Mixed signals: Do Russians support the Ukraine war, or not?

Police detain an anti-war protester in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015.
Police detain an anti-war protester in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Copyright Pavel Golovkin/AP
By Joshua Askew
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Has a deeply unpopular invasion been forced upon powerless Russians or is this wishful thinking? Can we believe everything we see in Russian polls?

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A paradox surrounds Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On one side, observers around Europe insist this is Putin’s war, forced upon ordinary Russians who have little say in the matter.

But is this so?

Others suggest the war could not be fought without public approval, invoking polls that indicate a high level of support, besides the conspicuous absence of dissent.

When fighting broke out last February the number of Russians in favour was “really high”, said Elena Koneva, a researcher at Russia's opinion-polling company ExtremeScan, during a recent event organised by openDemocracy.

She cited polls showing a 50/50 split between those backing the war and those against, while other surveys reveal as much as two-thirds of the population support it.

“I can understand why people could support Putin or accept, without protest, injustice or cruelty… but it is very hard to understand how they can support this war,” Koneva said, calling the findings “very painful”.

An essential issue for the whole world

Glaring issues with the polls exist, however.

In authoritarian regimes, where people often cannot freely express their opinions, real public attitudes are seldom seen.

Not only are most Russian opinion polls conducted by state-controlled research institutes, meaning results can be manipulated, the Kremlin fiercely represses anti-war dissent.

Critics of the “special operation”, as it is known inside the country, have been subjected to hefty fines, arrests and outright violence, with one Russian father detained for his daughter’s supposed anti-war drawings at school.

Even if ordinary Russians back the invasion, Koneva says there are questions about what such support means in practice.

She pointed to surveys where Russians claim they are in favour, but when asked secondary questions, such as if they would join the army or donate money to the cause, the answer is a firm no.

“So what does that support mean”, she asked.

Silent acquiescence

Deeper issues surrounding the “political indifference” of Russian society are at play, according to Oleg Zhuravlev, a researcher with the country's Public Sociology Laboratory.

What this apathy towards politics means is that people have more of a silent acquiescence towards the invasion, rather than actively supporting it.

“In Russia … many people… say something like, okay, to be honest, we hate any wars, including this one, but we also don't like those in power very much and we don't understand them,” he told participants at the Open Democracy event.

Viewing themselves as “too incompetent” and “unable to understand politics”, he claims ordinary people hope their seemingly more enlightened leaders have grounds to start the war, believing it is “impossible to start such things without a reason”.

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Many Russians suffered terribly under the USSR. Millions perished in Stalin’s purges during the 1930s and society remained tightly controlled thereafter, with freedom of speech and dissent severely punished.

At the same time, Zhuravlev claims there is “a moral sensitivity” towards violence that can put people in a bind.

“They cannot enthusiastically support the war because it is immoral,” he explained. “[Yet] they cannot become strong opponents… because it is too politicised.”

“That is why they often develop an argument that this war was inevitable. They think of it as a natural disaster.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that if Russia did not steamroller Ukraine, Kyiv or the West would strike first -- a line, Zhuravlev says, ordinary Russians continually echo.

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“What they are doing is very actively finding some arguments and justification in favour of this inevitable nature,” he said.

'Justifications for evil'

Despite the bloodshed continuing to inflict incalculable suffering on both Russia and Ukraine, support for the war in Russian polls has remained reality stable.

Researcher Koneva attributes this to how the war is portrayed inside the country.

“I am very impressed by Russian propagandists,” she said, explaining they had managed to create a “warped perception” that “kills objective facts”.

They have done so by describing every negative event - be it a death or retreat – as an attempt to protect the Russian people.

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Though support still largely depends on military success, this has created a dynamic where “the more losses they take… the more they consolidate under the flag of Putin,” she says.

In border areas, there are higher levels of support for the invasion, with people in these areas feeling the country is under greater threat than people further from the conflict zone.

But things were not set in stone.

“People can change their attitudes to be more radical or more moderate,” Zhuravlev said, though he cautioned against trying to force a change of opinion.

“Even if you lose… a child or husband… it can make you more angry towards those in power, but at the same time you can make the conclusion: If we pay this price, we need a victory to make it justified… Otherwise, how can we live our life,” he said.

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“You will never know how exactly this will impact people's minds.”

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