26.01 Polls Review

Military Deadlock: How Russians' views on the ‘military operation’ changed during the second year of the conflict

The prevailing opinion in the media and even among experts today is that Russian society has adapted to the war, distanced itself from it, and is living a kind of parallel life alongside the war, while the figures supporting the war in public opinion polls have stagnated and remain virtually unchanged. Two articles published by Re:Russia this week, dedicated to the issue of attitudes toward the war in Russian society, demonstrate that behind this static facade, there is a significant, albeit ambiguous, dynamic. Both analyses indicate that the core of actual war supporters has shrunk and the 'audibility' of the pro-war position in society has decreased. This, however, has not led to an increase in the number of opponents of the war. Rather, we can speak of a kind of deadlock in public opinion, caused by the pressure of fear of repression and the awareness of the inability to influence the course of events, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by concerns that the end of the war and the hypothetical withdrawal of troops appears unclear, potentially conflict-ridden and worries respondents. The decrease in pro-war sentiments and the level of actual support for the war is accompanied by a lack of understanding of the ways out of the current situation.

Polling data on Russians' attitudes toward the war have somewhat shifted out of the media spotlight. Experts have adopted the view that Russian society has adapted to the war, distanced itself from it, and the figures in surveys demonstrating attitudes towards the war have practically stagnated. However, a more detailed analysis allows us to see important trends that may prove to be harbingers of new trends in public opinion, if not in the near future, then in the medium term. It also helps to better understand the groups of factors influencing the dynamics of public opinion about the war.

A recent Re:Russia article by sociologists Vladimir Zvonovsky and Alexander Khodykin helps to understand how the opinion of others, or the perception of that opinion, influences respondents' own attitudes towards the war and their willingness to express opinions publicly. Is there a 'spiral of silence' in Russia today — a social effect in which supporters of a certain opinion, considering it unpopular, do not dare to express it and thus only reinforce its absence in the public sphere? The 'railway test' used by sociologists to detect the 'spiral' shows that Russians of all views are not inclined to talk about the 'military operation' with people they do not know well, but those who oppose it express their opinion more than one and a half times less frequently than those who support it (22% vs 35%). This means that if, for example, in a certain group the number of supporters of the war is one and a half times greater than the number of its opponents (60% vs. 40%), then due to the latter's lower readiness to express their position it will appear to an observer that the number of war supporters exceeds the number of opponents by two and a half times (70% vs 30%). As a result, the opinion of war opponents may be perceived by those around them as marginal.

However, the overall situation looks more complex. Sociologists have found that in 2023 the proportion of those who support the 'military operation' in the polls has slightly decreased, but the share of those who say the majority in their surroundings supports it has decreased much more significantly. About 70% of respondents claim to support it, and around 20% say they do not support it; at the same time, only 57% of those surveyed say that the majority in their surroundings supports the ‘military operation’, and 30% state that supporters and opponents of the war are evenly distributed in their surroundings. This, the researchers show, is due to the fact that some of those who join the normative majority of support for military action, without having their own real motivation to do so (the 'bandwagon effect'), are not inclined to express their position publicly, finding themselves in a mixed environment where both supporters and opponents of the 'military operation' are present. 

As a result, opponents of the war are not inclined to speak out when they believe they feel they are in a pro-war environment, while 'weak', declarative supporters of the war stop defending their opinion when they discover that they are not in the midst of a pro-war majority. The situation appears to be particularly characteristic of the youth environment, where the share of even purely declarative supporters of the 'operation' is no more than a third.

However, the observed phenomenon of a decrease in the 'audibility' of the pro-war position in society may have an additional explanation, suggested by the second article on the subject of attitudes toward the war, published by Re:Russia this week. In the second half of 2023, public opinion polls demonstrated a slight decline in the proportion of respondents who say they support military action, and a much more significant decline in the core of war supporters — the pro-war segment of society. This core decreased by one and a half times and became proportionate with the share of those who generally lean towards anti-war views (27% vs 25%). The share of those who would not be ready to support a decision by Putin to immediately withdraw troops without having achieved the goals of the 'operation' also decreased — by the end of the year it became noticeably smaller than the share of those who would be willing to support such a decision (33% vs 40%).

However, a rather significant reduction in the pro-war core has not led to an increase in the share of open, consistent opponents of the war (10%), or in the share of people with anti-war views (25%). Instead, it has led to an expansion of the circle of those who either express conflicting views, try not to express any views, or declaratively join the 'imaginary majority' of supporters of the 'special military operation', while at the same time wanting a swift end to the war, even if it does not achieve its stated goals.

This situation of demobilisation among supporters of the war, however, is manifesting itself for the second time since the start of the war two years ago. The highest levels of support for the 'military operation' were observed in the spring and early summer of 2022, followed by a phase of partial demobilisation of war supporters as a result of the awareness of its protracted nature, high costs and unclear prospects, which peaked in September 2022, after the announcement of 'partial mobilisation'. However, after the autumn retreat of Russian troops in the winter of 2022/23, there was a second phase of mobilisation of supporters of the war, stimulated by the fear of defeat and the information campaign of Prigozhin's turbo-militarism, which included not only Prigozhin's fierce polemics against the military command, but also the informational effect of the pool of military bloggers he brought onto the national media scene. Finally, from the spring to summer of 2023, a second phase of demobilisation can be observed. There was a marked decline in pro-war groups after fears of a Ukrainian counteroffensive dissipated, Prigozhin had disappeared from the political scene, and pro-war bloggers came under pressure from Kremlin censorship.

Associated with this second demobilisation, any interpretation of the expansion of the group of those with an unclear or hidden position as an exclusive increase in Russians' indifference to the war would be premature. The war remains a central issue in Russian society, even if Russians tend not to discuss it or openly express their opinions about it. Rather, this is a kind of deadlock in public opinion, caused by the pressure of fear of repression and the awareness of the inability to influence events on the one hand, and on the other, concerns that the end of the war and a hypothetical withdrawal of troops seems unclear, potentially conflict-ridden and alarming to respondents. Thus, while 40% support an immediate withdrawal of troops without achieving the objectives of the operation, 37% believe that the situation in the country would worsen as a result of such a scenario.

Localised campaigns of political mobilisation that suddenly break out despite the repressive context, such as the recent protests in Bashkortostan or the campaign to collect signatures for Boris Nadezhdin as an alternative candidate in the presidential election, can be seen as signs of growing political tensions. However, these have no outlets and lack any means of crystallising around particular positions and dividing lines.