Over the course of the past year, public opinion has passed through several phases during its ‘plunge into war,’ under conditions of mass propaganda, an authoritarian climate of opinion, and repressive pressure. Behind the façade of a declarative ‘majority of support’ for the war, it is possible to identify a more significant ‘majority of non-resistance’ to the war, which allows the pro-war minority to dominate the public debate. Contrary to expectations, the announcement of ‘partial mobilisation’ was not a turning point in Russians' attitudes towards the ‘special military operation’; on the contrary, a ‘fear of defeat’ and a growing awareness of the mounting losses led to a consolidation of revanchist sentiment. However, for the majority of those questioned, the ‘plunge into war’ remains a coerced strategy, and the revanchism of one segment of society coexists with, on the one hand, a growing desire to end the war and, on the other, a considerable potential for demobilisation of another sector of society, the most striking sign of which is tolerance towards ‘draft dodgers’. The most striking characteristic of the recent changes to public opinion has been the adaptation of public expectations to the ‘long war’ as a ‘new normal’. However, immersion in war and forced adaptation to it do not appear to be in a state of stable equilibrium. The increased costs of the war and the lack of success on the battlefield will put this temporary equilibrium and ‘declarative support’ to the test time after time. Re: Russia presents an overview of the results of nine waves of opinion polling conducted in Russia by the independent research project Chronicles.
As Kremlin-affiliated sociological centres have stopped publishing their polling results, data from the Levada Center and two independent projects, Chronicles and Russian Field, have become the primary sources of information on Russians' opinions and attitudes during the first year of the war. The extent to which sociological surveys conducted under the conditions of war and repressive pressure reflect the true preferences and attitudes of the population (not just in Russia) remains the subject of debate. However, this debate still relies fully on relevant and independent data. The main findings of all three studies, based on their own series of surveys conducted since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, are comparable, allowing us to discuss their significance. This data provides us with a general picture of the attitudes of Russians who are ready to talk to pollsters.
SILENCE IS GOLD FOR A DICTATOR
Based on the previous eight rounds of polling and the most recent wave, conducted in February, of the ‘Chronicles’ project, organised by politician and activist Alexei Minyaylo along with independent sociologists, this Re: Russia overview presents an analysis of the dynamics and current state of respondents' opinions on the war in conjunction with ExtremeScan, a regular partner of the project.
The majority of those surveyed in all public opinion polls conducted to date support the Russian army's military action in Ukraine. Therefore, the main question for the researchers was the level, depth, and reasons behind support for what Putin has termed the 'special military operation’ (SMO).
In all the polls conducted by the independent Chronicles project over the course of the past year, support for the SMO has generally ranged between 55 and 60%. In addition to the standard option 'I find it difficult to respond,' respondents were given the option to reply 'I don't want to respond,' which might be considered more relevant given the conditions of immense social pressure. As a result, both the group expressing support for the war, and the group which did not support it were smaller in the Chronicles study than the equivalent groups in the results of other surveys.
Fluctuations in the level of support throughout the year reflected public reactions to current events. Support fell from 64% in May to 55% at the beginning of July, influenced by the country’s economic problems, lack of success on the battlefield, and the fact that the 'operation' had already lasted longer than had been expected (in March, 56% of respondents expected the 'operation' to last just several months, this figure dropped to 34% in July). Following the announcement of ’partial mobilisation,' support for the war fell even further (to 52%) at the end of September. However, it began to recover after a few weeks, and in February 2023 it had returned to around 60%.
The percentage of respondents who openly oppose the special military operation fluctuated slightly across the different waves of the survey, standing at 11% in the most recent wave of polling conducted in February. The number of those who openly opposed the war dropped to a low of 7% at the beginning of March 2022 (it was at this point that repressive norms on 'discrediting' the Russian army were being adopted). At the same time, a third of respondents (31%) found it difficult or were unwilling to answer the question on the subject of their support for the war, this seems an unusually high share given that it is nominally the country's most important issue. The number of those who avoided giving a specific answer reached a high (36%) in the 29-30 September 2022 poll, immediately after the announcement of 'partial mobilisation.' However, there is a clear demographic shift in the non-respondent group, with the share of younger respondents (those in the age group 18-34) ranging from 42% to 52% throughout the survey. However, it is worth noting that the proportion of those who do not support the war is significantly higher in these age groups than in other groups.
Understanding the heterogeneity of declarative support for the war in response to a direct question, Chronicles sought to identify a segment of 'core support' for the war. Various 'control' questions were used in previous waves of their survey (readiness to participate in military operations, donations for the army, etc.); the core of support that was singled out based on answers to these ranged between 32-42% of the total number of respondents. Respondents who not only declare their support for the war in response to a direct question, but also meet at least one of the four additional criteria that characterise their attitude towards the war, were classified as forming a 'wider support core' —, based on their consistent support for the war:
— whether they would be willing to support Putin's decision to end the war even if its objectives have not been achieved by that point;
— whether in the event of a budget shortfall they would support prioritising budget expenditure on the army over spending on social needs;
— whether they condemn or are sympathetic towards those who evade military action;
— whether they agree with the prosecution of those who publicly express their opposition to the war.
The first criterion has the greatest overlap with support for the war: 38% of those who say they support the SMO would be unwilling to support Putin's decision to end it before some of the stated goals have been met. The core is smaller (34%), if one of the other criteria is used as the main or additional criterion to measure support. A narrow core of support exists among those who, in addition to declaring explicit support for the SMO, strictly meet criteria 1 and 2 (22%, this is a similar share to that recorded in previous waves). In their general profile, as defined by the answers given to the other questions in the questionnaire, this group fit that image of the Russian 'aggressive majority', and they stand at the core of the basic narrative surrounding Russian public opinion within most global media.
Thus, 38% of respondents can be considered strong supporters of the war (the broad base of support), while, in their responses to additional questions, just over 20% declare their support for the 'special operation' without supporting pro-war policies and beliefs. Approximately 40% of respondents do not agree with the 'normative' declarative approval of the war, but only a quarter of this group (10%) are willing to openly express their opposition to the war. Taking into account responses to the four additional support criteria listed above, an analysis of the position of those who have not expressed their attitude towards the war (they have difficulty answering and do not want to answer the question) reveals that roughly two-thirds of respondents gravitate towards statements not in support the war, while one-third have a tendency to support it.
Meanwhile, in Russia, support for the war is the only officially acceptable position, while public opposition is stigmatised, and in some cases criminalised. These additional criteria allow us to trace respondents' attitudes towards the war on two levels: declarative (in response to a direct question) and support for specific pro-war political decisions and beliefs. As a result, in addition to convinced supporters of the war (38%) and its direct opponents (10%), it is possible to identify a group of declarative 'supporters' (21%), and a faction that avoids answering the question about support for the war(31%).
While the 'war party' has a declarative majority in Russia (59%), a two-level analysis demonstrates that a little over 60% of respondents either declare their opposition to the war (10%), do not declare their support — they remain silent (30%), or declare their support but do not actually support the policies and beliefs behind the military action. This means that there is a potential majority of war opponents who are not represented within public discourse. The reason for this is that, behind the façade of this declaratory majority who support the war, we find another potential majority (52%), who could be referred to as the 'party of non-opposition' to war.
This majority includes those who only declaratively subscribe to the normative position of support for the war, those who avoid directly expressing their attitude towards the war while also not supporting pro-war policies and beliefs, and those who do not express their direct support for the war despite sharing some pro-war beliefs.
With regard to this latter group, it is important to remember that support for the war is now a socially imposed moral judgement in Russia, so much so that declaring neutrality is not a neutral position. While members of this group may express some pro-war sentiments, they refrain from declaring their direct support for the 'special operation' for unknown reasons. Perhaps, while they share the war's goals, they believe the humanitarian or economic costs are too high, or the goals are unattainable at this stage ('Russia does not yet have enough resources'). In any case, this group (like the previous one) does not publicly express its contradictory attitude towards the war, and as a result, the voice of the war's convinced minority (38%) is clearly dominant in the public sphere.
A two-level analysis suggests that, behind the majority of declared support for the war, there is another majority — a majority of non-opposition.
Revanchism and the New Normal: Remobilisation of the Demobilised
Responses to the question on the topic of respondents’ willingness to personally participate in the war is one of the most important indicators of the dynamics of public opinion. This question was still fairly abstract at the start of last summer; it was assumed that the war would be fought by professionals and contract servicemen. At the same time, the proportion of those who declared their willingness to personally participate was declining, while there was a simultaneous increase in the number of those who avoided answering this question. However, following the announcement of 'partial mobilisation,' the meaning of the question changed dramatically, with participation shifting from simply hypothetical to hypothetically mandatory. It was assumed that mobilisation would result in a sharp decline in public support for the war, and that active or passive opposition would become a major issue for the Kremlin.
The announcement of 'partial mobilisation' in September was, in some ways, more shocking to the population than Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine itself, which was viewed at the time as a 'special operation' that did not directly affect the security or well-being of the majority of the population. After mobilisation was declared, support for the war fell to a low of 52%, but just two weeks later this figure had begun to rise again. At the same time, 49% of respondents said they supported mobilisation, and in October 2022, 45% said they were willing to participate in the hostilities. By February 2023, the figure had risen to 55%: 15% of men declared their willingness to fight voluntarily and 40% under orders. Only 21% of men polled responded that they were not prepared to fight (compared to 51% in May). Of course, the fact that participation was now legally required, greatly influenced this shift, but it also indicates wider public acceptance of the new mobilisation norms and relative loyalty to them (see the corresponding graph available in Russian in the report 'Dynamics of support for the 'special operation' over the course of the first year of war').
Attitudes towards mobilisation and personal participation in the war are, of course, influenced by respondents' preferred sources of information (among those who trust television, the ratio of those prepared to fight is 41% compared with 19% who are against participating; the opposite is true among those who do not trust television: 17% to 43%), as well as their level of access to uncensored information resources (among those who know what a VPN is, the ratio of those who are not prepared to fight is 40% compared with 21% who are prepared to fight). These same factors influence general attitudes towards war. Respondents who believe the goals of the 'special operation' have not been met and thus are unwilling to support Putin's hypothetical decision to withdraw troops from Ukraine are significantly more enthusiastic about military action. This group is motivated by revanchism and a desire to achieve victory, or some semblance of it.
It should be noted here that in the February 2023 round of polling, the shares of two diverging positions are increasing at the same time, a trend which is not usually observed in surveys. In response to the question of how respondents would react to Vladimir Putin's decision to withdraw troops even if the original goals of the 'operation' were not met, the share of those in favour increased from 30% to 40%, while there was a simultaneous increase in the share of those opposed from 35% to 47%. It is not surprising that the number of people who want the war to end is growing: in April 2022, 19% of those polled wanted it to end, this had grown to 30% in October, and 40% want it to end today. However, the concurrent increase in supporters of the opposing position indicates a growing polarisation within society, which has occurred as a result of the mobilisation of the aforementioned revanchist group.
The Russian army's failures, the humiliation of the autumn retreats, the mounting human and economic casualties, and the fear of defeat fuelled by both Kyiv's menacing rhetoric and defeatism within Russian propaganda, have all contributed to the mobilisation of revanchist pro-war sentiments. Since the announcement of mobilisation, Russian society has been increasingly drawn into the war, which itself has moved much closer to the average citizen (in the February 2023 wave of the poll, 22% of respondents said they had relatives or friends involved in the war). A simple return to how life was before the start of the war appears to be less and less of a neutral solution, while defeatism has taken on its own scripted forms. Thus, 52% of respondents believe that if Russian troops pull back to the 'February 2022 borders,' Ukraine will invade Russia. The share of revanchists who believe this narrative is significantly higher, at 69%, compared to just 12% among those who would support Putin's decision to end the war. At the same time, 53% of revanchists report experiencing 'fear,' which might be taken to include both fear of defeat and fear of retaliation.
The rise of revanchist sentiments linked to the fear of defeat is likely one of the reasons why support for the war has returned to its original levels (up from 52-55% in the summer-autumn of 2022), despite war fatigue, frontline losses, anxiety, and the negative impact of the war on people's personal lives. It also helps to explain the rise in the proportion of people who are willing to go to war themselves.
But, nevertheless, citizens’ overall readiness to mobilise remains largely declarative, with no lines of volunteers observed at military registration and enlistment offices. 'Readiness for mobilisation' is a result of loyalty on the part of the majority of respondents' to the existing order (including its repressive potential) and recognition of their inability to influence the way things are. On average, the number of respondents who sympathise with 'draft dodgers' in the sample outnumbers those who condemn them: 47% versus 36%, respectively. This demonstrates the 'forced' nature of the acceptance of mobilisation by a significant portion of the still-demobilised society. Among those respondents who did not express their attitude towards the 'special operation', only 18% condemn 'draft dodgers'. Predictably, those whose relatives are involved in the war display a higher level of condemnation (41%), but even here it is not a majority.
Thus, it is possible to speak about two factors which have determined the reversal of the downward trend in support for the war, which was observed in July and September, and the loyalty towards mobilisation (i.e. an increase in the number or people who express a willingness to go to the war personally). On the one hand, the number of revanchists mobilised by 'fear of defeat' has grown. On the other hand, there is an awareness of the coerced nature of mobilisation which has forced citizens to adapt to this 'new normalcy' and perceive it as a new norm of civic responsibility and social solidarity. The mobilisation of the revanchist faction maintains an opinion climate that promotes this non-resistance norm.
The proportion of people who supported the war in February 2023 was at the same as it was at the start of the war — 59%. However, to interpret this as 'stability' would be misguided; between these two identical figures lies a year of dramatic changes in public sentiment.
Phase one: shock and panic. The announcement of a 'special military operation' shocked everyone. Many people experienced feelings of panic, resulting in typical reactions of encapsulation and frenetic purchases of basic goods, food, and medicine. It was a month of shock, anguish, figuring out personal tactics, and, most importantly, forming initial attitudes towards the war. The active advance of Russian troops inspired confidence in the promised 'small victorious war'. Two clear groups emerged: some people were enthusiastic and others were angry;; in between were those who were confused, withdrawn and undecided.
Phase two: polarisation — anger and enthusiasm. By mid-April, Russian troops had already carried out the first major retreats, but enthusiasm for the war persisted for another two months, as propaganda found 'ennobling' reasons for delays in the 'inevitable victory' ('trying to avoid civilian casualties,' 'creating conditions for negotiations'), and the effects of economic sanctions proved less damaging than had been expected. Support for the war increased significantly, reaching a high of 66-64%. At this point in the survey, respondents were asked to send (imaginary) telegrams to Ukrainians. These were messages from a stronger, generous side, promising their 'little brothers' immediate assistance and liberation ('hang in there, we will save you'). The 'operation's' trajectory was set to favour Russia. Opponents of the 'special operation' experienced anger and rejection. The first wave of mass exodus from Russia took place.
Phase three: recession. This stage began towards the end of June. The period of 'just a few months' that for many defined the expected duration of the 'special operation' had passed. Setbacks on the front lines haunted the Russian army. The material consequences of sanctions were becoming increasingly obvious. Supply chains had recovered, after being disrupted by panic demand and interrupted imports, but prices skyrocketed. There were signs of adjustment to the new situation (increased positivity in respondents' answers about their material situation) but these were juxtaposed with a sense of extreme uncertainty, resulting in a halt in consumer demand. The war's popularity dropped by 9 percentage points, from 64% to 55%.
Phase four: mobilisation. As has already been discussed, mobilisation was a more frustrating event psychologically than the start of the 'special operation' announced in February. According to the Levada Center, the percentage of people experiencing anxiety, fear, or shock increased from 43% at the end of February to 70% at the end of September. The second wave of emigration began, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country in order to avoid mobilisation. The poor organisation of mobilisation, alongside news of the deaths of the first mobilised, demonstrated that the war was a concern for more than just Ukrainians. Families were losing breadwinners to flight and conscription in large numbers, tensions were rising, and people anticipated the continuation of the mobilisation campaign and border closures.
However, the scale of mobilisation was less devastating than many had expected. Military commissioners were not stationed at every gate; mobilisation predominantly took place on the periphery of the country. By December, adaptation had set in. Despite appearances, the general mood had deteriorated, as evidenced by increased feelings of fatigue and anxiety. However, a new normal had arrived. For the first time, even the conditions for polling had changed: the sample of young men, which had been calculated at random, dropped, as potential military conscripts were reluctant to pick up calls from unfamiliar numbers.
Phase five: immersion in war. A widespread doomed readiness to mobilise as an already accepted order of things, and the periodic increase in positive subjective evaluation of material conditions has transformed into an image of the new normality, modelled and supported by propaganda. The threat of repression and the rationalisation of the unavoidable serve as its foundation. In the economic sphere, negative expectations have not come to fruition. Explaining the paradoxical growth of positive sentiment and optimism in January 2023, the team from the Levada Center suggest that 'the negative information background forms alarmist expectations, which, when not fully realised, give rise to the idea that the situation is relatively stable and that the economy is able to painlessly overcome crises.’
However, the most striking characteristic of the changes that took place between October 2022 and February 2023 is not the growth of revanchist sentiments, which help the Kremlin to maintain the 'temperature of war', but the adaptation of public sentiment to expect a 'long war'. When comparing the results of the surveys from October and July, confidence in the possibility of an end to the war in the near-term fell sharply, while the proportion of those who found it hard to evaluate the war's timeframe increased. Between October and February, the proportion of those who believe the war will last a year or more increased from 34% to 50%. This is probably the sharpest change across the entire range of estimates, when compared to the previous waves of the survey.
Finally, the projective perceptions of respondents appear to be another sign of the 'plunge' into the war. For example, in the February wave of polling, respondents were asked whether Presidential elections should be held if the special operation is not over by 2024: 46% said no, compared to 37% who thought elections should be held. However, when asked whether the war would end if Russia had a new President, 36% found it difficult to answer: 40% responded no and only 15% expected it to end if there was a change in leader. The longer the war is expected to last, the less respondents believe that it will end as a result of a leadership change. The war, which at first appeared to be Putin's personal initiative, increasingly appears as an independent given, a framework for existence, as society 'plunges' into it.
Expectations that the war will end in the event of a change in the President of Russia in different groups, February 2023, percentage of those polled
However, this state of 'immersion in the war' can hardly be regarded as a new long-term state of equilibrium. As has been demonstrated above, contrary to popular perception, support for the war is not consolidated, but rather is, to a large extent, declarative and imposed. Behind the façade of a declarative pro-war majority hides a majority of 'non-resistance'. The share of those who would support Putin's decision to immediately withdraw troops grows in parallel with the share of those who would not. The consolidation of revanchist sentiments coexists alongside the significant and persistent potential for demobilisation, the clearest sign of which is tolerance towards 'draft dodgers'. A further increase in the costs of the war and the lack of success on the battlefield will repeatedly test this temporary equilibrium and 'declaratory support' to its limits.