Yes In My Name?
The Problem of Agency in Russians’ Response to the War
June 7, 2024
  • Bryce Hecht
    A doctoral researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of UNC’s Authoritarian Politics Lab
  • Sam Greene
    Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London and Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
  • Graeme Robertson
    Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of UNC’s Authoritarian Politics Lab and UNC’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies
Political scientists Bryce Hecht and Graeme Robertson, and sociologist Sam Greene offer a new interpretation of Russians’ attitude to the war. While they don’t disagree that Russians generally support the war, they suggest that researchers would be better off asking a different question: Do Russians care?
Observable public opinion about the war in Russia has proved remarkably inert. Through more than two years of fighting, including ups and downs on the frontline, mounting casualties, periods of economic difficulty, Ukrainian attacks on Russian cities and a mutiny, the gap between the highest and the lowest levels of support for the war measured by the Levada Center is only 10 percentage points (80% in March 2022 and 70% in August 2023).

Indeed, over the past 12 months, support has barely shifted beyond the margin of statistical error in Levada’s surveys. At the same time, support for Vladimir Putin has remained at levels commensurate with the 2014 post-Crimea “rally ‘round the flag” since March 2022, while the number of Levada respondents who say the country is “headed in the right direction” soared in early 2024 to levels 10 percentage points higher than their previous 2014 peak.
Music and dance festival in Moscow. Summer of 2022. Source: VK
Debating russian public opinion

Nevertheless, analysts disagree strongly on what to make of the apparent stasis in the numbers. For some, the apparent high and steady levels of support tell us little. Ever since the full-scale invasion began, researchers have been pointing to evidence of widespread “preference falsification”, i.e., the potential that many conceal their true feelings about the war and/or about Vladimir Putin when responding to survey researchers. This comports with evidence that much of the uptick in support for Putin after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 was also less than genuine, even as serious questions remain about the methods researchers use to tease out the difference between “true” and “false” preferences.

Others, by contrast, use different techniques to squeeze meaning out of the data. The Chronicles Research Project uses a combination of survey questions designed to differentiate between people whose support for the war is genuine, and those who may be motivated by fear or social pressure. In their most recent study, conducted in January 2023, Chronicles found that only 17% of respondents expressed what the researchers categorize as hard-core or “consistent” support for the war—down from a peak of 22% in February 2023, but up from 12% in October 2023; this is marginally less than the 19% of respondents Chronicles categorized as “consistent” opponents of the war. The researchers thus conclude that as much as 39% of respondents express support for the war for social or political reasons, but are not genuinely committed to it.

Researchers at Russian Field take a different approach to segmentation, dividing respondents into “hawks” (who believe the war should be continued), “doves” (who support seeking a negotiated settlement), and “loyalists” (who are likely to support whatever course of action the Kremlin elects to pursue).

In their February 2024 survey, Russian Field classified 19% of respondents as hawks, 49% as doves, and 21% as loyalists. Even within those categories, however, there is considerable variation. Thus, 34% of the doves insisted that any negotiated settlement be on Russia’s terms, while only 12% were prepared to accept a settlement on Ukrainian terms, and just 6% were prepared to seek peace at any cost. (Fully 29% of doves could not or would not discuss the terms on which they thought negotiations should conclude.)
Aside from fear or social pressure, another reason for this apparent gap between Russians’ genuine and reported feelings about the war may be the tradeoffs that the war itself involves: pride and patriotism on the one hand, versus casualties and economic hardship on the other.”
А street in St Petersburg, 2024. Source: VK
Research by, focusing on “big data” from Russian social media feeds, has shown growing unease in particular over the cost of living and household debt burdens, as well as regional differentiation in the emotional impact of the war itself, with anxiety highest in regions closes to the fighting.

Dealing with tradeoffs and the war

Indeed, despite the Kremlin’s formidable propaganda machine, research has shown throughout the war that ordinary Russians are well aware of these tradeoffs, and that citizens are not inclined automatically to trust what the government tells them, whether that be about casualties or the state of the economy. The inertia of public opinion, meanwhile, suggests that Russians have broadly accommodated themselves to these tradeoffs. However, little is known about how that accommodation takes place, or about whether all Russians deal with these tradeoffs in the same way. Our research aims to help shed light on those questions.

Our first finding suggests that, while the outcome may be the same—a willingness to express and likely act on support for the war—the ways in which Russians get to that support diverge. In a late-2023 survey we conducted together with the Authoritarian Politics Lab at the University of North Carolina, we found that there are at least two ways in which Russians dealt with tradeoffs.

The first was to accept them head on. Many respondents showed evidence of what social-psychologists refer to as “system justification”, acknowledging concrete problems—such as poverty or casualties—but then arguing that these problems are outweighed by abstract benefits, such as “soulfulness” or greatness. This kind of response acts as a coping mechanism, freeing people from the necessity of acting to solve the problem, and justifying the maintenance of the status quo. When faced with news of Russian casualties or even threats to their own loved ones, such “system justifiers” continued to support the war and the government.

The second way of dealing with tradeoffs was more avoidant. Drawing on earlier research, which showed that “agreeableness”—a personality trait associated with maintaining harmonious social relations and minimizing conflict—has been a strong predictor of support for Putin’s policies, the survey found that “agreeable” Russians were also likely to support the regime and the war, but unlike “system justifiers” their support shrank when faced with news of Russian casualties.

This is likely because, unlike “system justifiers” who stick to the status quo at all costs, “agreeable” people are torn between their sensitivity to political signals from the regime and their sensitivity to more humane concerns (even if that sensitivity does not seem to extend to Ukrainian citizens). Unfortunately, the design of the research does not allow us to estimate the relative numbers of “agreeable” versus “system justifying” Russians, but the difference is nonetheless salient.

The shared problem of agency

Both of these stances, however, involve a lack of agency, a factor that is borne out in other research we have conducted. Indeed, reviewing nearly 100,000 substantive war-related texts from across six Telegram channels—including three generally pro-war and three anti-war channels—suggests that a lack of agency is common both to supporters and opponents of the war.

On the pro-war channels—which were dominated by reports from the front and patriotic rallying cries, but also included a number of discussions of mobilization and ways out avoiding military service—attribution of “credit” for the war was mixed. Often, the war was highly personalized: something was ordered by Putin, said by his spokesman Dmitry Peskov, or carried out by (then) Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
More frequently, however, the war was entirely de-personalized, couched in the passive voice without a subject of action: the war simply happened of its own accord.
When discussing mobilization, the discussion was dry and procedural, with no discernible consideration of justice or fairness (or the irony of pro-war channels discussing ways of avoiding the fight). Almost never did commentators use the first person: things were done, said or thought by others, but not by them.

On the anti-war channels, the war was largely de-personalized. To the extent blame was attributed to Putin, it was mostly implicit: because it was Putin’s war, his role appeared to require little overt discussion. Perhaps surprisingly, discussion of military mobilization, similarly to the pro-war channels, focused on procedural consideration and avoided issues of justice and fairness. Unlike in the pro-war channels, however, there was considerable use of the first person, but predominantly the first person singular, as commentators discussed their own thoughts and experiences. Use of the first person plural—“we”, with connotations of collective responsibility and action—were rare.

Given the roles played both by “system justification” and “agreeableness” among war supporters—psychological motivations that encourage people to get in line and discourage difference—the lack of a sense of agency is not surprising. Even those who write openly of their support for the war on Telegram don’t tend to see the war as something over which they have any control; while the war may be prosecuted with their support, it is prosecuted without their involvement.

It is perhaps somewhat more jarring that this lack of agency seems to extend to much of the anti-war community, however. To be certain, anti-war Russians clearly claim responsibility for their own lives and, in many cases, for assisting Ukrainian refugees, for example. Moreover, there are individuals and small groups who have attempted acts of resistance ranging from anti-war graffiti and solitary protests to outright sabotage. But there is little discussion of any potential agency over the war itself, or the idea that, if they acted, Russian citizens might be able to bring the war to an end.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy