Over Half of Russians Certain that the War Will Go on for Several Years
August 3, 2023
  • Elena Koneva
    Founder of ExtemeScan , a research project, which brings together independent researchers who explore societal trends in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
  • Denis Kasyanchuk
Elena Koneva discusses how attitudes toward the war are changing in Russia’s regions that border Ukraine and in the rest of the country, and how the war is affecting the work of sociologists.
The original text in Russian was published in The Bell. A shortened version is republished here with their permission (you can read The Bell in English here)
You conducted opinion polls of Belgorod Region residents. What was the aim of these surveys? What conclusions did you reach?

In late March-early April, we conducted a survey in three regions on the border with Ukraine: Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk. We were interested in how the war being next door affects attitudes toward the “special military operation.”

We hypothesized that the real experience of negative events, as opposed to what is shown on TV, should lead to a decrease in support for the war in these regions versus the rest of Russia.

Based on a survey of 900 people, we looked at the impact of various kinds of material consequences of the war – when people lose income and jobs, food prices rise, important medicines disappear from pharmacies. There were periodic curfews, personal searches, checks of private vehicles. All sorts of difficulties in getting around, as the roads between the regions were blocked.

We found that if people experienced these problems, their support for the war dropped by 6-7% and their disagreement with the need to stop the war declined. This was the expected result.

It was unexpected that purely war events, such as shelling, raids by armed groups, people being wounded and killed (according to official data, 32 people had died in Belgorod Region as of May 31), did not affect attitudes toward the war. The results of the first wave of our survey show that these events, on the contrary, increased solidarity and made people less likely to want to stop the war.

We hypothesized that war events are too episodic, that they do not touch on the “personal” sphere enough. We planned to take the next survey later if and when such events moved into a more intense phase. It happened faster than we thought.

In May, shelling and so-called terrorist attacks began to intensify, mainly in Belgorod Region. In June, we interviewed 500 people just in that region.

Our hypothesis proved correct. When asked whether they would have launched the military operation in Ukraine, 52% answered “yes” in March, while in June it had fallen to 46% across the region. Among those who had seen war events firsthand the figure was 40%.

Reluctance to withdraw troops from Ukraine decreased from 54% to 47%. It is worth noting that the source of this “reluctance” was not only the unclear rationale for the war, but also the fear that the war would spill over into Russia. Which factor influenced people’s responses more strongly: the hypothetical fear of revenge [from Ukraine] or the obvious, immediate consequences of the war?

Overall, in June only 30% of Belgorod residents would have supported a decision by Putin to withdraw troops and start peace talks. But if a person had been laid off or medicines that had been important for him or her had disappeared from shelves, support rose to 42%.

Anxiety increased, negative sentiment was up. More people left their homes. Whereas in the first wave, 7% of respondents had family members and 35% had neighbors and acquaintances who had left, now it is already 14% and 41%, respectively. In April, 31% of the respondents had noted the possibility of relocating, while now it is 43% (among those who have remained). Mostly men remained, having sent away women, children and elderly relatives (they have the toughest time leaving).

Besides the quantitative, formal survey, we conducted about 30 unstructured interviews, which gave us material to help explain the quantitative data. We asked people who had remained: “Why didn’t you leave?” They said: “We have to work, feed our family, guard the border if something happens... and we also have looting in empty houses and apartments: they come in, squat, sleep there.” And we know from experience in Ukraine that that is not always so harmless.

And what about the military in Belgorod Region?

Russian troops have been stationed in Belgorod Region since the spring of 2021. Locals are in contact with the military. In our informal conversations, residents say that “there is no normal command there,” that servicemen are demoralized, some are poorly quartered (many do not even have the opportunity to shower). It happens that military men in cars collect servicemen from drinking establishments. [In conversations with locals] soldiers complain about the lack of a strong hand, as if they are being held back and prevented from countering the attacks from Ukrainian territory.

Let’s return to the people who left. Is it possible to guess how many people left Belgorod Region?Where have they gone? Clearly, it is not emigration abroad.

I tried to estimate how many people had to leave their homes during the war. According to my estimates, it was 150,000. People relocate inside the region, to temporary shelters set up there. Some go to relatives who live far from the border. In the neighboring regions, they look for apartments and figure out a way to move. This is a rather big outflow, given that it is happening not only in Belgorod but also in Bryansk Region, in Kursk Region. There, the scale is smaller, but people are also leaving.

There are Belgorod residents who moved twice. Some lived right next to the border [with Ukraine] and first went deep into the region. But then they had to move again – even farther away.
Shebekino, Belgorod Region, July 16. Belgorod Region has repeatedly come under Ukrainian attack during the summer months. Source: VK
Previously, Belgorod Region residents often traveled to Ukraine’s neighboring Kharkiv Region. Many of them probably have acquaintances, relatives, friends living there. How did people see these relationships change during the war?

Sure, people used to go from Belgorod to Kharkiv on weekends – to shop, to go to the movies. Everyone was on good terms; it was a place where you could go with your family without any problems. People exchanged goods, and every day labor went back and forth. Ukrainians registered their businesses in Belgorod to simplify logistics.

[During the surveys] we heard this story. An elderly woman from Ukraine, her daughter married a Belgorod resident. She lived in Belgorod for the last 20 years. Still, she considers herself a Ukrainian, she worries about Ukraine, but when she says “our authorities, our government,” she means the Russian authorities, the Russian government. And she is completely at a loss as to how the war could have started. In this regard, people have explanations that it is really all machinations of the West, which pushed us into a head-on collision, as only the West is interested in bringing down both countries.

This is not just double consciousness; it is some kind of multidimensional consciousness, when there is a picture of the world in which any and all facts that contradict logic can fit.

In their answers, did local residents somehow reflect on why the border of the region turned out vulnerable and Shebekino was attacked for several weeks?

Residents, based on what they heard from soldiers and their own impressions, believe that the Russian army is to blame, the bad command. Meanwhile, they do not criticize President Putin, they do not criticize the local leadership, which, by the way, they are very satisfied with.
Belgorod Region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov enjoys very high support in the region. Source: VK
What do people say about the Belgorod governor?

I think Vyacheslav Gladkov now has the highest approval rating among local residents, at around 90%. When people are asked how he is doing amid the “special military operation” (SVO), almost every respondent says that he is satisfied and always adds: “he is really doing a great job for us.” People said that Gladkov is a people’s man – he goes to the store with his wife without bodyguards, drives a simple car and responds to every complaint.

Of course, this is good PR. He really does go to destroyed buildings, where engineers are taking measurements, counting something. All this is done in front of TV cameras and it, of course, creates the impression that he is engaged.

He is a relative newcomer (Gladkov has headed Belgorod Region since 2021 – The Bell). He immediately began to visit universities and schools, gather halls, give lectures, talk with young people, among whom he has high support. And this is unusual, as the youth everywhere are much less supportive of the authorities and the war than other groups.

Local residents do not see the governor as a conductor of federal policy. They do not realize that the head of the region is actually a federal tool for managing the population, its economic and military mobilization.

How has the war affected Belgorod Region?

Volunteering is very widespread in the region. Over 70% of people help the army in all sorts of ways – they give money, cook food, dig trenches, staff hospitals. Thirteen percent of the region’s able-bodied men took part in building fortifications.

Locals also helped Ukrainian refugees, who came from the Donbas and other parts of Ukraine. They also help the “new territories” (Kherson, Zaporizhzhia). Some respondents said that they go there with their company for a kind of subbotnik.

Local residents are engaged in humanitarian activities, voluntarily and involuntarily. People are being mobilized to raise money for military needs. This is one of the results of the war connected with the border situation.

Prior to this research on the border, I had underestimated the importance of regional breakdowns and regional analysis.

The border area can show us a model of people’s reaction to an enemy invasion, to the indifference of a huge country not only to the neighboring people but also to its own people who found themselves near the front line. People there, in the border region, live with their own regional anxieties. And they have a grudge that [during the war] the rest of Russia is carrying on as normal. They watch federal TV channels – on some they do not say anything about the border regions or they say very little. Even regional channels, people said, do not reflect their reality very well.

In the second wave, sentiment improved slightly. We asked: “To what extent does the federal government pay attention to your region, which is living under special conditions?” In the first wave, 45% answered in the affirmative, while now it is 56%.

In the last three or four months, money has been allocated to Belgorod Region, and this is being talked about very loudly. Nevertheless, there are people who are angry about something. For example, some did not receive their RUB 10,000 (at the beginning of June, Gladkov promised such payments to residents of areas where an emergency or “anti-terrorist operation” regime was introduced – The Bell).

No miracle happened – the bureaucratic machine is still the same as it was before the war, there are many failures, but federal support is being provided. The authorities are well aware that it is very important to control public opinion near the war zone. These are the people who maintain military infrastructure. The authorities are not interested in these people being demoralized and running somewhere. Though it will be increasingly difficult to stop them from running.
Support for the war from March 2022 through April 2023. Source: The Bell
The war has come to Russia – is there any reason to believe that attitudes of Russians who do not live near the border will change?

If we talk about the European part of Russia, the general impression is that the war seems like something abstract. In the border zone, until the shelling and destruction began there, people did not realize that the war could ever touch them.

One respondent told me in an informal conversation the following: “I am 65 years old, I live as if in a dream, I wake up and it seems to me that all this should already be over, because I am dreaming. My father fought in the Great Patriotic War, was wounded in a tank, was ill for a long time, he said that it was the last war. We were so sure that this would not affect us. We lived and felt that no one would ever attack Russia. And even when the war started, we didn’t think that someone would cross the border or that we would end up in a war zone.” I suggested that maybe the war should not have been started in the first place then. And then he fell silent for a moment before continuing: it’s not for us to judge, it’s all decided “up there.” This is very typical logic.

The conclusions from our research are rather sad: people live in their own world, where nothing concerns them. Last year, we asked Russians: if you could send a telegram to ordinary Ukrainians, what would you write? And Russians basically answered: hold on, we will come and liberate you. In the border regions, we asked whether people knew anything about attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure (in winter and spring, Russia systematically attacked infrastructure facilities to deprive Ukraine of electricity and heating – The Bell). At that time, it was in the headlines, and almost everyone knew. And we followed up whether they supported these attacks or not – 70% did.

However, the suffering that will now become widespread for Russians as well will force them to look differently at the war being waged to “defend the interests of the Russian-speaking population of the (relatively) distant Donbas.” Support for the war will go down. But it’s not as fast a story as we thought at the beginning.

On the internet, almost every day you can see frustration with the people who remain in Russia – [they say] go and protest, overthrow Putin. As a sociologist, how would you explain why people who hate the war are not doing anything?

Imagine that there are two Russias – supporters and opponents of the war – and a layer between them, which itself consists of different groups. Take supporters of the war – you cannot say that it is a monolithic group. There is a “hawk” segment, there is a group of conscious supporters that does not offer just words but also donates money to the war or fights. There are people who say they support the war but when answering follow-up questions that test their seriousness, it turns out that they are not conscious supporters. On the one hand, these people are victims of propaganda. On the other hand, some of them benefit from the war to one degree or another. Like employees at state institutions, etc.

If we take opponents of the war, this is a very heterogeneous and complexly segmented group. There are those who went out to protest in 2014, who defended their point of view at home or at work. Among opponents of the war, there may be those who do not consider themselves democrats and say that Putin had no other choice but to start the war. They do not have a vision of victory, they do not understand what it is about. They just want the war to end.

When we talk about the opponents of the war, for a long time one had in mind some people who, even if they are not politically active now, were ready at some point to go out and protest, etc. But in fact, opponents of the war also include people who are simply afraid of it, who do not want to go to the front or lose loved ones. At the same time, they might support Putin and the system, but they do not want to die for them.

And all of them are technically opponents of the war.

And have the attitudes of Russians toward the war changed overall in the second year?

Yes, they have. Opponents of the war are reporting fatigue, while supporters are still holding out.

I think the time of adaptation has come. People understand that the war will be long, and soon it will be September, the kids need to go to school. They need to know where they will be living – whether they have moved or not – what the situation is with work, and so on. Now there will be all sorts of activity, such as selling and buying real estate. For instance: that’s it, I don’t want to be in Moscow, I want to sit this out somewhere.

Currently, 55% (and the percentage is rising) are sure that the war will go on for several years. At the beginning of the war, more than half believed that it would last only a few months. Psychologically, people were preparing themselves for everything to be over by the May 9 holiday or by summer.

The level of verbal support for the war fluctuates in the range of 55-60% but will soon begin to decline. There was a strategic decline (by 4-5 pp) last July, when people realized that the SVO is a war and it would go on for a long time. Russians began to suppose that the longer the war lasted, the higher the chances of a new mobilization, economic difficulties and different kinds of losses.

There is a view that amid the war and censorship, it makes no sense to trust polling data. What do you think about that?

That is just mass, very irresponsible orating that is being spread by commentators from related fields. Mostly political scientists. Vivid examples are Ekaterina Shulman and Grigory Yudin, and I do not understand why they are devaluing sociology – all of it, including independent sociology. Ekaterina Mikhailovna [Shulman] likes to say something like, analysts should use all the data, but when there is no reliable data, it is better to look at everything to draw our own conclusions. But here listen to what I am about to tell you…

They [political scientists] are obsessed with the response rate, which they did not bring up before. Compared to before the war, it has not declined that significantly.

Now, the general conclusion of all researchers is that the problem for us [those who study public opinion] is not censorship. People are responding normally, and we assess the current state of society not on one issue, but through complex segmentation, we look at the dynamics, etc. Currently, the problems with interviewing respondents can be solved with intelligent analysis.

We talk to respondents in a human language, we do not ask them expert questions.

How did the war change the work of sociologists overall? Have survey methods changed?

There is a phenomenon that people have stopped talking to each other. They go to work, put on blinders, as it were, do their job, try not to touch the topic of war, because they are afraid to find some other view, they are afraid that they themselves will be left out. But there is a need for conversation. The interview format works well. There is a lively dialogue the whole time, the person satisfies his need for contact with others.
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