17.05.23 Review

Frustrations of Non-Resistance: The typical Russian both supports and does not support the war at the same time, but does not want to appear to oppose it

By the end of 2022, arguments in favour of the war have not become more convincing to Russians — support for the 'special operation' appears to be mainly passive, and the war as a whole does not evoke any positive response even from those who approve of Putin's actions. Russians who justify the war feel a background sense of anxiety, regret the loss of life on both sides, and do not see any positive prospects for themselves or their country even in the event of a potential victory. The majority of Russians want the war to end as soon as possible, according to analysis of a new wave of in-depth interviews conducted by the Public Sociology Laboratory. The most representative group among those interviewed are not supporters of the 'special operation,' but its 'non-opponents,' i.e. those whose opinions on the war are contradictory and internally conflicted. The passivity of the 'non-opponents' is linked to fear and a lack of political participation. Meanwhile, consistent supporters of the war are becoming increasingly vocal critics of the authorities.

Unlike mass surveys, in-depth interviews do not reveal the proportion of the population that holds certain positions, but it does provide an opportunity to discover and analyse the various narratives and arguments that justify these positions. This becomes especially important at times when public opinion is in shock and the public sphere is under intense pressure (repression, censorship, and other extraordinary circumstances). In particular, within the context of modern Russia, in-depth interviews allow for the identification of various types of attitude towards the war and reveal the nature of its declarative support, which is demonstrated by the majority of participants in mass surveys.

The Public Sociology Laboratory conducted its first wave of such interviews between February and June 2022 (the most important findings are outlined in this article written for Re: Russia, and in a detailed report on the study). During the second wave in October-December of last year, researchers conducted 88 interviews, focusing their attention on those who do not consider themselves opponents of the war (some of whom also participated in the previous wave).

In the first wave of interviews, the researchers identified three distinct types of informant (opponents, supporters, and sceptics). However, in their report on the results of the second wave of interviews, the interviewers assert that now, the Russians who have not formed an anti-war position have merged into a single group of 'non-opponents' of the war. Both those who declare their support for the war and those who identify as having not fully decided on their position, demonstrate equally ambiguous attitudes towards the military conflict. They both use pro-war and anti-war narratives and arguments in different situations and contexts. As noted by Svetlana Erpyleva, a researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory, in her article for Re: Russia, the majority of Russians are most likely not distributed among groups of support/opposition to the war in one proportion or another, but rather differ in the extent to which they simultaneously support and do not support the war. At the same time, both groups — both 'supporters' and 'doubters' - view the war as a necessary evil, a situation they would like to avoid and the end of which they eagerly await.

For almost all of those interviewed in the second wave, the beginning of the war came as a shock. Issues such as Ukrainian 'fascism' and 'the threat of NATO’ were not among their foremost concerns before the start of the 'special operation,' and a full-scale war with their neighbours seemed impossible. They did not have any grievances towards Ukrainians as a nation. However, a significant portion of these respondents have since normalised the war and the official arguments in its favour. According to the study's authors, their position has become stable and unaffected by news updates (about the successes or failures of the Russian army, mobilisation) and arguments from 'opponents' of the war who have demanded they switch sides.

At the same time, for most of those interviewed, their opinion on the war has remained contradictory and multi-layered, and as a result, the degree of their support could change within the continuum of 'non-resistance to war'. This allows them to choose a particular argument’s logic or even to combine several different arguments depending on the circumstances ('I thought we were like this because we sat around doing nothing. We allowed our government to act this way. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and then there are some deeper reasons'). As a rule, borrowings from official discourse ('Russia-West confrontation,' 'sovereignty,' and 'security') conflict with appeals to universal humanist considerations.

Among the pro-war arguments, the 'reversal' justification for the war has gained particular traction: the desperate and powerful resistance of Ukrainians, their successes, and the support of Western countries for Ukraine are used as evidence of the inevitability of the war ('I don't know if we attacked for adequate reasons or not, but the fact that the whole world has united against Russia...some undermining is being done towards Russia. It feels like my country is being unfairly attacked'). The perception of the war as something inevitable and uncontrollable, like a natural disaster, is another narrative that encourages people not to resist what is happening ('I am not a supporter of military action or violent measures. But if it happened, it happened, and I cannot influence it'). Such rhetoric 'helps people maintain a humanistic position towards the horrors of war but, at the same time, not oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine,' write the study's authors.

Researchers have identified four types of 'non-opponents' of the war. First, there are those who express confidence in both the decision to start the war and its victorious conclusion. Second, those who express a belief in the necessity or inevitability of the war, but do not want it to continue. Third, those who do not believe that the start of the war was inevitable or necessary, but acknowledge that they now need to 'fight it out' to avoid defeat. Fourth, there are those who are unsure of any of these positions and try to avoid expressing any particular opinion. Paradoxically, the fact that the 'non-opponent' group is the most significant and representative among those interviewed is consistent with the conclusions of a joint study by the polling company ExtremeScan and Re: Russia, in which we identified several clusters of 'non-opponents' ranging from substantial but incomplete support for the war to silent non-support.

For the majority of those interviewed, the war does not evoke any positive emotions. Anxiety, which has become a background emotion, has forced them to acquire various adaptive strategies, including changes to their information consumption. Access to alternative sources of information does not have the expected effect, and those interviewed attempt to minimise their use. At the same time, even clearly expressed support for the war (the first type of 'non-opponents') does not necessarily now imply approval of the actions of the authorities. On the contrary, the most active supporters of the war are the harshest critics of the country’s military and political leadership, exposing failures in command, mobilisation inefficiency, and so on (this is the 'angry war correspondents' effect). 'Paradoxically, active and consistent support for the war in Ukraine has protest potential,' researchers conclude.

The passivity of the majority of 'non-opponents' is not due to a lack of access to information, an inability to empathise, or absence of critical thinking skills, but rather can be attributed to a weakness in political solidarity and political participation skills, the researchers summarise. However, this passivity allows the Russian authorities to successfully pass this off as support.