New research suggests ‘turmoil’ in Russian society over Ukraine war. Source: Open Democracy

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New research suggests ‘turmoil’ in Russian society over Ukraine war

My colleagues and I interviewed 200 Russians about their attitudes to Putin’s invasion. Here’s what we found

Natalia Savelyeva

14 September 2022, 10.52am

Ukrainian forces recently made a significant counter-offensive in Kharkiv region | (c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, many people have asked a fundamental question: what do ordinary Russians really think about the war?

My colleagues and I at the Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent research initiative, have carried out more than 200 in-depth interviews with Russians since 27 February.

Our research suggests Russian society remains divided – and that many people remain unsure about the war and its motivations. The people we sampled tended to be more educated and to live in big cities, but the findings reflect tendencies seen in wider opinion surveys: supporters of the war are, as a rule, older than opponents.

The interviews, which give a nuanced picture of Russian attitudes, suggest public opinion could shift for or against the war depending on what unfolds over the coming months.

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Attitudes to the war split into three broad camps: supporters, opponents and, the largest group, the ‘doubters’. While supporters believe Russia’s ‘special operation’ is justified and necessary (even if many feel anxious and unhappy about it), opponents tend to talk about expressing their views explicitly, for example through protest, or by pointedly withdrawing from wider social life.

In between those two groups there are the doubters: Russian citizens who claim they do not have an opinion on the ‘special operation’ and who might drift toward either supporting or rejecting Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Supporters, opponents and doubters differ in their general disposition toward the war: a sense of denial emerges in conversations with supporters, while avoidance and guilt characterise interviews with doubters and opponents respectively.

At the same time, some of their attitudes form a continuum. Moving from supporters to doubters and then to opponents, negative emotions became more palpable, visions of the future less optimistic, and the war itself more present in people’s everyday lives.

Rival narratives

Supporters of the war, just like the other two groups, emerge as heterogeneous in interviews.

Some want an all-out offensive and criticise the Russian government for its apparent ‘soft touch’ in prosecuting the war, while others are more hesitant.

What they have in common is denial: they tend to deny Russia’s responsibility for the invasion; the scale of destruction brought to Ukraine and its population by the Russian army; and the seriousness of the consequences of sanctions and international isolation for Russia.

Many supporters believed sanctions would be placed on Russia regardless of the invasion, and have similar feelings about the international response to their feelings about the war: both sanctions and war were inevitable, and not because Russia wanted them. Russia, they say, just made the first move.

“I think the [military] operation would have started anyway; the question is: who started it?” a pensioner from Moscow told interviewers.

Another interviewee said: “Whether we attacked Donbas or Ukraine attacked Donbas – it does not matter. We just managed to do it one day, two days, maybe several hours ahead of them.”

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The letter “Z” has come to symbolise Russia’s brutal military invasion of Ukraine | (c) dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Throughout the interviews, this idea often came up: if not Ukraine, then the US or NATO was ready to start the war, or at least posed a future threat. As a 50-year-old mathematician from Moscow put it: “It looks like aggression because Russia crossed the border first, but Russia was cornered.”

Another justification for the ‘special operation’ comes from the belief that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not ‘real’. As a middle-aged manager from Tula, a city in central Russia, explained: “If there was a real war, if Putin’s goal was to take over Ukraine, would it make any sense to handle Ukraine with kid gloves?” – reflecting a perception that Russia had not prosecuted the invasion aggressively enough.

However this war ends, these emotions will find their way into the public sphere

Moving to less enthusiastic supporters of the conflict, there are several shifts in attitude.

Unlike the first group, these more ambivalent supporters make no references to “fascists” and “Nazis” in Ukraine. Second, the emotions they express over the invasion in interviews are darker. Third, their understanding of the reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is hazier.

  • In general, while supporters try to deny Russia’s responsibility for the war and its disastrous consequences, doubters – deliberately or not – try to avoid having an opinion. They distance themselves from the war, citing their inability to figure out what is going on, or to influence it.

Some doubters are closer to the supporters’ side; some are closer to the opponents. Either way, they say they don’t really understand the reasons for the war.

During interviews, they list possible causes. They may echo some of the supporters’ main arguments – for example, about the threat posed by NATO or the need to resolve the Donbas conflict. But they aren’t sure whether these arguments make sense. They use doubt to distance themselves from any narrative that explains the war.

They acknowledge the violent character of the conflict, and the death and destruction it brings to Ukraine. But instead of justifying the war and denying its horrible consequences as supporters do, or rejecting and condemning it like opponents, doubters accept it as a matter of fact.

For them, Putin started the war for unknown reasons, and they delegate the right to decide the future of Russia’s involvement to others. “I believe we know only 5% of what is happening,” said a young entrepreneur from Moscow, explaining why she does not follow news about the war.

“If I have an opportunity to influence the situation, if something depends on me – sure, I will do everything to stop the war.”

On the whole, the doubters’ feelings of disempowerment result in a sort of sad pragmatism. They try to focus on their private lives, the one area they believe they can control – their work, relationships and mental health.

Finally, those who oppose the war experience the strongest negative emotions: about the war itself, the destruction and death; about the indifference they often see around them in Russian society; about their inability to change anything; about their futures and the future of the country.

Just like the doubters, they sometimes do not understand the reasons for the war, but they do not use this to avoid having an opinion about it. For them, Russia’s war on Ukraine has no justification.

By looking at all three groups together, we can see how the same arguments can play very different roles in different people’s narratives.

Doubters refer to the “information war” and list the different possible causes of war to justify their lack of an opinion. Supporters and opponents use the same references, but in order to make a judgement rather than avoid it.

Where next?

Another way to characterise the three groups is that there are those who deny the war, those who avoid it, and those who experience constant guilt about it.

“War is bad, but is it a [real] war?”, the supporters ask, adding that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary and unavoidable. “War is bad, but we don’t know who to blame,” say the doubters, suggesting it’s impossible to change anything in any case. “War is bad, it’s Russia’s fault – our fault – and we are all damned,” say the opponents.

Can people change their opinions? Supporters are not ready to give up on the idea that the war was necessary. But their support can scale down if they see that Russia is paying too high a price. The recent Ukrainian counter-attack in the Kharkiv region demonstrates that shift: while some warmongers still try to insist on the necessity of the war, others are starting to question its possible consequences and even the qualifications of decision-makers.

The paradox is that doubters, while being the most detached from the war, are the most sensitive to its consequences for their private lives. They might consolidate around Putin if they believe they have no choice: the war has already happened and the whole world is against them now. Or they could become more dissatisfied, because they tend to delegate responsibility for the current situation to those in power – especially if they begin to experience a dramatic shift in their personal well-being.

Opponents might not support the war, but even their views can change, especially in a situation where Western states become increasingly hostile to Russian citizens.

This range of emotions signals that Russian society is in turmoil over the country’s invasion of Ukraine. However this war ends, these emotions will find their way into the public sphere – but nobody yet knows in what form.

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