses on crucial issues but also suggests relatively consistent dynamics of these distributions in response to current events. Each of these projects suggested that declarative support for the war was declining in late summer 2022 alongside a rise in the desire for peace negotiations. This was particularly the case after the announcement of 'partial mobilisation'. The indicators, however, began to settle back to their initial values. This consistency indicates the relevance of this survey data.
However, there is most likely a distortion in the distributions we see in the polling data. For starters, the responses are skewed by respondents' fears in the face of increasingly widespread and violent repression. Polls show that opponents of the war and the regime were three to four times more likely to be concerned about responding to pollsters and making political statements than supporters. And such a disparity cannot but affect the results of the polls.
The second factor affecting responses to these polls is the distortion of public opinion and the surrounding environment. Everywhere and at all times, a significant portion of the public forms its opinion on current events based on the views of people and institutions they consider authoritative. That is why authoritarian regimes expel opposition parties, politicians, and public figures who oppose them from the public sphere. And today, the Russian authorities are waging a desperate war against those who might speak out against the war with any authoritative voice. As a result, the opinions of non-political people have become incoherent, that is, confused and jumbled. Without support from the outside, they find it difficult to determine the significance of their intuitions and preferences.
This compels analysts and experts to scrutinise survey data to determine how confident respondents are in their responses and the meaning they assign to their answers. Such analysis, carried out on the basis of data from the Chronicles project, has made it possible to identify several different segments of 'support for the war': the war support segment, the non-opposition segment, and two segments of opposition — those who openly voice their opposition to the war and those who do not.
Experts from the Russian Field research project have made a similar attempt to segment their data. In addition to a direct question about support for the war, they asked respondents a series of indirect questions and two projective questions about their approval or disapproval of two opposing hypothetical decisions made by Putin: the decision to launch a new offensive against Kyiv and the decision to end the war immediately.
In all the waves of polling in which these questions were asked, a majority of respondents supported the first scenario (59% on average) and the second (69% on average). Moreover, immediately following the announcement of 'partial mobilisation,' the number of respondents who supported the second decision — to end the war — increased dramatically.
In the wave of polling conducted in February 2023, 59% of respondents would support Putin's decision to launch a new offensive on Kyiv (26% opposed), while 66% opposed signing a peace treaty as soon as tomorrow (24% opposed). Russian Field researchers identified three major segments among respondents based on their responses to these two questions:
Pro-escalation supporters who would support an attack on Kyiv but would not support the signing of a peace agreement (27%) — these people believe that the attack on Ukraine was necessary and cannot be stopped before the objectives of the invasion have been achieved; these are supporters of an 'until victory' war;
Opponents of escalation who would support a peace agreement but would not support an attack on Kyiv (34%) — these people, on the other hand, see no point in 'defeating' Ukraine.
'Neutrals', as the experts at Russian Field have termed them, who are ready to support either one or the other solution (33%); this name does not strike us as accurate: such respondents are not 'neutral' towards the war, but delegate the decision on how to end it to their superiors, so we prefer to call them 'conformists'.
However, the data on group size should be interpreted with caution. Only 9% of supporters of escalation expressed concern about responding to polls, while 20% of 'loyalists' and 42% of opponents of escalation expressed such a concern. As a result, the latter group may be underrepresented in polls.
Almost half of those who support escalation (45%) are over the age of 60 (i.e., they will not be sent to fight), with another 30% aged over 45. This is a very homogeneous group. Almost all of these respondents support the 'military operation' in response to a direct question (95%), believe that it is going well (77%), are in favour of continuing it (92%) and trust the official data on the course of military operations (68%); 88% of this group believe that the country is moving in the right direction. In other words, this is society's most propagandised segment. Responding to an open question about the priority goals of the 'special operation' (which respondents named themselves), the most important goal was the denazification of Ukraine (43%), with demilitarisation suggested much less frequently (14%) and other goals mentioned by only a small percentage of supporters.
Respondents were also asked about the terms of a hypothetical peace treaty with Ukraine. The absolute majority of proponents of escalation consider Russia's annexation of the entire southeast of Ukraine a precondition for such an agreement (80% of escalation supporters, 22% of all respondents), a slightly smaller number believe the annexation of the entirety of Ukraine, except Western Ukraine, to be a condition for peace (73%). Slightly more than half of this group would be satisfied with Ukrainian recognition of Russia's annexation of the four 'annexed' regions and Crimea. The idea of Ukraine's full accession is viewed in a rather negative light (42% in favour, 51% opposed). On the other hand, the vast majority of the supporters of escalation would not accept a return to the 2014 or 2021 borders: only 10% and 7% of respondents find these scenarios acceptable, respectively. Finally, this group is divided when it comes to the question of whether Ukraine remains independent but declares neutrality (i.e. renounces NATO membership): 45% support this scenario, while 44% oppose it.
Russian Field experts classified those who do not accept a return to the 2014 or 2021 borders, or the option of Ukraine's neutrality, as radical supporters of escalation (44%, or 12% of the total sample). They support Russia's annexation of at least a portion of Ukraine's territory, with the establishment of a pro-Russian regime in the rest of the country. Other supporters of escalation are classified as 'moderate' (56%, or 15% of the total sample). Although the 'radicals' are slightly 'older,' the socio-demographic characteristics of these two groups are similar. 'Moderates' were more likely to get information about the 'military operation' from Telegram channels (21%) and less likely to receive information from television (38% vs 47% among 'radicals').
Perhaps the most crucial point here, which often goes overlooked, is that among Russian citizens of 'working' age, those in favour of escalation are only half as numerous as those opposed to it (15% vs 28%).
Most (54%) of respondents aged 18-29 oppose an escalation of the conflict, while nearly half (43%) of those aged 30-44 are opposed. 56% of this group responded negatively to a direct question concerning their support for the 'military operation,' representing 19% of the total sample, or almost all of the 22% who said they did not support the war. However, when asked directly about their support, more than a quarter of those opposed to escalation responded positively.
The views in this segment are not as uniform as those of the supporters of escalation. 51% believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while 33% believe it is headed in the right direction. If they could, nearly two-thirds (64%) would choose to reverse the decision to launch the 'military operation' if they could, while 18% would not. 43% of this group believe the 'military operation' is a failure, 22% believe the opposite, and the rest are undecided. The vast majority of those opposed to escalation (71%) do not trust official sources on the course of military operations (22% trust official sources). And, three-quarters (76%) believe that moving forward with peace talks is necessary. This is the most commonly agreed-upon position within this group.
Opponents of escalation rely on television much less frequently than other groups (19%) for information about the 'military operation,' while Telegram is read as often by this group as it is among supporters (18%). Opponents are also more likely (10%) to get information from YouTube. 30% of this group responded that the military operation had significantly impacted their financial situation, compared to 13% among the other two groups.
When it comes to scenarios for peace, 56% are in favour of recognition of Crimea, the 'DPR', the 'LPR', Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions as Russian territories. However, 50% would also be satisfied with the 'return' of the most recently partially occupied regions to Ukraine. Nonetheless, a return to the pre-2014 borders or a compromise in which only Crimea is recognised as Russian territory is perceived as acceptable by roughly half of the opponents of escalation (45%). ‘This suggests a wide range of acceptable peace options within this group, as well as the importance of a cessation to hostilities, while the conditions in which this is achieved are secondary,' write Russian Field researchers. However, nearly as many (42%) believe that the last two options (2014 borders or sole recognition of Crimea) are unacceptable.
Sociologists have attempted to assess the tenacity with which opponents of escalation would defend their positions. When asked if they would participate in protests against the 'military operation,' 23% of those polled said yes. When asked the same question with an additional condition, 'if you were guaranteed security,' the proportion of potential protesters rose to 40% (14% of the entire sample).
Regarding acceptable peace conditions, Russian Field experts divided opponents of escalation into radicals (21%, 7% of the total sample) and moderates (79%, 26% of the total sample). 'Radical opponents of escalation see no other way out of the “military operation” than a return to the 2014 or 2021 borders. Moderate opponents of escalation are those who are willing to accept other compromise options,' according to the researchers from Russian Field. 'Thus, moderate opponents of escalation are frequently opponents of escalation, rather than the entire 'military operation,' whereas radicals have much clearer positions on all major issues, and these positions imply harsh opposition to the actions of the Russian government.'
In our view, it is possible to divide this group in another way: 45-55% of this group lean anti-war, and their desire to end the war here is strong enough that they are willing to give up all claims to Ukraine except for Crimea, and some would even relinquish the claim to Crimea itself. The other half of the group is opposed to escalation rather than the military operation in general. They are far more loyal to the regime and its narratives but want the war to end, even if they are unable to clearly determine the terms of a potential peace deal.
In their responses to marker questions, the 'neutrals' appear to be supporters of escalation. The vast majority believe Russia is on the right track, support the 'military operation' (90%) and consider the course of military operations to be a success (75%). In this case, 61% trust official data. 'Neutrals', more often than supporters and opponents of escalation, receive information about the 'military operation' from television (47%) and are the group least likely to read Telegram channels (16%).
The main characteristic of this group of respondents is that they are willing to support either an attack on Kyiv or a complete cessation of military operations. These are war supporters who do not hold militaristic beliefs. 89% believe the country's leadership knows what decisions should be taken in difficult situations, and 80% think they are unable to influence political decisions. However, they disagree on whether military action should be continued: 52% support the continuation of hostilities, while 38% would prefer peace talks. If, hypothetically, a new wave of mobilisation is required to continue the military campaign, this ratio reverses: 51% support a switch to peace negotiations, while 38% support continued fighting. 42% believe that peace talks should be initiated only if and when it is clear that an offensive is no longer possible.
We agree generally with the conclusions of the experts at Russian Field: 'Perhaps the main result of the survey is a demonstration of the profound ambiguity of public opinion in Russia a year after the start of the 'military operation'. Although its supporters are still in the majority, a closer examination reveals that they support two different 'special military operations'... Meanwhile, the proportion of radicals in society stands at approximately 10% on each side. The rest occupy the space of compromise, where the “red lines” are less rigid and the borders are less defined. The popular narrative among both supporters and opponents of the “military operation” is that of Russia as a country of 'two peoples': one that is larger and 'in favour' (some might call it 'patriotism,' others call it something less flattering), and a smaller one, which stands 'against' (to some they are 'traitors', to others they are 'thinking people among the scorched field of Putinists'). However, polling data paints a very different, and more 'complex' image of Russia, with far fewer unequivocal moral and political positions and far more compromises and doubts.’
We can probably add two further comments to this. First, we see a significant proportion of those in all three groups whose views on the war are non-systematic and do not allow their 'holders' to be classified as either supporters or opponents of the war. This group is underrepresented among the supporters of escalation but is quite prominent among the other two groups. It could be argued that the Kremlin appears to have largely succeeded in suppressing the party of resistance to the war but has yet to rally the pro-war majority. At the same time, while a sizable majority (more than 60%) wants a speedy peace resolution, the issue of its terms remains unclear and contentious among respondents. For the time being, this situation provides ample opportunity for the Kremlin to prevent the formation of an anti-war coalition.