12.04.23 Polls Review

Crimean relapse: since the start of the war poll respondents see Russia as more developed, wealthy, and free than they did during peacetime

Sociological survey results demonstrate that war remains the Russian government's panacea for resolving social and economic issues, offsetting the population's social fatigue and growing distrust of the authorities. The current military invasion of Ukraine, like the previous mobilisation related to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, has significantly increased Russians' self-evaluation: they now perceive Russia as a developed, wealthy, and free country, to a greater extent than they did before the war. When it comes to their personal financial situation, the perceptions of Russia’s residents appear to be more restrained and appropriate — assessments in this area are more in line with objective economic indicators, suggesting they are less susceptible to ‘military euphoria.’ Between the second half of 2014 and early 2018, a similar anomaly in public opinion known as the ‘Crimean syndrome’ could be witnessed, followed by a marked deterioration in opinion on a wide range of issues. However, when compared to the current conflict, the real social cost of the first Ukrainian war was negligible for Russians, as the costs have steadily increased alongside the repressive pressure placed on society. As a result, the future evolution of this ‘polling anomaly’ remains unknown.

The results of current sociological surveys in Russia continue to demonstrate the extraordinary effects of war and repression. These effects are especially noticeable compared to the period of previous mobilisation, 2014-2015, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Sociologists and political scientists often discuss the ‘rally-around-the-flag’ phenomenon, which refers to a specific rallying of public opinion around governments during times of foreign policy crisis. The Russian situation is peculiar in that this ‘rallying’ is not limited to a specific range of crisis-related issues but rather to a broad range of respondents' preferences and outlooks. During times of social mobilisation, it is as if someone switches out survey participants: they are significantly more conservative in their attitudes, uncritical of the government even on issues they would generally be critical of, more optimistic about the world around them, and so on. (Re: Russia has already covered these effects on several occasions).

The findings of a recent FOM poll of Russians on the question of ‘Russia’s image’ reproduce this pattern particularly vividly. In response to the question ‘Do we live in a developed, advanced country or an undeveloped, backward one?’ in March 2012, Russians were evenly divided: 45% thought it was developed, and an equal number thought it was backward. However, in late 2014 and early 2015 (following the annexation of Crimea and outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine), 69% and 74% of respondents, respectively, selected the first option, while 23% and 17% chose the second. In other words, it should be assumed that more than half of those who thought the country was backwards changed their minds over the course of just six months. This figure then fell, and by 2020-2021, Russia was considered developed by 55-60% of respondents. On January 30, 2022, three weeks before the invasion, 54 per cent of those polled said Russia was developed, while 37 per cent said it was backward. However, by May, a few months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 69% of respondents selected the former option, while only 20% agreed with the latter (FOM obtained the same results in February 2023). 

Russians' perceptions of Russia, 2012-2023, % of respondents

The pattern is identical to that witnessed when respondents are asked whether Russia is rich or poor: in March 2012, 50% of those surveyed thought Russia was rich, and 40% thought it was poor. However, since December 2014, 65-66% of respondents have held the former view, with only about a quarter holding the opposite view, that Russia is a poor country. In 2019-2021, the situation normalised, with Russia considered rich by approximately 50% and poor by approximately 40%, as it was before the annexation of Crimea. In January 2022, 37% of respondents thought Russia was rich, while 46% thought it was poor. However, just a few months later, the share of respondents who held the first opinion began to increase rapidly. Finally, a similar pattern can be seen in the distribution of responses to the question of whether Russia is a free or non-free country. In non-wartime, roughly half of those surveyed (50-53%) responded that they believe Russia is free, while 30-40% believed it is not, whereas, in wartime, the former view was held by 70-77% of respondents and the latter by 16-23%.

The pattern appears more comprehensive when there is a more extensive data set, as in another survey focusing on assessments of Russia's position in the international arena. In the 2000s, roughly 10% of respondents thought Russia was among the top ten most developed countries, while another 30% thought it placed somewhere between 10th and 50th in terms of its economic rankings; another 20% thought Russia was somewhere between 50th and 100th. There was a surge in the autumn of 2008 (shortly after the five-day war in Georgia), and Russia was perceived as ranking among the top ten economically developed countries by about 30% of those surveyed, while only 10% thought Russia was ranked between 50th and 100th. It should be noted that, at that time, Russia was at the pinnacle of its economic success in the 2000s, after nine years of intense economic recovery and a steady rise in oil prices. However, against the backdrop of the economic crisis and falling oil prices the following year, citizens’ assessments returned to the mid-2000s norm. 

Between 2008 and 2018, the share of those who believe Russia ranked between 10th and 50th in terms of its economy remained virtually unchanged (around 40%). And this estimate appears to align with reality (Russia ranks around 55th in GDP per capita). However, after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the share of those who considered Russia to be an advanced country (in the top ten globally) increased from 13% to 29%. In the late 2010s, a little over 20% of respondents rated Russia as advanced, and nearly as many ranked it between 50th and 100th. The proportion of those who thought Russia would finish between 10th and 50th in the global economic rankings dropped to 35%. Even prior to Covid, there was a clear increase in respondents' economic pessimism. However, following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sanctions, and ensuing economic shock, the share of those who consider Russia to be a top-ten economic power has increased to 33%. In contrast, the share who consider Russia to be ranked below 50th place has decreased from 20% to 12%.

However, when it comes to Russia's place in the world in terms of living standards, the pattern is somewhat different. In the late 2000s, only 5-7% of respondents thought Russia ranked among the top ten. Following the annexation of Crimea, the proportion of those who held this view increased to 10-12%, before falling back to 8% in the late 2010s. However, since the full-scale invasion, this figure has risen to 18%. Before the annexation of Crimea, approximately 30% of Russians thought Russia ranked between 10th and 50th in terms of its standard of living, and 35% believed it ranked between 10th and 50th after the annexation. The share of respondents who held this view fell to 27% at the end of the decade, and after the outbreak of war, it increased slightly — to 33%.

The gap is evident in the responses to the latter two questions: Russia's economic position in the world is valued much higher than people's own comparative financial position (which people assess somewhat more in line with reality). And the impact of war on the perception of this parameter is much lower than in the answers to previous, more abstract questions.

Based on polling data, the war is truly a panacea for the Russian government when it comes to social and economic issues,t and a counterbalance to the accumulated ‘fatigue’ and growing scepticism of its citizens. The ‘Crimean syndrome’ persisted in Russian public opinion until 2018, when attitudes towards various issues began to deteriorate. However, while the real social cost of the first Ukrainian war may have been negligible for Russian citizens, the cost of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been escalating systematically. As a result, the question of how this social anomaly will develop in the future remains unanswered.

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