02.02.23 Review

‘The Putin Effect”: the Russian invasion has led to increased support for democracy and European integration, even among residents of Southern Europe.

The Kremlin formulated its plan to invade Ukraine based on several important assumptions: that Europe would be divided on the issue of retaliatory sanctions; and that support for democracy and European integration across the EU bloc would be severely tested by Russia’s show of force and use of energy blackmail. However, none of this occurred, despite years of Russian investment into European far-right parties, which was intended to weaken support for democracy across Europe Instead, experts have identified a new wave of ‘Western consolidation’ sweeping the region. A recent study, based on public polling, confirms that the ‘invasion effect’, or as some have called it ‘the Putin effect’, can be witnessed not only among the political elites, but is also evident in the beliefs of ordinary European citizens. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened European commitment to democratic ideals and freedom. It has also boosted support for the further harmonisation of EU policies. Not only have we witnessed the diminishing ideal of a ‘strong leader’, but conservative values have also suffered a blow.

In September 2022, Russian expert Andrey Kortunov, a member of several pro-Kremlin international expert committees (who nonetheless holds somewhat independent, realistic opinions), released a report in which he drew attention to the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forcibly interrupted the ‘centrifugal tendencies’ that had been gaining momentum over the last several years in the Western world. Instead, the invasion has kick-started a new cycle: the consolidation of the ‘collective West’. A study of trends in European public opinion, published at the end of January by the London School of Economics (LSE), shows that this new wave of consolidation has affected not only politicians and the political establishment, but also the personal beliefs of ordinary people, including those living in countries which traditionally express low levels of support for European values. 

The authors of the study conclude that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a positive impact on European citizens’ commitment to the values of democracy and freedom. It also strengthened their belief in the importance of further European integration. This process was especially noticeable in countries such as Italy, Greece, Portugal, North Macedonia and the Netherlands. The effect of the invasion was more pronounced in these countries, despite the fact that they traditionally display lower levels of loyalty to democratic values than is witnessed across  Europe as a whole. The invasion has also affected a number of non-EU countries, such as Norway, Montenegro and Switzerland. The study was conducted using data from the European Social Survey, which, since 2022, has included more than 7 thousand respondents from 41 countries. Since the survey polls respondents on a regular basis according to a predetermined schedule, the data allows us to compare the opinions of Europeans before and after February 24th.

Coefficient of the influence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the distribution of opinions of surveyed Europeans

In particular, the events in Ukraine have had the strongest impact on the trust European citizens hold in politicians and political parties; the study’s respondents displayed heightened levels of support for the participants of their local political processes. At the same time, their attitudes towards the European Parliament and the UN had either remained at the same level as before the invasion, or had deteriorated. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, respondents have a heightened awareness of the importance of democratic values and freedom, and their satisfaction with democracy in general has increased. Conversely, support for a mode of governance helmed by a ‘strong leader’ has decreased. The level of importance afforded to conservative values has also fallen: respondents are more willing to abandon traditions that they feel are outdated or no longer relevant.

The study also found evidence of increasing levels of social solidarity: negative sentiments towards policies of income redistribution to assist those in need have noticeably weakened. And, paradoxically, despite a sharp influx of people into the EU, respondents appear to be more tolerant towards migrants than they were prior to the war. Those surveyed believe that immigration has had a positive effect on the economy, culture and overall well-being of their countries. 

Researchers identified a further significant trend: falling levels of support for withdrawal from the EU and increased levels of support for further harmonisation of European policy. Re:Russia previously reported on how this issue had been particularly relevant this past winter, amid wide-reaching discussions regarding a common EU strategy to deal with the invasion-induced energy crisis.

Earlier studies have identified similar trends, such as an increase in positive perceptions of the EU among Eastern European member states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. While there was an increase in support for European integration among students after the beginning of the war in 2022. 

It should be noted that the surveys on which this particular study was based were conducted shortly after the start of the war and were focused on the general socio-political attitudes of respondents. Public opinion is fluid and subject to fluctuations, which are often provoked by changing circumstances. 

Moreover, the results of the latest round of the European Social Survey concerning German public opinion are yet to be published. However, Eurobarometer data from autumn indicated a slight fall in trust in political parties compared to the results from winter 2021/22. However, this does not fall outside of this indicator’s normal range. To add to this, recent German polls have recorded growing tensions with regard to migrants: in January 2023, migration was named as the main issue facing German society by 13% of respondents, while in June the number stood at just 4%.