31.10.23 Middle East Review

Sovietisation of Consciousness: Nearly half of Russians believe that the US and NATO are to blame for the Palestine-Israel conflict

The Palestine-Israel conflict has pushed Ukraine out of the Russian public's spotlight, relegating it to peripheral events. Surprisingly, two-thirds of Russians cannot decide on which side of the conflict their sympathies lie, although, unlike in late 2010s when these sympathies were equally divided, a distinct pro-Palestinian shift is noticeable today. According to a recent poll conducted by the 'Levada Center', 21% of respondents express sympathy for the Palestinians, while only 6% support Israel. However, unlike residents of the US and Europe, many of whom are consciously sympathetic to the Palestinian side despite the Hamas terrorist attack, the Russians polled by the Levada Center have a very vague idea of the nature of the conflict and primarily follow Russian television propaganda. Astonishingly, 45% of those polled lay the blame for the escalation of the conflict not on HAMAS or Israel, but on the US and NATO, following President Putin's lead. This reflects a resurgence of the Soviet ideological framework, where 'Israeli militarism' is portrayed as a puppet of 'global imperialism' in the minds of Russians.

A third of those surveyed by the 'Levada Center' from 19 to 25 October, 2023, (32%) are closely following the course of the conflict in Israel, while an additional 56% have heard something about it. This represents a very high level of awareness (88%) in comparison with a poll regarding events in Ukraine, in which 86% stated they are closely following events (22%), moderately following (29%), or paying 'no particular attention' (35%). The Israel conflict has effectively moved the Ukrainian war to the periphery, at least temporarily. According to a FOM survey conducted from 20 to 22 October, 34% of those surveyed named it as one of the most significant events of the past week, while only 21% mentioned the ‘special military operation' in Ukraine.

However, when these results are broken down by age, we get some insight into how the Israel-HAMAS conflict is perceived in Russia. Among older age groups (55+ years), 44% are closely following the conflict, compared to just 21% in the 25-39 age group, and only 16% of the youngest group (18-24 years). This gap suggests that television is the most important tool for drawing attention to the conflict, and this is primarily watched by the older age groups.

Accordingly, the distribution of responses to the next 'Levada Center' question becomes clearer: on which side do your sympathies lie in this conflict? In the years 2007-2010, around 60% of Russian respondents took no definite position on the Palestine-Israel confrontation, while 10-12% expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and almost as many for the Israeli side. Approximately 20% found it difficult to answer the question. During this period, unlike in Soviet times, the Palestine-Israel conflict had completely faded from the attention of Russians and the Russian media. Today, the situation looks somewhat different. On the one hand, 66% of those surveyed remain neutral in the conflict, which indicates a rather weak long-term involvement of Russian public opinion with its issues. However, the balance of sympathies among the rest has shifted significantly towards the Palestinians — 21% compared to just 6% who are pro-Israel. The number of those who found it difficult to answer has also declined sharply. Among consumers of traditional media (television, radio, print publications), 26% sympathise with the Palestinians, while among those who get their information from social networks, Telegram, and YouTube channels, the figure stands at 19%. There is a difference, but it is not striking: pro-Israeli narratives are poorly represented in social networks. They are more prevalent on YouTube, where 16% express sympathy for Israel.

Moreover, among thee youngest group (18-24 years), the distribution of sympathies is almost the same as it was in the late 2000s: 13% express pro-Palestinian sentiments, while 10% sympathise with Israel. However, among those aged 55 and above, 26% express sympathy for the Palestinian side, compared to just 4% who are pro-Israel. Thus, it is the older age groups within the sample that has primarily contribute to the pro-Palestinian shift. It is also interesting to note that among those who identify as having no religious affiliation or as atheists (22%), the distribution of sympathies has remained the same as it was in the late 2000s: 11% are pro-Palestine and 10% are pro-Israel. Among those who identify as Orthodox Christians (68% of the sample), 22% sympathise with the Palestinians, and among those identifying as Muslims (6% of the sample), 46% express sympathy for the Palestinians.

The distribution of responses to the question of who is to blame for the escalation of the conflict further highlights that Russian respondents remain poorly informed about the conflict and largely echo the position of Russian state-controlled media. In response to the question of blame, 45% of those surveyed by the 'Levada Center' selected 'USA/NATO' as the answer, 12% placed the blame on Israel, and only 8% on HAMAS. In both the Arab world and the West, the main argument used to justify HAMAS's terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians has been the long history of pressure and 'terrorism' against Palestinians and residents of Gaza by Israel. However, in Russia, we can see that not even half of those expressing sympathy for Palestine are aware of the nature of the conflict and blame Israel. Others adhere to the absurd thesis of Russian propaganda, promoted in part by Vladimir Putin himself, that the blame for everything lies with the US and NATO. Even about a third of those who do not express sympathy for either side are convinced that NATO is responsible for everything. This idea is slightly less prevalent among younger age groups (18-39 years) at 32% of those surveyed, while among the older age groups (40+), half of those surveyed by the 'Levada Center' (52%) held this belief. Thus, the Soviet ideological scheme in which the ‘Israeli military’ acts as a puppet of ‘global imperialism’ is being regenerated in the minds of Russians (particularly of older generations).