No End in Sight: Why Russians Do Not Expect the Conflict in Ukraine to End Anytime Soon
June 9, 2023
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Based on regular surveys and focus group discussions, Denis Volkov writes that events in May - including the successes of the Wagner group and Ukraine’s attacks on Russian territory - convince people that the war in Ukraine should be continued.

The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and republished here with their permission.

In May, almost half of our respondents (45%) were sure that the conflict in Ukraine would last at least another year – since May 2022, their share has more than doubled. Another quarter see the end of the “special operation” no sooner than in six months. Meanwhile, more than the rhetoric of Russian politicians, it is the course of events that has convinced them of this.

The theme of a protracted “special operation” runs like a red thread through responses to completely different open questions – about the causes of general anxiety and concern over developments in Ukraine, about the effectiveness of the “special operation.” People complain that the conflict has “dragged on,” “gone on too long,” that there is “no end in sight,” though at first “they promised to wrap it up in a week.” The furious resistance of the Ukrainian army, together with expectations of a Ukrainian counter-offensive and more and more deliveries of Western weapons – which alarms most Russians – makes people doubt that the conflict will be decided soon.

Society today is divided almost equally into two opposing camps. Some want “people to stop dying,” relatives and friends to “stop being conscripted,” “not to be touched” themselves and for “all this to end sooner, no matter how.” For others, however, “it is very important how things end,” “if you started, you might as well fight to the end,” and in any case “the president (government, military) knows better” – hence the fighting must go on. In May, the number of those in favor of continuing the “special operation” rose markedly and for the first time since August last year slightly exceeded the number of those in favor of peace talks. More and more people not only expect hostilities to last a long time, but also do not want them to end immediately.

The key to this shift in sentiment can be found in the events of the past month.

Rise of Prigozhin

The central event of May, according to Russians, was the fall of Bakhmut (Artemivsk). Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private military company, was the first to announce the news on May 20, later confirmed by Russian officials. The event led to a jump in Prigozhin’s standing in the eyes of ordinary people – always and everywhere people love winners. In May, for the first time Prigozhin broke into the top 10 most trusted politicians, on par with Dmitri Medvedev and Gennady Zyuganov and ahead of Vyacheslav Volodin, who had risen thanks to military topics and criticism of the West, and the skillful manager Sergei Sobyanin. Just six months ago, Prigozhin was a barely recognized political figure.

Focus group results suggest that ordinary Russians were also impressed by Prigozhin’s open confrontation with the Ministry of Defense and his statements about the shortage of shells. Talk about a shortage of weapons made some people doubt that the conflict could end quickly and caused new worries. Prigozhin himself, in the eyes of his sympathizers, even acquired the halo of a fighter against corruption – our respondents reasoned: “Why are there not enough shells? We all pay taxes! Where are they actually going?” Finally, according to one respondent, if Prigozhin continues in the same vein and takes more and more Ukrainian cities, he might consider running for president. Yet for a decent share of the urban middle class, the “master” of Wagner is a frightening and repulsive figure.

However, today he dictates the news agenda:
“For the majority of Russians who are not too interested in news, Prigozhin is a new face that contrasts favorably versus the bronzed Russian beau monde.
And his speeches on pro-war Telegram channels are followed with interest by both his supporters and opponents, just as a few years ago people of polar views watched Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations on YouTube with curiosity. It appears that the successes of Wagner gave a considerable number of Russians a taste for the continuation of the “special operation.” The rise in Prigozhin’s popularity is one of the indicators of these changes.
Yevgeny Prigozhin visits Zakhar Prilepin, a writer and war monger, in the hospital after the latter was injured in a car bombing. Source: Twitter
Attacks on Russian territory

Other events in May could also have convinced people that the conflict was dragging on and needed to be continued: attempts by Ukrainian sabotage groups to penetrate Russian territory, the barrage against Belgorod and Shebekino, the bombing of Zakhar Prilepin’s car, who is much more known than Vladlen Tatarsky, who had died earlier, drone attacks on Moscow and other Russian cities.

Individually, no such event greatly affects public sentiment. Thus, during one of the last focus groups with young Muscovites, the participants very briefly expressed only general concern about the latest drone attack and quickly moved on to discussing everyday problems. The prevailing attitude was that “it is unfortunate” but “does not directly affect us.” “We are alive – and thank God!” Someone even saw this as a “provocation by the Russian side,” because “the Ukrainians agreed with Europe not to hit Russian territory,” though this version did not turn out popular.

Slightly more concern was expressed by older people: in mid-May, one of the focus groups recalled the drone attack on the Kremlin in the context of a conversation about anxiety and general uncertainty. As one participant said, “if they can get to Putin,” what can we, mere mortals, expect. Older people are generally more attentive to such events and are thus somewhat more likely to project the risks onto themselves. Still, there were no particular emotions this time either: they talked, complained about “a gap in our defense,” remembered how “at one time a Cessna landed on Red Square” – in other words, this had all happened before – and moved on to discussing other events.

However, taken together, such events gradually blend into a disturbing backdrop, creating a feeling of suspense, uncertainty about the future, and fear. This anxiety remains diffuse, unfocused, often unspoken and not reflected on – positive moods still prevail. Anxious moods seem typical, first and foremost, for the most well-informed Russians. As they say, the less you know, the better you sleep.

The companion of this anxiety is gradually increasing bitterness, which spills over into focus groups: “why are we pulling our punches with them (Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans);” “we’re still messing around with them;” “it’s time to bang.” Thus, the lobby for a “decisive response” to the enemy is finding new supporters.

The question of stability

It is important to understand that socio-economic stability is the fundamental condition that has allowed Russian society to adapt to the vicissitudes of the last year and a half. The insensitivity of public opinion to bad news, as well as the high levels of support for the regime and the military, is due not to our national character, but to the fact that huge resources have been devoted to maintaining public calm.

As noted previously, the rapid adjustment after the shock from sanctions, the stabilization of the banking system and the dampening of inflation prevented the most dire scenarios from materializing in 2022. For many Russians living outside big cities, the indexation of pensions, salaries of state employees and social benefits was a big boost, as were the generous – by the standards of average Russians – payments to soldiers fighting in the “special operation” and their families, coupled with bonuses paid by regions and additional social guarantees.

All these measures are reflected in public sentiment and recorded in our polls. The most revealing are the assessments of the current financial situation of families. After a dip in March last year amid the inflationary shock, as early as in April-May, assessments recovered, and in the second half of the year they began to rise. Note that the improvement is primarily due to a shrinking number of people who had previously reported a worsening situation. In other words, we did not get richer, but at least we did not get poorer. The feeling of socio-economic stability, together with the ability to maintain a more or less familiar way of life, has so far allowed the majority of Russians to cope with the anxieties.

In addition, having burned themselves last fall on the announcement of the partial mobilization, which plunged society into a state of tremendous stress, today the authorities are trying with all their might to avoid a repetition of what happened. Instead of a new mobilization wave, a massive campaign to recruit contract soldiers has been announced. The abundance of recruiting posters, leaflets and advertisements on social media, the presence of volunteer recruitment stands in shopping centers, and the ubiquitous number 117 (the short number of the Ministry of Defense hotline) are already irritating our respondents. However, it’s better than when they are being rounded up at work based on a list or near the metro. While someone else is fighting for you, you can turn a blind eye to many things.

The further path of public sentiment and the readiness to continue adapting to the realities of a protracted military conflict will directly depend on the ability of the authorities to maintain socio-economic stability and avoid direct involvement of ever larger segments of the population in the conflict for as long as possible. Otherwise, the hitherto unfocused anxiety and anxiety, latent in many Russians, may crystallize and find a way out at the most inopportune moment for the regime.
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