07.03.23 Polls Review

The Fog of War and The Climate of Opinion: polls indicate rising pro-war sentiments, increasingly positive assessments of the success of the ‘special military operation,’ and growing fear of pollsters

Polling conducted in February by the Levada Center and the independent Russian Field project indicates a slight rise in the level of declarative support for military action in Ukraine in recent months. At the same time, the perception that the ‘special operation’ is a success is more widespread than it was before. As a result, the number of people in favour of commencing peace negotiations has diminished. And, at the same time, there has been a slight decrease in the number of respondents who believe that the decision to launch the ‘special military operation’ was correct, with only 50% of those polled by Russian Field convinced that this was a correct decision. Moreover, approximately 15% of those who support the war said they were afraid to take part in polls, while 40% of the war’s opponents say the same. The stark difference in respondents' perceptions of the 'climate of opinion' calls into question the ‘absolute’ values of support and opposition to the war. At the same time, both surveys — the Levada Center and the Russian Field project — provide a fairly consistent picture of changing in sentiment: military setbacks in the autumn reduced respondents' support for the war, whereas a perceived improvement in the situation at the front has had the opposite effect.

According to a Levada Center poll conducted in the last week of February, there has been a slight rise in the proportion of respondents who say they support the Russian army's actions in Ukraine in response to a direct question: after hitting a low in December (71%), it has bounced back to the level of summer 2022 (77%). Polling conducted by the Levada Center has traditionally demonstrated the highest level of support for the war, and also includes the lowest number of respondents who are unable to offer an opinion (the Levada Center uses a 'face-to-face' method to conduct its surveys, with pollsters visiting respondents' homes). 17% of those polled said they did not support the war. As in previous measurements, this proportion is higher among younger respondents (29% within the 18-34 age range), and among those who trust Telegram channels (27%) and social networks (25%) as sources of information. This general trend can be observed across all surveys: pro-war attitudes are more prevalent among men, older people, and those who rely on television for information. 

In response to the projective question: 'Should military operations continue or should peace talks start?' a majority of Levada Center respondents still preferred peace talks (50% vs 43%), but this gap had narrowed. In October, following the Russian army’s autumn defeats and the announcement of 'partial mobilisation,' those in favour of peace talks had a larger majority: 57% to 34%. Peace talks are supported overwhelmingly by women (64%), young people (60% of 18-39-year-olds), and those who are opposed to Putin (76%). 

The middle-aged (40-54 years old) and older generations were the main contributors to the rise in pro-war sentiment, as they are more susceptible to propaganda clichés and narratives such as 'the Motherland is in danger' and others. The relative increase in respondents’ bellicosity coincided with an improvement in assessments regarding the course of military operations. 63% believe the 'special operation' is progressing successfully, while 24% believe it is not (in the autumn these figures stood at 53 and 31% respectively). 

In response to qualifying questions about possible conditions and scenarios for peace talks, 71% of Levada Center respondents thought an immediate cease-fire was desirable or acceptable, while only 23% thought it was unacceptable. Returning the occupied territories of the so-called DNR and LNR to Ukraine was deemed a desirable or acceptable outcome by 20% and unacceptable by 71%; return of other partially occupied territories (Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions) was assessed as desirable or acceptable or unacceptable by 24% and 67%, respectively. 

The data from the February wave of polling conducted by the independent Russian Field project paints a similar picture of the dynamics of attitudes towards the war. The RF telephone survey's respondents’ declarative support for the 'special operation' remained stable at 69% (the last time RF measured this figure was in July 2022, and it was the same). 

When asked which scenario they would prefer — continuation of the special operation or a start to peace negotiations — RF respondents appear to be more belligerent: 49% prefer the first option, while 40% prefer the second. This situation has remained stable: an average of 41% of respondents across all the waves of the Levada Center polls supported continuing military action, while 52% supported initiating peace talks. In contrast to this, according to RF polls, 38% of respondents support peace negotiations, while 50% oppose them. This difference appears to be related to the wording of the questions: in the Levada Center poll, both the question and the answer refer to 'continuation of military actions,' while the RF question asks about the 'continuation of the SMO'. This indicates the likely influence that the propagandistic framing of the war as a 'special military operation' has had on public responses. Around 40% of respondents favour negotiations, with an equal number in favour of continuing military action, and the rest fluctuate somewhere between these two options. 

Similar to the Levada Center polling, the share of those who consider the operation's course a success has increased slightly in responses to the RF poll compared with responses to the waves of the survey conducted in the autumn: 56% versus 23% (in November, it was 50% versus 33%). Surprisingly, the proportions of respondents who believe the operation is not going well are nearly identical in both surveys, but RF respondents tend to be more evasive. Among Levada Center respondents, 6% said that all of the 'special operation's' goals had been met, while 18% said none had been achieved. These figures stand at 2 and 22% among RF respondents, respectively. 

Respondents in the RF poll are also asked whether they would reverse the decision to launch the 'special operation' if they could go back in time. Until July 2022, 56% of respondents consistently answered 'no,' with an average of 28% replying that they would have liked to reverse the decision to start the 'special operation'. According to the most recent polls, the proportion of those who want to cancel the special operation has risen to 33% in the last three measurements, while the percentage of those who believe it was the right decision has fallen to 51%. As a result, the gap between those openly declaring support for the special operation (69% for RF) and those confident that the decision to launch it was the right one has widened to 17 percentage points. 

Finally, RF respondents were asked if they feared participating in polls on the topic of the 'special operation'. 24% said they were afraid, while 71% were not. However, if looking solely at those aged 18-34 (the group most likely to be anti-war), the percentage of those afraid rises to 34%. Among those who support the SMO, 16% fear participating in polls, with nearly half (43%) of those against it scared. The ratios among those who would or would not undo the decision to go to war stand at 14% and 40%, respectively; this figure is 17% and 45%, respectively, among those who believe that the country is moving in the right/wrong direction. Thus, fear is 2.7 times higher among those who are opposed to the war and those who are unsure about its necessity than among those in favour of it. 

The Levada Center polls paint roughly the same picture. In March 2022, in response to the question ‘Can you speak freely about your attitude to the policies pursued by the country’s leadership’ 45% of those who believed the country was moving in the right direction and 42% of those who approved of Putin answered yes. This stood at 22% and 18%, respectively, among those who hold the opposing views (half as many). The answer 'I can, but not always and not everywhere' was provided by an equal number of respondents (about 30%) from among loyalists and opponents. 'I cannot (I am afraid or feel uncomfortable)' was selected by 7% of loyalists, 24% of those who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and 31% (one in three respondents) of those who oppose President Putin. In other words, the levels of fear among oppositionists are 3.5-4 times higher than among loyalists. Such a disparity in perceptions of the 'climate of opinion,' which can influence respondents' willingness both to participate in polls and provide sincere responses, makes one wary of the 'absolute' values of support and opposition to the war provided by survey data. Despite this, various surveys provide a fairly consistent picture of the change in sentiment in both the Levada Center and Russian Field samples.