08.06.23 Polls Review

After Bakhmut: The number of supporters of continuing the war increased in Russia in May, but so did uncertainty about the possibility of victory

Among Russians, the level of declarative support for the war in Ukraine has remained relatively stable over the past few months. However, public opinion is reacting to the information backdrop of the military campaign. Reports of setbacks undermine belief in victory and support for the war. In May, the authorities managed to 'sell' the capture of Bakhmut to the population as a significant victory, which led to an increase in the proportion of those who believe the war should continue. However, Ukrainian drone attacks, sabotage, and incursions into Russian territory have also achieved their goals and made an impression on Russians. The upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive will largely be fought on the information front. Although Russians, in general, have come to terms with the protracted nature of the war (almost one in two respondents believe that it will last for more than a year), Ukrainian attacks are causing increasing uncertainty about whether it can end with any significant victory. Therefore, even non-radical but noticeable and tangible successes achieved by the Ukrainian army could become an important factor in changing attitudes.

Survey data from the Levada Center on the war in Ukraine has been exceptionally monotonous of late. For instance, the level of declarative support for the war (the question 'Do you personally support or not support the actions of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine?') fluctuates within a relatively narrow range — 71% to 77% in the centre's face-to-face surveys. The level of attention paid to the war (the question 'Do you follow the situation in Ukraine?') remains practically unchanged: just over half of those polled follow the developments attentively or very attentively. Peaks of attention were recorded in March 2022 (64% closely following) and September 2022 (66%). In recent months, this has been between 53% and 55%.

The fact that this figure did not change in May seems somewhat strange. Throughout this month, the Russian propaganda machine celebrated the capture of Bakhmut, and this was followed by drone attacks on the Kremlin and Moscow, and the incursion of armed groups from Ukrainian territory into Russia. However, the Levada Center surveys have a more subtle tool for measuring the dynamics of 'information tension.' In one question, respondents are asked to name five or six events they remember from the month. If the information backdrop was dense, those surveyed are able to easily list the memorable events; on the contrary, if the news did not catch their attention the share of those who cannot recall any event or find it difficult to answer increases.

The graph below shows the dynamics of those who named war-related events among those that they found memorable ('special military operation,' mobilisation, terrorist attacks, sabotage, etc.), and those who were unable or found it difficult to name memorable events. Here, the information background is most dense at the beginning of the war and in September-October 2022 (Ukrainian counteroffensive and mobilisation), and this is clearly visible where the graph peaks, as well as visible low periods when respondents disengaged from the information agenda.

War and information involvement of the Russian population, 2022-2023, % of respondents

As we can see, in March-April, the population distanced itself from military news as much as possible. However, there was a turning point in May: the curve representing the mentioning of military events started to rise, and the proportion of those struggling to name any events decreased. In April 2023, 49% of respondents could not name a single event that stood out to them over the course of the past month, while in May, that number dropped to 37%. At the same time, the list of events mentioned shows that the authorities managed to 'sell' the capture of Bakhmut to the population as a significant victory (mentioned by 17%), and while the Ukrainian attacks at the end of the month did not overshadow this victorious news in terms of resonance, they still sufficiently achieved their goal (mentioned by 12%).

Which events of the last four weeks do you remember most? May 2023, open-ended question, % of respondents

Perhaps this triumphant 'Bakhmut' sentiment became the reason why, in May, the number of those advocating for the continuation of military actions surpassed the proportion of those who believe that peace negotiations should begin. The share of supporters of negotiations peaked in October 2022 against the backdrop of Russian army defeats and the announcement of mobilisation. Conversely, assessments of the success of the 'special operation' were at their lowest point at that time, increasing slightly at the beginning of 2023.

War support in Russian public opinion, 2022-2023, % of respondents

It is worth noting that, in the conditions of war and repressive pressure, the sample may have an unintentional bias due to the fact that people critical of the war and the authorities may be more likely to refuse to talk to pollsters. However, as we can see, the surveys demonstrate that Russians react quite acutely to changes in the information background by responding cautiously and uniformly to the most sensitive questions.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may or may not have started, will also largely be an information battle. For example, by 'selling' the capture of Bakhmut to Russians as a major victory, the Russian authorities have put themselves in a difficult position regarding the risks of its potential recapture.

Generally speaking, Russians have come to terms with the fact that the war will be a protracted one. In May 2022, 37% of respondents were confident that it would end within six months, whereas in May 2023, only 11% held that belief. Conversely, a year ago, in May 2022, only 21% believed that the war would last more than a year; now, nearly one in two people (45%) thinks that way. However, while a year ago it was believed that a prolonged war would only delay Russia's inevitable victory in one way or another, now confidence in that outcome is diminishing.