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.