SOCIETY
Mobilize me! Are Russians willing to fight?
July 19, 2022
Vladimir Zvonovsky
PhD in sociology, professor at Samara State University of Economics
Almost one third of Russian men tell pollsters that they’re ready to be mobilized. Their responses, as Vladimir Zvonovsky shows, vary depending on factors like age, where they get their news and what they know about the “operation.” 
A third of men ready to serve wherever sent

This estimate is based on data from a survey of Russian adults conducted on March 20-23, which represents the third series of the OPYTY («Опыты») project. The results of the first series are presented on ExtremeScan.eu. Methodological issues related to accessibility and participation are discussed here

Less than a third (29%) of the surveyed population, or slightly more than 31 mln people, is subject to conscription. This is men aged 18-50. The researchers asked those who could be conscripted the following question: “Are you currently ready to be mobilized for the Russian Armed Forces?” With Russia’s “special military operation,” the prospect of being called up most likely entails participating in the conflict in Ukraine or serving in auxiliary units in Russia.

About a quarter said that they had medical exemptions from serving (26%), while 5% are currently serving in various security services (about 1.6 mln people). According to various data, 2.6 mln people work in these institutions (Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, National Guard, Emergency Situations Ministry, FSB, FSO, Federal Penitentiary Service, Prosecutor General). Some of them – for example, in the Interior Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry and Federal Penitentiary Service – are women. Meanwhile, a certain percentage were in the war zone at the time of the survey and weren’t ready to answer questions. Nevertheless, our measure seems to rather accurately reflect the number of siloviki (security forces) in Russia.
Figure 1. Readiness to be mobilized for Russian Armed Forces among those subject to conscription (Russia, men aged 18-50, March 2022)
More than a quarter (26%) stated that they weren’t ready to be mobilized, while 3% said it was hard to say. Every eleventh man (9%) said he was ready to serve only on the territory of Russia. Thirty-one percent, about 9.6 mln people, said they would serve where they were sent. Of course, this is only a verbal statement of readiness to put themselves in harm’s way, though the follow-through for simpler and entirely safe endeavors isn’t even 100%. Nevertheless, we aren’t interested in the number of possible reserves for the active army, but how various factors influence people’s stated readiness to serve.

On May 23-26, Russian Field conducted a survey of the adult population of Russia with the same sample size, though there was a significant bias (significantly fewer pensioners were surveyed and there were far fewer residents of the central regions of the country than their share in the general population). The researchers measured the willingness of the male population to take part in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. Unfortunately, they failed to specify on whose side, but it can be assumed that the vast majority of respondents who expressed their readiness to fight had in mind the Russian side. They also didn’t offer an adequate option for respondents who either serve or have served in the Russian security forces or private military companies. Of course, they may be “willing to serve in Ukraine,” but for a serviceman an order is what counts. Despite these shortcomings, a variant of the question “If you personally had the opportunity to take part in the military operation on the territory of Ukraine, would you take advantage of this opportunity?” is a good analogue of the OPYTY study.

Thirty-one percent of men aged 18-50 answered in the affirmative, which basically matches the 31% we got. Unfortunately, we can’t assess how military and law enforcement personnel responded (according to ExtremeScan, they are approximately 5% of the number of men subject to military service). Still, the figures collected by the different research teams are very similar, indicating the reproducibility and reliability of the data. Fifty-seven percent of possible conscripts said that they wouldn’t go to the front, according to Russian Field, while it was 61% for ExtremeScan.

Older generations more willing to fight

Thus, according to various measures conducted by various research groups, about 30% of Russian men subject to conscription stated their readiness to fight. Of course, not every one is actually ready for life at the front, the constant existential threat, and the potential to be disabled for the rest of his life. Finally, not everyone who wants to serve is taken into the army. But even if their readiness is overestimated significantly,
“A million men could be ready to go to the front – a very large number, which would eliminate the need for the government to carry out a mobilization publicly."
Table 1. Readiness to serve in Russian Armed Forces based on age and income (Russia, sample size 1,600, March 2022, Practices)
It would be enough to instead boost recruitment of contract soldiers and tap the human resources of large state-owned enterprises, especially where significant layoffs might take place.

Older generations of Russian men are visibly more ready to fight outside of Russia, while only every fifth young man from 18-30 years old (20%) would go wherever commanded. Young people likely have other life plans, the window of opportunity for which has already closed for forty-year-olds, who think it more rewarding to serve in a team in the army accomplishing assigned objectives. On the contrary, every third young Russian (31%) expressed an unwillingness to serve, while another 12% would serve but only on Russian territory, meaning without directly risking their lives. A similar dynamic was observed by Russian Field: the older the Russian, the more he is willing to go to the front.

From the first surveys, many researchers called attention to the fact that the highest earning segments of society supported the invasion of Ukraine. This is contrary to intuition, which assumes that any war makes people poorer. However, “rich” Russians are even more willing to fight than “poor” Russians (43% versus 27%), while people with average incomes are most likely to refuse to fight (30-32%). The same dynamic was observed in the Russian Field surveys in May: Russian men with the highest incomes are more willing to fight on average than others. As one can see, this rather unexpected and thus far poorly explained dynamic has been reliably recorded by various measures and clearly reflects a real correlation between wealth and willingness to fight.
Table 2. Readiness to serve in the Russian Armed Forces based on assessments of the situation in Ukraine (Russia, sample size 1,600, March 2022, OPYTY)
Sources of information and readiness to go to the front

One’s estimate of Russian losses in Ukraine does affect one’s willingness to go to the front in an intuitive and significant way. Among those who trust the latest official Defense Ministry estimate, given in March, about fewer than 1,500 dead, 38% are ready to be mobilized, while among those who believe that the reality is much uglier the figure halves to 20%. Meanwhile, the percentage of those who aren’t ready to serve among those who believe that Russia lost more than 5,000 soldiers in the war is twice as high (41% versus 20%).

Of course, having military personnel in the family is a significant factor. Besides the 13% who are already serving, another third of men in military families (37%) said they would serve where needed. Meanwhile, in families where no one serves in the security forces, 29% said they wouldn’t fight. In other words, experience with military service within a family – meaning close contact with servicemen – inclines people to fight themselves.

Expectations about how the Ukrainian population will view Russian troops significantly affects people’s readiness to serve. Among those who believe that Russians are met there as “liberators,” or at least neutrally, 38-39% are ready to do the liberating, while the figure drops to just 20% among those who think that Ukrainians view Russian troops as enemies. Meanwhile, within the latter group 43% expressed an unwillingness to serve. In other words, the lower the expectations about how the Russian army will be received in a foreign country, the lower the willingness to fight there.

How long one expects the war to last also significantly influences one’s readiness to be mobilized. Approximately one third (32%) of those who believe that the war will last for several more months are ready to serve abroad, while among those who fear that the war will become protracted a third (31%) said they weren’t willing to serve. Clearly, those who are ready to fight are counting on a relatively short and victorious war. The more pessimistic the assessment of the conflict’s duration, the lower the percentage of those ready to fight in a foreign country.

The attitude toward potential mobilization is also influenced by one’s trust toward information sources. If among those who trust state television the balance of those who are ready versus not ready to serve is 41% to 19%, then among those who don’t trust it the ratio it is 17% to 43%. As one  can see, 
“The higher their trust toward state TV, the more willing Russian men are to go to war, while as that trust falls, so does their readiness to serve."
Table 3. Readiness to serve in Russian Armed Forces based on trust toward information sources (Russia, sample size 1,600, March 2022, OPYTY)
In other words, men who are ready to fight are heavily influenced by state media, principally television.

If they manage to tap into information banned in Russia, their attitude toward serving dramatically worsens. If among those who don’t know what a VPN is (software that allows you to bypass firewalls put up by the Russian government) the ratio of those who are ready to be mobilized versus those who aren’t is almost 3:1 (39% versus 14%), then among those who use a VPN the ratio flips to 1:2 (21% versus 40%). The upshot is that those with access to a wider range of information than just Russian state media would rather avoid fighting. Note that soldiers and junior officers live and work in barracks, where access to information on their computers and probably also smartphones is extremely limited. They can’t use a VPN or other means of circumventing censorship, while they are constantly forced to watch TV programs in their units.

Main conclusions

  • Approximately one in three (31%) Russian men subject to conscription (18-50 years old) expressed a verbal readiness to take part in the conflict in Ukraine on the side of Russia. Even if we assume that only a tenth are actually fit for service, this means that more than 1 mln people are ready to be drafted.
  • This allows the Russian regime to replenish its forces without publicly declaring a mobilization, instead simply stepping up recruitment of contract soldiers.
  • This method means that recruits will be significantly older, as the readiness to fight increases with age.
  • Higher earning Russians are ready to fight. Even if it's just a verbal readiness, this segment provides significant financial support for pro-Russian forces (though this has opened way to fraud).
  • The longer the war is expected to last and the higher the estimate of Russian losses, the less people want to be a part of it. It can be assumed that as the conflict continues and losses rise, the number of those who are ready to fight will fall.
  • An important factor is trust toward state media, primarily state television. Meanwhile, if a person breaks through the information blockade on the internet with a VPN – probably to look for alternative information – his readiness to fight is significantly lower.
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