23.02.23 Polls Review

Coercive Cohesion: both in Russia and Ukraine, the results of opinion polls should be treated with caution during times of war

Opinion poll results play a significant role in the assessments and predictions made by experts and politicians regarding the potential of armed conflict scenarios between Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, these findings show an exceptional level of public opinion cohesion, in both Russia and Ukraine. But can we trust these results? A detailed examination of Ukrainian polling results has revealed specific clues and potential processes for the distortion or simplification of respondents' preferences. Coercive cohesion can be achieved through a variety of means, including social pressure, repressive pressure, or various combinations of the two. Surveys capture the most general and superficial strata of public opinion and conceal the multi-layered and fragmented public preferences that may emerge when external conditions change in some way.

Opinion polls play a critical role in the current conflict, both in Russia and Ukraine, because political leaders base their decisions and strategies on citizens' attitudes. An authoritarian government is able to disregard the opinions of certain groups of citizens, but it needs the support of others, whose opinions it is able to misrepresent as those of the majority. The discussion of various scenarios for bringing an end to the conflict and the parameters of potential peace talks is heavily influenced by public opinion data. It also has an impact on the decisions made by Western government regarding the extent and manner of their support for Ukraine. 

Sociologists have observed a significant consolidation of public opinion in both Russia and Ukraine over the past year. In Russia this was reflected in widespread support for the 'special military operation' alongside support for almost any government action, as well as extremely optimistic assessments regarding the future of Russia's economy. In Ukraine there was an unprecedented convergence of opinion concerning membership of both the EU and NATO, with 86% and 83% of respondents in favour, respectively. Further, polls demonstrate the absolute willingness of Ukrainians to fight until victory is achieved at any cost (in recent polls, also covered by Re: Russia, 90% of respondents expressed a willingness to continue such a fight even if Russia were to use tactical nuclear weapons, while 80% would not agree to peace if Russian troops were to withdraw from all of Ukraine but not Crimea). 

All the same, fundamental questions, such as whether survey data can be trusted in times of war and how such findings should be interpreted, remain unanswered. According to the authors of a special study on this subject based on Ukrainian data whose findings have been published by the authoritative PONARS Eurasia research network, such surveys raise a number of issues that, despite the political sensitivity of the issue at hand, should not be overlooked. The three most serious issues, in their opinion, are: sample representativeness, a lack of meaningful responses from some groups of respondents on potentially sensitive issues, and a tendency towards falsification, that is a shift towards normative and socially endorsed responses. 

These findings are based on the results of a longitudinal survey (in which the same respondents were interviewed multiple times), the first wave of which was conducted prior to the in December 2019 prior to the full-scale invasion, and the second in October 2022. The surveys were not conducted in Russian-occupied territory, and the second wave had a high refusal rate in areas of active hostilities. The main reason for this refusal was that respondents had relocated to safer areas or abroad. For this reason, the refusal rate was highest in the regions of Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, followed by Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to a lesser degree. These same regions, however, had the lowest percentage of respondents (16%) who supported NATO membership in the survey conducted in 2019. The sample now includes a significantly higher proportion of people from western regions, where membership of the EU and NATO has traditionally enjoyed higher popularity. 

The second issue is the systematic refusal to provide meaningful responses to sensitive questions by a specific group of respondents. The Russian-language version questionnaire was completed by 40% fewer people in the second wave than in the first. According to statistical analysis, the average number of refusals to express an opinion (‘find it difficult’ and ‘do not want to answer’) when answering 14 potentially sensitive questions was 1.5 times higher among respondents who had switched questionnaire language than among those who did not change their language. Respondents who switched languages were much more likely not to answer three questions: 1) where they rank their country on a scale between 'the West and Russia'; 2) whether free and fair elections should be guaranteed in times of war; and 3) whether Western states are likely to continue providing military support to the Ukrainian government. 

Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and the crimes committed by Russian troops, it is understandable that many Ukrainians may want to distance themselves from the Russian language in order to reaffirm their loyalty to Ukraine. This desire, however, may also be the reason why respondents were not completely free to express their opinions on sensitive issues, thus subjecting themselves to self-censorship. This was not the result of any direct pressure, but rather a reaction to changing circumstances and the pressures of new social norms.

War necessitates patriotic unity and creates an intense emotional environment, and failure to participate in this collective experience may have a high social cost. All of this applies within Russia as well, but with one crucial difference as weaker motivations for unity are compensated by state repression. However, in both cases, specialised survey experiments reveal a gap between these responses and inner convictions. For example, the 'Chronicles' independent sociological project, which interviewed people in Russia about their attitudes towards the war in Ukraine, added another response in addition to the usual options for half of the respondents — 'I do not want to answer'. As a result, 63% of those in this group declared their support for the ‘special operation,’ compared to 70% of respondents in the group that did not have this option available to them. A state of ‘coercive cohesion’ can be maintained through a number of mechanisms, such as societal pressure, repressive pressure, or a combination of the two operating in tandem to various degrees. This state is a characteristic of public opinion, but it only represents its most general and superficial stratum, concealing the multi-layered and much more fragmented public preferences in both countries. When external circumstances change — for example, when a peace treaty is signed or when repression eases — the pattern of societal preferences is likely to change dramatically.