From Condemnation to Inevitability.

How Passive Support for the War Emerged in Russia

June 24, 2023
  • Sasha Kappinen

    Independent researcher
  • Oleg Zhuravlev
    PS Lab, Scuola Normale Superiore

Drawing on extensive interviews with Russian individuals, Sasha Kappinen and Oleg Zhuravlev demonstrate how depoliticized Russian citizens grapple with the ethical implications and gradually recognize the necessity of accepting

the harsh reality of war.

As the Russian-Ukrainian war became part of a new brutal reality, many witnesses and commentators began to feel that it was inevitable.

This is the opinion held by our respondents, who we interviewed as part of a Public Sociology Lab study investigating Russian perceptions of the war in Ukraine. Our interviewees are Russian citizens living in Russia, mostly from large cities, of different ages, genders and incomes, all with different assessments of the war.

We seek to establish social patterns by isolating and analyzing the typical arguments, narratives and biographical trajectories collected during hundreds of interviews. In our view, the process by which this feeling of inevitability arises allows us to understand a lot about how support for the war works in Russia — a depoliticized society suddenly faced with the most brutal form of politics.

From rejection and condemnation to justification

After the first wave of in-depth interviews (conducted in the spring of 2022), where we interviewed people who identified as supporters of the war, opponents, or undecided, we conducted a second set of interviews in fall and winter of 2022-23. During the second set, we only interviewed the “non-opponents” — those who either support the war or remain undecided. At the same time, as the study progressed, the lines dividing these categories began to blur.

The second batch of interviews illustrated an important shift: among our informants were many who condemned the war at the beginning of the “special military operations,” but then began to justify it, not because they approved, but because they began to believe that it was inevitable.
A person protesting against the war with Ukraine. Very few people in Russia dare speak publicly against the war, and those who resented the war early on not infrequently have evolved as its supporters. Source: Wiki Commons
A close look at the data reveals that within the first few weeks of the war, many of those who would later become supporters differed very little from the opponents in terms of their immediate emotional reaction and assessments of the situation. My colleagues and I have yet to identify the various factors influencing our respondents to lean one way or the other, although both groups said essentially the same thing about the war in March 2022: “I’m shocked that in the 21st century, my country has resorted to such aggressive, uncivilized methods of conflict resolution. It shouldn't be like that." And now let’s carefully examine the trajectory from condemnation to inevitability.

This evolution demonstrates an important general trend. We analyzed dozens of interviews and saw the same process occur throughout. This allows us to talk about overall patterns, and not just individual case studies of how different people perceive the war and what conclusions they have drawn.

Many of those who were outraged and discouraged by the decision to invade Ukraine in the early days of the conflict gradually came to the conclusion that the war, although deplorable, was inevitable, and are beginning to lean toward supporting the “special military operations.” These people are apolitical, and their apoliticality plays an important role in this evolution of opinion.

On the one hand, being unaccustomed to political thinking and the experience of political participation, many faced with war evaluated it not in political, but moral terms. This was their initial reason for not accepting the war — after all, mass military violence committed for no apparent reason is immoral. But it is precisely because of this depoliticization that they were unable to convert this indignation into a consistent political stance.
Outright opposition to the war proved too political for those put in a difficult ethical and emotional position.
We must also take into account the position our interviewees found themselves in: they remain in Russia, where they lack the opportunity not only to protest or criticize the war, but to have an open discussion about it, and where there’s a polarized division of opinion even in friendly communities (that being said, opponents of the war from social environments represented in our interview pool often leave, while supporters remain behind). In an attempt to resolve the moral dilemma and cope with the anxiety, fear and horror, our respondents gradually came to the conclusion that the war is terrible, but inevitable.

How the evolution from condemnation to inevitability took place

Let's look at two typical examples. One of our interview subjects was an elderly man who, at the beginning of the conversation, emphasized his own apathy: “we don’t live our lives in terms of international or political relations, we live everyday lives.” In the first days of the war, he condemned military action: “I was raised well, and when we attacked our brother country, we lived in the same country together for so many years, and suddenly we attacked…I was raised to believe that any war is bad, as people are being killed.” Then, when the interviewer asked him to describe what he considers to be the causes of the war, he replied: “This conflict was inevitable, it was already underway. And whether Russians or non-Russians started this conflict [is not important].”

It should be emphasized that the more convinced, ideological supporters of the war, who welcomed it from the very beginning, often do not see it as an inevitability. On the contrary, they argue that the Russian leadership, headed by Putin, intervened in the course of history by changing it. But according to surveys, there are relatively few staunch supporters of the “special military operations” — about 10 percent of the population. Therefore, we also believe that
‘Support due to inevitability’ is one of the most prevalent opinions among war supporters in Russian society.
Another typical subject is a young man from St. Petersburg. In an interview, he recalls how he reacted to the news of the outbreak of war: “My first reaction was a complete inability to process what was happening. And then came the realization that we, humanity, are living in the 21st century and still operating at such a primitive level, where we solve problems and conflicts not through diplomacy and politics, but through force. I mean, the whole world was turned upside down. Our true values so far are clearly power, money and influence.” And here’s how he described the evolution of his attitude towards the “special military operations”: “Now that I’ve calmed down a little, I perceive reality as it is, what we have at this moment is what we have, and we must live with it.” In other words, the war has become a fact of life, ineradicable and irrevocable.

He extrapolated the inevitability of the war from the fact that it was inescapable in his own life: “I came to (...) the conclusion that it was inevitable.” At the same time, his words sometimes betray a dissonance between the inevitability of the war and the opposite assertion that there was some kind of alternative. When asked what he would do in the place of the Russian leadership, he replied: “leading up to February 24th, I would have made every effort with all governments and diplomats to resolve the conflict through diplomacy, that is, to prevent a conflict. [But now] I admit that all possible diplomatic avenues have been exhausted, [although] I would try to fight this to the last.”

In interviews with this respondent, as with many others, we see a gradual resignation and justification of the reality: “[my position] has changed from denying the reality of what is happening. And now I perceive this reality as it is...Now I am a supporter of the special military operations. I have come to the conclusion that this conflict was inevitable.” Rethinking his attitude towards the war, he calls his initial condemnation of Russian intervention in Ukraine not a critical assessment, but a denial of objective reality.

Constructing inevitability

Despite the recurring motif of resignation throughout the interview, the inevitability narrative is not an automatic consequence of this resignation. The notion of inevitability is reflexively and inventively constructed by our informants. They may borrow their own arguments about the inevitability of war from a variety of sources, including the official Russian media. Although they don’t just repeat them, but rather endow them with new meaning, supplement them with other arguments, and use them to construct new narratives.

Here is what a successful young IT specialist from a large Russian city told us: “I thought that it was possible to peacefully resolve the issue…And now I understand that this is delusional, it wouldn’t work like that…Then I watched a particular movie, began to analyze the situation we were in before this occurred, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, watched how the structure changed, how the Soros foundations came to the country, how Zelensky came to power, who he is.”

The conclusion that war was inevitable is a kind of compromise between moral anger and an apolitical sense of powerlessness. Having come to this conclusion, our interviewees often immerse themselves in analytical and historical literature, searching for information about the conflict, trying to find "documentary" evidence for the thesis of inevitability.
In consuming this new information, processing it, interpreting and discussing with others, they are even more confident in the inevitability of the conflict.
Thus, a paradoxical process takes place: on the one hand, those who feel apolitical and powerless believe that the war was inevitable in the sense that it occurred independent of their personal actions and was beyond their control. On the other hand, they actively construct this inevitability themselves.

This situation, however, becomes much less paradoxical if we remember that the for the average person living in Russia, the ability to influence the political actions of the leading party — especially at the federal level — has been reduced to almost null, and any attempts to effect change are severely punished by law enforcement agencies and repressive legislation. At the same time, this paradox allows us to see that many Russians who apolitically support the war, while being passive in a political sense, are not at all passive in their personal lives. Feeling incapable of changing the situation that was initially morally unacceptable for them, they direct their efforts to the rhetorical plane, actively defending the idea the course of the war was predetermined.

In manufacturing the idea that the war was inevitable, our informants were less and less likely to recall that they had once seen an alternative to war. They saw war through the prism of the inevitability they created and perpetuated, perceiving it as something completely independent of them. Our interviews show how such creative thinking gives rise to new narratives about the inevitability of war, interpreting it in different ways — as a natural disaster, historical fate, or an objective and inescapable conflict of interests between major geopolitical players.

In addition to the rhetorical dimension, some informants also found alternative opportunities for action in charitable causes that were, at first glance, non-political. Thus, the aforementioned IT specialist from Moscow, who spent the first month and a half of the war in a horrified stupor, finally came to the following conclusion: “You can’t affect this situation, and [therefore] you need to find something you can affect.” So he decided to help refugees coming from the war zone: “And then I made the decision to help people, and I began…to volunteer. I was looking for an organization I’d be comfortable volunteering with. I worked with state-run foundations a little bit, unloading warehouses.”

In this way,
“The belief in the inevitability of the war helps those who hold it avoid making political assessments and, at the same time, gradually becomes a form of support.”
This belief is a way to remain “apolitical,” but becomes a form of underlying politicization.

Politicized inevitability

The evolution from “condemnation” to “inevitability” is primarily characteristic of apolitical informants, but in some cases we observed a similar perception shift in politicized people as well. This process is more evident in these subjects because their transition to supporting the war is more striking, given their previous political experience.

One of our informants is a successful creative industry worker, a former supporter of the Russian opposition, who now supports a "special military operation" - thanks to the same evolution "from condemnation to inevitability." As she herself says, "I completely went through this whole palette from hatred for my country to the feeling that I am with it."

When asked what she experienced after learning of the outbreak of war, she responded: “At first, I rejected the government’s politics. I wished Putin was dead." But then everything changed: “At some point, I realized that Russia’s participation was essentially inevitable.” Like many informants, she construed the fact that the war has become an inescapable part of her own life as evidence of the inevitability of the war in general: “A very difficult decision, but inevitable. For a long period of time, the agreements haven’t been followed. For a long period of time, the agreements were not respected. We lived without war for a while, we thought we could live like this forever. But as it turns out, war is always there, it is always being waged somewhere on the planet. It was just far away from us…Yes, it’s terrible, disgusting…and we…will suffer the consequences for decades. But…I see the Russian army’s participation as an inevitable fact. Disgusting, difficult, but inevitable.”

Gradually, she became interested in history and discovered the inescapable geopolitical "conflicts of interest,” which she calls "milestones of history." However, in her view of history, we also clearly see narratives about missed political alternatives, which seem to conflict with the discourse of inevitability. Thus, she says that the current conflict occurred because instead of relying on soft power, the Russian leadership relied on the economy and force: “if for many, many decades we had skillfully wielded our soft power, it would have been much better. But we didn’t do that, so we’re left with the current situation.”

She also believes the causes of the war can be traced back to a series of political mistakes made by Soviet and Russian leaders: “the failed policies of the ruling elites since 1917. That is, it’s just in the historical context…a whole series of mistakes that led to a single population being artificially divided.”

In cases demonstrating a more politicized version of the evolution from condemnation to inevitability, we are dealing with an active construction of this image of this inevitability — a good example is our respondent, who speaks of missed opportunities, but still comes to the conclusion of historical inevitability.
The essence of inevitability is that the respondents themselves are deprived of the opportunity to influence the course of events.
Conclusion: Support for War and Sociology

Individuals who strongly oppose war often perceive those who justify it as bloodthirsty savages or self-interested cynics. However, our research indicates that supporters of the war are not necessarily characterized by such extreme traits. Instead, they are often individuals who feel powerless and perceive limited opportunities to influence their country's leadership. Justifying war, in many cases, does not equate to wholehearted approval, but rather becomes a form of passive support. These individuals are not cynics, but rather engage in a complex and often painful quest for new meaning. Through our interviews, we have observed firsthand how politically disengaged Russian citizens reluctantly accept the inevitability of the Russian-Ukrainian war, despite its moral implications. As sociologists, we firmly believe that such phenomena should be analyzed rather than merely morally condemned.
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