Russian Society Two Years Into the Ukraine Conflict
February 26, 2024
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Levada Center head Denis Volkov writes that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most Russians have come to terms with the possibility of a long war, while at the same time the outlook of the loyal majority and the dissenting minority is increasingly diverging.
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and is being republished here with small changes and their permission.

Public attitudes toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict have been extremely stable, with most indicators changing little since February 24, 2022. We shall explore why.

Overview of current sentiments

Support for the Russian leadership, as well as for the actions of the Russian military, remains high: in January 2024, 85% approved of the job the president was doing, while 77% approved of how the army was fighting in Ukraine. The share of dissenters remains in the range of 20-25%, depending on the wording of the question. All this is very close to the average over the two years of the conflict.

However, the support is not monolithic. The share of the most jingoistic Russians is a little more than 20% overall – this is primarily older men who get their news from TV and who are not at risk of being called up to serve. In focus groups, these are the people who say that they would like to see Russian troops reach the Ukraine-Poland border.

On average, about 45%, including the abovementioned core of “hawks,” can be seen as unconditionally supporting the president and army and believing that Russia is doing everything right. The number of men and older people is disproportionately high in this group too.

The remaining 30% can be classified as weak support, with women overly represented here. When talking about their attitude to what is going on, they usually stipulate that “it’s bad when people die” and “war is always bad,” but “it probably could not have been any other way” and “the government knows best.”

Taking the position of the “little guy” – who cannot change anything and therefore cannot be held responsible for what is going on – is one of the most common approaches. If you cannot change anything, there is no point in following what is happening, trying to understand it or worrying. Being upset is only harmful to your health – a view that has been voiced repeatedly in focus groups over the past two years.
Vladimir Putin meets with his campaign agents in the leadup to the March presidential election. Source: YouTube
Negotiations without concessions

Despite the continued high levels of support, the first signs of fatigue with the conflict are emerging. There is a steady outflow of respondents from the “strong support” group to the “weak” one: whereas in 2022 the former was bigger than the latter by an average of 18 percentage points, in 2023 the difference was only 10 points.

At the same time, throughout the second half of 2023 the share of respondents in favor of peace talks increased, rising from 45% in May to 57% in November. However, by the end of the year this trend had snapped, with the figure down to 52% as of January 2024. This was most likely driven by Vladimir Putin’s reelection campaign, as at meetings with soldiers, relatives of those fighting in the “special operation” and ordinary citizens, he spoke a lot about Russia’s successes and the importance of what is being done. Challenger Boris Nadezhdin’s anti-war campaign, which had just got underway, did not have a major impact on public opinion.

Note that supporting negotiations to end the conflict does not equate to readiness to make concessions – no more than 20% are ready for that currently, with this figure remaining unchanged throughout last year. Only the exchange of POWs (only 3% opposed) and an immediate ceasefire (about 20% opposed) enjoy broad public support.
The return of any territories to Ukraine, like membership for Kyiv in NATO, is supported by no more than 15% of respondents.
While a hypothetical decision by Putin to immediately end the conflict would be supported by 70% of respondents, the same decision but with territories being returned to Ukraine would be supported by only 34%. As our respondents say: “we do not trade territory.”

Conflict expected to go on for a long time

Another important indicator of attitudes toward the conflict is the perception of how long hostilities will continue. By the middle of 2023, the share of Russians confident that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would be protracted had peaked. Half of those surveyed believed that hostilities would last longer than another year (in May 2022 this was only 21%), while another 25% believed from the very beginning that it would last at least a year. Since then, this ratio has remained virtually unchanged.

Most respondents have become accustomed to the idea that the conflict will not end soon. Focus group participants say they have “adapted,” and though tension persists, “you can keep going.” “It was only scary at the very beginning,” but pretty quickly everyday problems came back to the fore, they say.

The share of staunch opponents of the conflict has also remained constant over the last two years and today is about 20%. Another 7-8% say it is too difficult to say whether they support the “special operation,” though their responses to other questions are so inconsistent that they can hardly be classified as people with a strong anti-war position.

Today, as at the beginning of 2022, the clearest anti-war views are demonstrated by opposition-minded Russians. First of all, this is the younger generation, who are less influenced by TV and get their information mainly from the internet. Still, across all groups – besides the self-described opposition to the regime – opponents of the “special operation” constitute a minority.

Surveys show that people who oppose the conflict are rarely willing to speak out publicly. Coupled with restrictions on protests that have been in effect since the pandemic, this means that their voices go practically unheard. They are largely invisible, and their position is irrelevant and incomprehensible to the majority.

The pressure from the authorities and the majority of the population leads to increasingly diverging outlooks of the loyal majority and the dissenting minority.
Loyalists are filled with positive emotions – pride in their people, hope and confidence in the future – while dissenters more often note fatigue, indifference, confusion and a feeling of shame about what is going on.
Duma Deputy Vladimir Shamanov with a Z on his lapel in support of the war. April 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Rally ‘round the flag

One of the main factors behind the stability of attitudes toward the conflict remains national-patriotic mobilization, which led to a surge in the ratings of and electoral support for the current government immediately after the start of the “special operation” in February 2022 (recall that this was the case in 2014 too).

The very continuation of the conflict, which most Russians perceive as imposed on Russia by the West, helps maintain these sentiments. A similar surge in support for the leadership was observed in Ukraine: Volodymyr Zelensky’s approval rating soared from 37% in early February to 90% in May 2022.

Direct involvement in an armed conflict often has a “rally ‘round the flag” effect: during the Gulf War in 1991, George HW Bush’s approval rating in the US jumped from 59% to 89% in just a few months, which is very similar to what happened for Vladimir Putin in Russia in 2014 and 2022.

American sociologist John Zaller, analyzing Bush’s ratings, wrote that the high levels of support were possible largely due to the consensus about the Gulf War on the part of American elites and the leading American media. The role of the media in this process was crucial, since only 20-25% of Americans demonstrate a steady interest in foreign affairs and therefore have their own opinion about what is going on. The majority’s views, on the contrary, are very much swayed by the prevailing position in the media.
It’s the same in Russia: approximately the same proportion of Russians demonstrate a consistent interest in political events, monitor the news and try to understand what is going on. For example, about 20% closely follow events in Ukraine.

Television still an important shaper of public opinion

As in other countries, most Russians uncritically take their assessments of what is going on from the leading media sources. At the same time, the main source of information for two thirds of the country, especially older people, is still TV. The role of the internet has grown over the past decade, yet online sources provide access to diverse and contradictory information, which not everyone knows how to navigate.

Thus, although about a third of Russians regularly watch YouTube and about 10% get news from YouTube channels, no more than 6% trust this information. In recent years, the state has also been active online – recall the fight for the Yandex news page (see Russia.Post here), efforts to lure popular bloggers to the local VK social network and the active use of Telegram channels by voenkory (Russia.Post has written about the “Z-space” on Telegram here ) and “patriotic bloggers.” All this works to ensure the sustained dominance of the official narrative and therefore the ideas of the majority of the population.

The fact that most Russians are not directly involved also plays a role in the stability of attitudes toward the conflict. With the exception of a short period when the partial mobilization rattled Russian society and it seemed to many that, due to vaguely formulated criteria, anyone could be drafted, for the two years of the conflict the authorities have left the majority of the population alone. And apart from various collections of aid and uniforms for the army, in which up to 40% of Russians had participated as of the end of last year, most Russians can live their normal lives. The “special operation” goes on – but somewhere far away, on the western borders of a large country.

The new “middle class” sees itself tied to the state

The sense of “normalcy” is largely the product of socio-economic stability, to maintain which the state has devoted considerable resources. As noted previously, state support measures include multiple indexation of salaries, pensions and social benefits, payments to those fighting in the “special operation” and benefits for their families, as well as an increase in government procurement, with some defense enterprises running three shifts to fulfill the orders. These measures are especially significant for the poorer segments of the population, who “pay back” the state by supporting its policies.

At the same time, the well-off urban middle class, whose lifestyle has been affected by Western sanctions to a greater extent, has been forced to cope on its own. The state is in no rush to help people who are more likely to be dissenters. Nevertheless, this group had more resources to adapt to the new reality to begin with. The state’s approach is somewhat reminiscent of how it prioritized assistance during the pandemic.

Be that as it may, the measures taken by the government have led to a noticeable improvement in our respondents’ assessments of the broad economy and their own financial situation.
Moreover, the large-scale redistribution of state resources in favor of those worse off has caused noticeable shifts in popular perceptions of fairness for the first time since 1990.
Flowers to commemorate Alexei Navalny's passing in St Petersburg. Source: VK
Over the last two years, the share of respondents saying that material wealth is distributed unfairly has nearly halved, from 45% in 2021 to 25% in November 2023. The positive dynamics are more moderate, but they are there.

Previously, the small class of Russians living in big cities who were integrated into the global economy and did not rely on the state felt privileged and did not pay much attention to the fact that people in the provinces often did not see a future for themselves; now, against the backdrop of the war, the situation is changing.

Since the authorities bank on an alliance with broader and less demanding segments of the population, the victims of the avalanche of repression targeting active disloyal citizens can hardly count on sympathy from the majority. Thus, despondency reigns among the creative urban class, fueling thoughts of emigration.

The new “middle class,” which sees its well-being tied to the state and is made up of those who previously felt marginalized, demonstrates guarded optimism, which translates into support for the government and its policies. And if these processes continue – this is a question of fiscal resources and readiness to keep redistributing those resources in favor of the masses – the authorities will be able to count on the support of the majority for a long time, even if the fighting does not stop.
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