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#16. The Swamps of War

Post-release #16, March 24, 2023

Elena Koneva

 

Analysis of the dynamics of how Russian residents perceive the war in Ukraine

It has now been a year since we began to study the state of public consciousness among Russian residents during the war with Ukraine.

Throughout this year we have been asking questions, and, aware of their limitations, putting them into symptom-complexes, trying to get through words to an understanding of what the citizens of Russia have in their hearts and minds. I hope we have achieved our goal.

This image was created by a neural network based on the description: “Swamps of war, mass apathy, dying crowd”
This image was created by a neural network based on the description: “Swamps of war, mass apathy, dying crowd”

Attitudes toward the War have Divided Russia

The war is increasingly politicizing even those Russians who are neutral. Attitudes towards the war have become the parameter that has irreversibly split the society. And this is quite natural. A multitude of scales and prerequisites have merged into this complex parameter. Attitudes towards power, degrees of liberalism, critical thinking, the notorious imperial archetype, arrogance, dissatisfaction with one's life, the need for recognition of oneself and one's country, being oriented towards the past, levels of self-identification, the myth of the primacy of the collective self, upbringing based on a subordination mindset, and cultivated militarism – all these have formed a worldview that has further determined one's choice.

External factors – such as the lingering special operation, the burgeoning public debate, communication in reference groups – are increasingly demanding that everyone define their stance.

Attitudes toward war have become an almost unconditional predictor of how a person, either a supporter or an opponent of the war, is likely to answer any given question.

In our research, we have been focusing on the theme of war, and therefore our main questions in the questionnaires were war-related. The aforementioned feature is particularly evident in responses to them.

Figure 1. The effect of attitudes toward the special military operation on a variety of parameters. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Figure 1. The effect of attitudes toward the special military operation on a variety of parameters. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Although one-third of opponents (and 11% of supporters) of the war answered in the affirmative when asked if our respondents had any doubts about the military operation, we have reason to believe that there is no flow of people between the groups supporting and opposing the war.

War Supporters

The main question for all researchers has become the issue of the level, depth, and reasons for supporting what Putin had ordered to call a special military operation.

During the year, the level of this support fluctuated nominally at 55-60%. It was formed at the beginning of the war and was generally stagnant; small fluctuations reflected the dynamics of events.

The indicator decreased from 64% in May to 55% in early July, when both unsuccessful frontline operations and respondents' own problems accumulated, while the "operation" had exceeded its estimated duration of several months (in March 56% had such expectation of duration, against 34% by July, and only 21% in February).

The second time the level of support temporarily dropped to 53% was in late September, after the mobilization was announced. A few weeks later it rebounded to 57%, and by February to 59%.

It is likely that this compensation was partly due to the mass wave of departures from the country that followed the mobilization. In any case, these fluctuations are insignificant.

Throughout the entire study, the percentage of those who openly disagree with the special operation has been fluctuating insignificantly, amounting to 11% in the February wave of surveys. The lowest number of those who openly disapproved of the war was observed in early March 2022 – 7% (this was the moment when repressive regulations on "discrediting" the Russian army were adopted). At the same time, approximately one-third of respondents (31%) on average for the whole year found it difficult or did not want to answer the question about their support of the war, which seems an abnormally high proportion with regard to the key issue of the life of the country. The maximum share of those who evaded a specific answer (36%) falls on September 29-30, 2022, that is, immediately after the announcement of the "partial" mobilization. At the same time, there is a clear demographic bias in the non-response group: throughout the study, the share of younger ages (18-34) within the group has ranged from 42 to 52%. And it is in these ages that the share of those who do not support the war is significantly higher than in the other age groups.

In general, we can talk about two levels of support: before July and after. In the summer, the support decreased slightly, but since then it has been maintaining the same level.

Is there a resource for an increase in (genuine) support for the war?

Probably, yes. The information about Russian army losses in general, the increase in these losses, the potential approach of the Ukrainian army to the Russian border, the sabotage and subversive activities of Ukrainians (or not Ukrainians) on Russian territory, civilian casualties – everything that would be accompanied by fear and sympathy for "our people" could increase support at the expense of those who have not yet made up their minds about their position at present.

Figure 2. Support for the special military operation. Chronicles, February 2022 – February 2023
Figure 2. Support for the special military operation. Chronicles, February 2022 – February 2023

War Opponents

The war opponents have become the most difficult segment to measure and analyze.

The lowest number of those who openly disapproved of the war was observed in early March 2022 – 7% (this was the moment when repressive regulations on "discrediting" the Russian army were adopted). At the same time, approximately one-third of respondents (31%) on average for the whole year found it difficult or did not want to answer the question about their support of the war, which seems an abnormally high proportion with regard to the key issue of the life of the country. The maximum share of those who evaded a specific answer (36%) falls on September 29-30, 2022, that is, immediately after the announcement of the "partial" mobilization. At the same time, there is a clear demographic bias in the non-response group: throughout the study, the share of younger ages (18-34) within the group has ranged from 42 to 52%. And it is in these ages that the share of those who do not support the war is significantly higher than in the other age groups.

Throughout the year we received a verbal "I do not support" response from 10-13% of respondents. We have proved many times based on the data that this figure is in reality 2-2.5 times higher due to those people who, for reasons of personal safety, opted for the position "I do not want to answer this question": from 12 to 17%. The position "I find it difficult to answer" on this question gathered 15-19%. The analysis of the substantive questions gives grounds for stating that the share of opponents of the war in Russia is 30%.

Other research companies receive about 20% non-support in response to this question, not including a "don't want to answer" position, which correlates well with our estimate.

The resource for an increase in the number of war opponents is the doubters. On many issues they find themselves closer to the war opponents; this is especially true of those respondents who explicitly refused to answer certain sensitive questions.

The group of war opponents has been in a difficult mental state throughout this year.

They do not feel capable of influencing their own lives; their main emotions are anger, shame, frustration, fatigue (61% vs. 26% for war supporters), increasing anxiety (from 53% in the spring to 76% in February), and apathy.

These people live in an isolated state. 44% of war opponents have been deprived of Internet resources important to them. Among the war supporters, only 9% were affected.

Throughout the war, over 40% of war opponents experience conflict with their loved ones. War opponents, due to being more critical in their thinking, expect their relatives and, in general, people of their profile and within their reference circle to reject the war, and upon encountering support for the war or the "not everything is so definite" position, continue the debate amid propaganda and risks, or break off the relationship.

They are saying goodbye to their loved ones because of the latters' departure: as early as late March, one-third of war opponents reported the emigration of their loved ones (albeit not exclusively during the war period). Demographers estimate that 800,000 Russians have left during the two wartime waves of emigration. Half of these citizens then also reported their desire to emigrate. They live in a hostile environment: in the summer, 73% felt they were in danger when speaking out publicly, and they were right – 58% of pro-war activists today approve of prosecuting citizens who publicly condemn the "special military operation".

The number of remaining channels and formats for self-expression, group support and self-identification is decreasing. War opponents are more demanding in communication, emotionally unstable, heterogeneous, and dissimilar, which creates additional difficulties in social adaptation during crisis times.

The financial situation of this group, according to their own estimates, has deteriorated more radically than in the war supporters' group: 72% vs. 35%. They are fired en masse as citizens disloyal to the special operation – especially in jobs that imply publicity. Teachers and educators are persecuted. Snitching has become a common practice. The ideologization of public life, culture, and education primarily affects those who do not meet the standards of this ideology.

It is primarily these people, 77% of whom consider Russia's cooperation with the West important, who are isolated from the world by border closures, visa complications, and discontinuation of flights.

War opponents have lost their future. Following the announcement of mobilization in the fall, the main feelings of war opponents regarding the future of Russia were fear, anxiety, despair, and hopelessness. This is an existential dead end.

Those who found the strength and the opportunity to do so left. For this study, we have lost them.

War opponents will be studied more and more as a group of "those who stayed", surrounded by propaganda, vociferous majority, and a wide range of repression. Our colleagues at the Public Sociology Laboratory, having gathered a tremendous volume of information, provide an excellent description of the complex motivation for rejecting the war and the "dynamics moving from vivid protest emotions to depression and apathy".

It is necessary to realize that internal protest against the war may be caused not only by indignation at the specific aggression in Ukraine but also by pacifism, an abstract rejection of the war as such. Another important motive for rejecting the war is lack of financial well-being: virtually all studies show that the poor are less supportive of the war.

However paradoxically, war opponents are less politicized than its supporters: they care about domestic politics, social problems, and this is yet another type of argument against the war. They are more apolitical; they were called to a political stance by the war.

For us, this observation made by our colleagues at PS Lab was a revelation and made it possible to read our own data more accurately. Our mind trap would draw an image of a war opponent as one of a boy standing on his friend's shoulders and drawing an anti-war picture. But there are clearly not many of those. Apparently, it is precisely those 10-13% who respond to interviewers by saying "No, I do not support the special operation" that comprise such a category of anti-war radicals.

This discovery – the war opponents having initially been non-politicized – allowed us to better understand the anxious, depressive, and seemingly passive profile of these people. They were, by definition, set up for a normal, peaceful life; they had jobs requiring skilled labor and were raising children. The war called them to protest, to exacerbate their rejection of Putin's regime, and to realize the lack of prospects for life in this country. In a democratic state, they would have been a normal healthy part of society, but now their individual normality is broken.

Nevertheless, these people find the strength to live for the sake of their loved ones and their professional duty, with less and less hope that the war will end soon. Not only apathy is developing within this group, but also a potential for resistance, volunteering, and inner spiritual emigration. We must not forget that we are talking about 30 million socially active, educated Russians, 70% of which are under the age of 49.

The Undecideds: Who Are They?

This is the category of respondents who find it difficult or refuse to answer the question about support for the war.

They are not as convoluted as war opponents; their share averaged 31% for the year. Since they do not give specific answers to sensitive questions, they are not concerned about their response. These respondents cannot be viewed as one group, as there are actually three subgroups: those who tend to support the war, those who tend to reject it, and the truly undecided.

The Chronicles data shows them to be closer to the opponents of the special operation on most issues, but at the expense of other components within the category, the indicators for the category as a whole are not as pronounced.

This category should be analyzed as a wartime polling phenomenon – such a high percentage of hesitant respondents and refusers in polls is almost unique. It has become a haven for opponents of the war, a place for anxious supporters of the war, and a territory for those who really have no opinion on difficult issues. The latter have a high non-response rate on most issues, not always even sensitive ones.

This group has also been described in detail by researchers at the Public Sociology Laboratory.

It is a cauldron of disparate contradictory views on various aspects, manifestations, and consequences of the war. People with much more emotion than their own position. It is difficult or impossible for them to define their own position regarding matters important to them and to society. But nevertheless, they respond to other questions, not so sensitive and not particularly meaningful ones, and this still allows them to be assigned to the war camp or to the peace camp. An experiment in early March in which we added the verbal alternatives "I find it difficult to answer" and "I do not want to answer this question" to the response options showed that it was primarily people who opposed the war that had moved into this category.

Demographic bias: there is a significantly higher proportion of young people and a significantly lower proportion of older people among the undecideds, which also confirms that this group includes war opponents. Throughout the entire measurement period, the percentage of respondents in the 18-29-year-old group who refused or found it difficult to answer has ranged from 42% to 52%!

And the results of the comparative analysis of responses are also biased toward war opponents.

Figure 3. Response сomparison of three groups of attitudes toward the special military operation by additional relevant parameters. Chronicles, February 2023
Figure 3. Response сomparison of three groups of attitudes toward the special military operation by additional relevant parameters. Chronicles, February 2023

Society Map. Party of Support vs. Party of Non-Resistance

One of our main tasks has become to investigate the structure of support for the "special military operation," the war.

Understanding its heterogeneity, since the first waves of the study we began modeling the "core support" segment, combining the core question with others confirming the substantiality of this support.

In the previous waves, various "control" questions were used (willingness to take part in military actions, willingness to donate money to the army, etc.). The core of support identified with the help of these questions was in the range of 32–42% of the total number of respondents.

A fresh example from the February 2023 wave: a combination of an affirmative answer to the question about support for the war and one of the following answers:

  • not willing to withdraw troops from Ukraine and proceed to peace talks without reaching the goals, even if Vladimir Putin makes such a decision;

  • the state budget needs to be primarily allocated to the army (rather than social spending) in the event of a state budget deficit;

  • moral condemnation of those who avoid participating in the special military operation;

  • the opponents of the special military operation who express their stance publicly should be criminally prosecuted.

The largest overlap is observed for the first criterion: the share of those who declare support for the "special military operation" and are not willing to support Putin's potential decision to end the war is 38%. If one of the other three criteria is added to this, the core size becomes smaller (34%).

The "narrow" core of support (22%) consists of those respondents who are not willing to support Putin's potential decision to end the war and are in favor of prioritizing budget expenditures on the military over social spending in the event of a shortage of these funds. In terms of their overall profile, their responses to other questions in the questionnaire indicate that they correspond to the image of the Russian "aggressive majority", the reference to which is part of the basic narrative of most of the world's media.

Therefore, we can consider 38% of respondents (a broad core of support) to be convinced supporters of the war; another group of just over 20%, while declaring support for "the special operation", does not support pro-war policies and beliefs in their responses to other questions. About 40% of the remaining respondents do not join the "normative" declared endorsement of the war, but only a quarter of them (10%) are ready to openly express an anti-war stance. An analysis of the positions of those who did not express their attitude to the war (finding it difficult to answer or unwilling to do so), in the context of the four additional support criteria listed above, suggests that about two-thirds of them gravitate toward those who do not support the war, whereas one-third tend to approve of it.

Figure 4. Additional war support criteria and major groups of declared support/non-support. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Figure 4. Additional war support criteria and major groups of declared support/non-support. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023

Meanwhile, support for the war is the only officially acceptable position in Russia, while non-support for it is stigmatized and even criminalized if expressed publicly. Under these conditions, it is necessary to investigate respondents' attitudes towards the war at two levels: at the declarative level (in answers to a direct question) and at the level of support for specific political decisions and beliefs of a pro-war nature. As a result, we find that in addition to the two polar groups – convinced war supporters (38%) and its outspoken opponents (10%) – there is a group of declarative "support" lacking additional pro-war arguments (21%), and a faction that evaded answering the question about support for the war (31%). Therefore, while on the declarative level, the majority in Russia is the "war party" (59%), on the second level, we find another near-majority (52%), which might be called a "majority of non-resistance" to the war.

Figure 5. A two-level analysis of war support. Chronicles, February 2023
Figure 5. A two-level analysis of war support. Chronicles, February 2023

The "Party of Non-Resistance to the War" includes:

  • those who align themselves with the normative "support" position merely declaratively (21%);

  • those who avoid expressing a direct attitude to the war, but who are close to war opponents based on additional criteria (20%);

  • and finally, those who do not express direct support for the war, while close to war supporters in terms of their profile.

Regarding the latter group, it is important to remember that support for the war is a view that is today socially imposed in Russia to such an extent that not joining this stance on a declarative level is no neutral position. While representatives of this group express certain pro-war preferences, for some reason they have avoided declaring direct support for "the special operation". It is possible, for example, that while they share the goals of the war, they consider its humanitarian and economic costs too great, or that they consider the goals unattainable at this stage ("Russia does not yet have enough strength"). In any case, this group (just like the previous one) does not publicly express its contradictory attitude towards the war, and as a result, the voice of the convinced minority – the war supporters – appears to be unconditionally dominant (38%).

Either way, this two-level analysis suggests that behind the majority of declarative support for the war, there hides another majority – the majority of non-resistance to it.

It is essential to note that there are no separate discrete groups. One moves smoothly into the other, accumulating attributes of the neighboring one. Colleagues from the Public Sociology Laboratory speak of the complex nature of perceptions of the war at the level of each individual: "Most Russians support and do not support the war at the same time. The attitude of Russian residents toward the war has a 'patchwork' and contradictory nature and is composed of arguments and narratives from both sides."

But our analysis is not about the two sides, which is why we are distributing the population on a relatively complex map rather than drawing a single boundary. This is why we construct segmentations based on different parameters, in order to model groups whose behavior (rather than inner reflection) can be predicted.

What Has Been Influencing Attitudes Towards the War

Throughout this year we have been trying to understand what factors might reduce support for the war.

There were two groups of factors that could have worked: empathy for Ukrainians and the impact of the war on the situation in the country and one's own life.

The assumption that being exposed to actual information about losses on the Ukrainian side would make people look critically at the source of the suffering of the "brotherly people" has not been justified.

Russian propaganda finds an "antidote" to any event.

The horror of mauled Bucha is superseded in the minds of most Russians by the unbelievable, but promptly offered, version that the terrible events were staged.

In February 2023, we asked the respondents whether a potential Russian victory would benefit Ukrainians. 80% of war supporters believe in such a benefit (66% in the overall sample).

In June our respondents were sending virtual telegrams to ordinary Ukrainian citizens. The most popular content (one-third of all telegrams) was an expression of sympathy, and support, calls to be patient until Russia liberates them, and a reminder that we are brotherly nations.

Rationalization and tunnel vision do not allow war supporters to accept the picture of Russia's aggression, even as it becomes available.

The second group of factors that was supposed to make people come to their senses was their own problems caused by the war.

Figure 6. Consequences of the special military operation among its supporters and opponents. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Figure 6. Consequences of the special military operation among its supporters and opponents. Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023

Groups of war supporters and opponents differ radically on this parameter. The opponents of the war have been affected by the negative consequences much more profoundly. It is only natural that their level of anxiety and fear is higher.

But even war supporters cannot help but be affected by these objective consequences.

Does this mean that further escalation of the consequences of the war will lead to a negative change in attitudes toward military action? Not as quickly as one might expect.

Russians' capacity for adaptation to difficulties is well known – especially if they are influenced by state propaganda. War and propaganda have created a certain dominant perception. And the objectively identical adverse consequences are perceived differently by supporters and opponents of the war.

The resource of the war's impact on the personal lives of citizens definitely exists, but it does not always work directly.

We found, for example, an unexpected correlation: for those who receive the main information about the war from the TV, the economic consequences work better as an incentive to reduce their support for the war. Apparently, the discrepancy between the picture on the TV and the real problems creates a more effective basis for a part of the population to revise their view of the war.

Higher education among those who have experienced the negative consequences of hostilities does not affect the attitude toward war becoming more negative, but it does affect the willingness to negotiate a truce. To these people, the source of the problems is more obvious, and therefore they understand that the war must be stopped.

Mobilization: Predictable, Real, Verbal and Physical

The dynamics of the responses to the question about the readiness to personally take part in the war is one of the most important indicators of the dynamics of the public attitude towards it. At the beginning of last summer, this question was still of an abstract nature: it was believed that the war would be fought by professionals and contract servicemen. At the same time, the share of those who declared their willingness to participate personally was decreasing, and the share of those who avoided answering was growing. However, after the announcement of "partial" mobilization, the meaning of the question changed abruptly: participation changed from hypothetical to hypothetical-coercive. It was assumed that mobilization would cause a sharp drop in the level of support for the war, and active or passive resistance to it would become a major problem for the Kremlin.

The "partial mobilization" announced in September was in some ways an even more vivid event for the population than the beginning of the full-scale war itself, which was thought at the time to be a "special operation", that is, something not directly affecting the safety and well-being of the majority of the population.

The citizens' emotional state at the moment when the special operation was announced a year ago and at the moment when mobilization was announced in September 2022 testifies to this.

Figure 7. Russians' Sentiments. Levada Center. Omnibus. February 2022, September 2022
Figure 7. Russians' Sentiments. Levada Center. Omnibus. February 2022, September 2022

In October, we wrote: "The coming weeks and months of war will convert this state (of anxiety and shock) into a more conscious, informed dissent, first to the "partial" mobilization, and then to the war itself."

Our prediction never came true. Nominal support for the war is not dropping. And the readiness for mobilization is comparable to the figures of its support in late September.

Figure 8. Willingness to participate in the special military operation. Chronicles March 2022, February 2023
Figure 8. Willingness to participate in the special military operation. Chronicles March 2022, February 2023

After the mobilization was announced, the level of support for the war dropped to its minimum of 52%, but just two weeks later began to return to its original levels. At the same time, 49% of respondents expressed support for mobilization, and in October 2022, 45% said they were willing to personally participate in military actions.

By February 2023, the share of those willing to be mobilized reached 55%; 15% of men declared their willingness to go to the front voluntarily, and 40% – in case they were ordered to. And only 21% stated that they were not willing to fight (against 51% last May).

Of course, this change has been influenced by the fact that participation in mobilization is now treated as mandatory by law, but at the same time, such figures indicate the society's acceptance of the new mobilization norms and relative loyalty to them.

We have been studying the issue of mobilization since the first months of the full-scale war. Based on data from March-May 2022, we prepared a detailed analysis of the level of willingness to join the army and the factors that influence it.

“The declaration of willingness to participate in the special operation is not so much a basis for predicting a volunteer movement as a reflection of general loyalty to the authorities, Putin, and the operation itself, shaped by long-standing and currently relevant propaganda.”

The impact of informational mobilization was apparent as early as the spring.

Informational mobilization

The attitude towards potential mobilization is influenced by one's preferred sources of information – those that one trusts. While among those who trust the state TV channels the ratio of those willing to serve vs those who are not is 41% to 19%, among those who do not trust them the proportion is reversed: 17% to 43%.

The factor of having access to sources of information that have been censored drastically reduces people's willingness to participate in combat operations. Among those who do not know what VPNs are (software that allows its users to bypass the bans on access to information imposed by the Russian government), the ratio of those willing to be mobilized to those who reject it is almost 3 to 1 (39% vs. 14%), and among VPN users the ratio is reversed – 1 to 2 (21% vs. 40%).

Free access to information creates mobilization evaders. It is important to emphasize that servicemen in Russian law enforcement agencies are particularly carefully shielded from unsupervised content.

We can only conclude that the information conditioning of prospective mobilized men was more than successful. The willingness to fight has increased during these eight months, despite the risks of being involved in actual combat operations.

Figure 9. Effects of media consumption on willingness to participate in the war Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Figure 9. Effects of media consumption on willingness to participate in the war Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023

Television is still the chief recruiter: 63% of men who watch television every day are ready to go to war, against 39% of those who do not watch the TV.

The data confirm that propaganda has instilled a desire for victory, expansion, and Russia's self-assertion on a global scale.

It is those respondents who feel that the goals of the "special operation" have not been achieved and therefore are not willing to support Putin's potential decision to withdraw troops from Ukraine that are more enthusiastic about taking part in combat operations. In other words, they are driven by the idea of revanchism, achieving victory, or at least some goals of the special operation.

It was those who approved of Putin's decision on mobilization who were proud of Russia and felt a sense of duty in October.

Figure 10. The impact of willingness to participate in the war on support for a decision to withdraw troops Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023
Figure 10. The impact of willingness to participate in the war on support for a decision to withdraw troops Chronicles Wave 9, February 2023

Still, readiness for mobilization remains largely declarative. Only the evaders – those who leave or hide within the country – take noticeable material actions.

"Willingness to be mobilized" is a natural extension of support for the war and loyalty to Putin. We do not see volunteers queuing up. The contract servicemen are mainly motivated by financial interest; for a huge number of men, the promised payout is an income unattainable in civilian life. It is this motive that the numerous advertisements for contractual service rely on.

Phases of the War. An Image of the Future

The share of those supporting the war in February 2023 was the same as at the beginning of the war – 59%. But it would be a mistake to see this as some "stability" – between the two identical figures, there lies a year of dramatic changes in public sentiment.

Phase One. Shock and Panic

The announcement of the special military operation came as a shock to everyone with no exception. It was a phase of brief unity between the would-be antagonist groups.

Many people experienced panic – with the usual patterns of encapsulation and frantic purchases of basic goods, food, and medicine.

This was a month of shock, of worry, of adaptation, of determining personal tactics of behavior, and, most importantly, of shaping attitudes toward the war.

The active advance of Russian troops, advancing toward Kyiv, instilled confidence in the promise of a small and victorious war.

A group of enthusiastic people and a group of enraged people were formed, with the confused, withdrawn undecideds in between.

Phase Two. Polarization: Excitement and Anger

By mid-April, the Russian troops had already withdrawn, but psychologically this did not prevent the war supporters' enthusiasm to continue for two more months, as propaganda kept finding "embellishing" excuses for a "halt" in the victorious war ("trying to avoid civilian casualties," "conditions for negotiations are being established"), and the consequences of economic sanctions were not so dire. The level of support for the war rose substantially – to 66-64%. At this point in the survey, respondents were asked to send (imaginary) "telegrams to Ukrainians". These were messages of a strong and magnanimous side, promising the "little brothers" prompt help and liberation ("Hold on, we'll save you"). The tide of the operation was supposed to turn in Russia's favor. Opponents of the special operation experienced anger and rejection. The first wave of departures abroad took place

Phase Three. The Recession

The third phase began approximately in late June.

The duration of the special operation exceeded the psychological expectations of the duration of the war. The Russian army was haunted by setbacks at the battlefront. The material consequences of the war were becoming increasingly perceptible. Supplies, previously disrupted by panic demand, recovered, but prices had risen dramatically. Businesses were closing, foreign enterprises were leaving, unemployment was rising, and money from severance payments was already nearly spent on food. Various multidirectional processes were underway: people were adapting to the new situation (respondents indicated some positive growth when asked about their financial situation); the state had indexed pensions and the living wage; purchases for school were compensated by a lump-sum state payment.

But because of the high degree of uncertainty, consumers froze, and even if they still had some money left, they opted to save it.

But 14% of respondents said they had lost their jobs, 36% said their income was down, and 56% reported they had to cut down their food expenses. In June, support for the war dropped 9%, from 64% to 55%.

Fatigue and apathy had accumulated.

In the summer, it became clear that this was no longer an operation, but a full-scale war.

At that time rumors of the declaration of martial law and general mobilization intensified. Around the same time, every speech by Putin or every off-schedule Duma meeting started to be expected to result in shocking announcements.

Phase Four. The Mobilization

The fourth phase began in late September with the shock caused by the mobilization.

Psychologically, the mobilization was an even more frustrating event than the special operation announced in February.

The level of anxiety, fear, and shock, according to the Levada-Center (deemed a foreign agent in Russia), increased from 43% at the end of February to 70% at the end of September 2022.

The second wave of emigration began: hundreds of thousands of people urgently left, fleeing mobilization.

The poorly organized mobilization and the subsequent deaths of the first mobilized demonstrated that this war affects not only Ukrainians.

Families were losing their breadwinners en masse – those who were drafted and those who left the country; tensions were mounting, and people were waiting for the mobilization campaign to unfold further and for the borders to be closed.

The extent of mobilization, however, proved less catastrophic. Some recruits who had been mobilized with obvious violations were soon returned home with PR support.

Military commissars were not standing at every gate. The main events took place on the periphery of the country. By December, people had adapted. Some of those who had left in a hurry returned to Russia.

Despite visible indications of adaptation, the general mood has deteriorated, and this can be seen in people's fatigue and anxiety. A transition to another level has happened. New normalcy has begun.

For the first time, even the conditions for conducting surveys have changed. The general population – that is, the population to which we extrapolate our results – has begun shrinking slowly.

The quota of young men that we reach randomly has dropped. The military conscripts have started to respond significantly less well to calls from numbers they don't know.

Russia has entered the fifth phase of the war.

Phase Five. Deeper into the Swamps of War

The war is being perceived against the backdrop of the population's economic self-perception stabilizing. The panic of the first months subsided long ago.

Unexpected Increase in Personal Optimism

Levada-Center, a foreign agent, shows a paradoxical rise in optimism.

"The increase in the number of those whose lives have not changed significantly and who are confident about their future is observed paradoxically in periods of significant economic and political hardship. This suggests that a negative informational background forms alarmist expectations, which, when not fully realized, give rise to the idea of the relative stability of one's situation and the ability of the economy to overcome crises painlessly.”
Figure 11. Russians' confidence in what the future holds. Levada-Center, September 2022, February 2023
Figure 11. Russians' confidence in what the future holds. Levada-Center, September 2022, February 2023

The Chronicles surveys have also registered a paradoxical stabilization of respondents' assessments of their financial situation, which can be seen as a result of adaptation. A comparison with the data of our Ukrainian colleagues would be interesting in this regard. In the autumn of 2022, Ukrainians estimated the state of their economy higher than in the autumn of 2021.

It is in this phenomenon of certain anesthesia that the dominant effect of war manifests itself. The basic feelings generated by war work like a prism, influencing the perception of other measurable parameters. In the case of Russia, a negative or positive attitude toward the war can affect one's assessment of their financial situation and other parameters.

The deterioration of the economy proceeds gradually, and against the background of the war, people's sensitivity is blunted. Along with it, critical reflection becomes blunted as well.

War Supporters and Undecideds

The weak dynamics of war supporters' positive feelings appear externally as if they harbor no doubts or frustrations.

Fear and anxiety increase, and so does fatigue – but rather as some kind of a parallel reality.

Domestic problems in the country are outside the focus of a war supporter's attention, even if they have taken place. The war writes off everything, and one's approach becomes increasingly less critical.

People's mass willingness to be mobilized as a feeling of being doomed and the recurrent paradoxical increase in a positive subjective evaluation of one's financial situation assemble into an image of a "new normal," modeled and implemented by the total propaganda, well internalized by people and augmented by voluntary rationalization of events.

The war has been accepted. As our colleagues at the Public Sociology Laboratory write: "War, as seen by the majority of Russians, has become an inevitability, like bad weather, beyond the influence of individual wills of ordinary Russians, a reality."

War opponents

The main dynamics of the shift in attitudes take place in relation to the camps of war supporters and undecideds because the camp of war opponents has been experiencing approximately the same negative feelings: loss of contact with loved ones, loss of homeland, and loss of personal future. The severing of social ties, and losing hopes and plans for the future go on unceasingly. This has become the background to their precarious life in a country at war. Negative sentiments are growing. The dynamics are manifested only in a decrease in the acuteness of negativity and in an increase in apathy.

The status of war opponents, who are isolated in Russia, and the attempts to "cancel the Russians" abroad do not enable us to rely on them today as a resource for historical change. This does not negate our respect for these people and the enormous importance of any form of resistance.

The Revanchists

The results of the February 2023 poll show that the war has become a vortex into which the majority of Russians are being pulled ever deeper.

In October 2022 and February 2023, respondents were asked:

If Vladimir Putin decides to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine and begin truce talks, WITHOUT achieving the original goals, will you or will you not support such a decision?

We are witnessing a situation that is rare in surveys when the shares of two opposing positions are growing simultaneously:

Support for a potential withdrawal of troops from the time mobilization was announced in September through February 2023 has increased from 30% to 40%; non-support has increased from 35% to 47% due to a decrease in the proportion of those who found it difficult to answer – from 29% to 13%.

The fact that the proportion of people who would like to stop the war is growing is not surprising: we have been seeing it in the data for a long time. In April, there were 19% of such people, and today there are already 40%.

Until recently, it seemed that only the share of those who want to stop the war could grow.

From the very beginning of the war research, we understood that we had to look for a more accurate alternative to the direct question about support for the war.

In April, we wrote:

“We see the point in shifting our focus to an analysis of support and non-support for the cessation of hostilities. To a significant extent, this is an inversion of the original question of support, which has become an almost useless mantra.”

The breakthrough on this issue today is that since October there has been a 12% increase in the share of those who would not agree with such a decision, even if Putin had taken it.

This is a new phenomenon: the war becomes an independent entity, separating itself from Putin.

This means that half of the Russian population is determined to continue the war " to the victorious end". Does this mean a decrease in loyalty to Putin? Apparently not, because most of these people think that holding presidential elections in 2024 is inexpedient. In addition, this group includes more of those who believe that alternation of power does more harm.

Hereinafter in the text, we will refer to this group as "revanchists". They express a greater readiness to take part in hostilities than other respondents. It should be noted that revanchists, due to their bias toward older ages, have a larger proportion of those who are not subject to mobilization. They would like to allocate more money to the special operation rather than to social expenditures, and they condemn the mobilization evaders.

Revanchists make up 66% of those who support the war. This further confirms that a third of nominal supporters are the unstable, inertial, socially conformist part of the support for the war.

Motives to Continue the War

Every month the number of sacrifices made – human, economic, and otherwise – is increasing. The sacramental question arises: "What was it all for if we surrender without achieving our goals?"

There is a growing projective fear that if Russian troops retreat to the February border lines, the Ukrainians, who have already suffered enormous sacrifices, will not stop and come to "our land".

56% of respondents are generally confident that Ukrainians will invade Russia. Among the revanchists, there are 69% of those believing so. And in the group of those who would support Putin's potential decision to end the war, this percentage is only 12%.

There is also the rationalization that NATO is using the Ukrainians to carry out the invasion that had been planned from the very beginning.

Another motive is still the urge not only to "rise from the knees," but also to prove to the world that Russia is an actor in world politics. These people are proud and enthusiastic. 80% of them feel a sense of justice, and 77% believe that the possible victory of Russia will bring good to the Ukrainians themselves.

At the same time, 53% of the revanchists feel fear; this may be the fear of retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine and the mass casualties. The problems are clearly accumulating.

In December, Putin instructed the government to investigate the issue of systematic work on treating the consequences of post-traumatic syndrome in servicemen and their families. And in early March, the working group on issues related to the special operation was instructed to work out the issue of unified rules for establishing a disability group for participants of the special military operation.

The war is being promoted as a source of social benefits, earnings, and exemption from loans. The number of search queries in Yandex and Google regarding payments of compensation, benefits, contract servicemen's salaries, and lump-sum payments for a deceased relative is constantly growing.

20-25% of Russia's population is barely surviving – the lack of an "image of the future" is nothing new to them.

War is "sold" as a source of pardon. 58% of the population as a whole supports the practice of drafting prisoners. This is apparently due to the logic offered: the more prisoners are drafted, the less will our relatives be taken away. In the revanchist group, 77% support this practice.

As a result, we observe 50 shades of reasons for not opposing the war and for the gradual dragging of completely different groups into it on various grounds.

But this state of "immersing in the war" can hardly be regarded as some new long-term equilibrium. As shown above, contrary to popular belief, support for the war is not consolidated, but largely declarative and imposed. Behind the facade of a declarative pro-war majority, hides a majority of "non-resistance." The share of those who would support Putin's decision to withdraw the troops immediately grows in parallel with the share of those who would not. The consolidation of revanchist sentiments coexists with a significant and persistent potential for demobilization, the most striking sign of which is tolerance for "evaders". Further accumulation of the costs of the war and the lack of success on the battlefield is going to test the temporary equilibrium and "declarative support" for strength again and again.

An Image of the Future: Non-Existent

In October, we asked a question about the respondents' feelings regarding the future of Russia.

Figure 12. Feelings about Russia's Future. Chronicles, October 2022
Figure 12. Feelings about Russia's Future. Chronicles, October 2022

They naturally differ for supporters and opponents of the war. Hope is the only thing they somewhat have in common. Is there hope for the future?

The future today is, of course, peace. But we have yet to live to see it.

The war has been dragging on, and the duration of the war assumed by respondents has also increased – from a few months to a year or more, which directly affects attitudes toward the war and confidence in victory.

Estimated Duration of the War

Figure 13. Duration of the war as estimated by respondents. Chronicles, May, June, October 2022, February 2023
Figure 13. Duration of the war as estimated by respondents. Chronicles, May, June, October 2022, February 2023

To test the perception of the future, we asked respondents: if the special operation is not over by 2024, should presidential elections be held?

46% said no (no time to waste resources to achieve an obvious result), and 37% believed that the elections should be held.

Another 46% believe that alternation of power would generally do more harm, and only 19% think it would do more good. 35% found it difficult to answer; it is possible that they did not even understand what alternation means.

We tried to measure the extent to which people associate the war with Putin and whether there is hope that if there is a change of power, the war will end. "If Russia is led by someone other than Vladimir Putin, do you think the special operation will continue or will it be stopped?"

It is difficult to imagine a situation where the country would be led by "another person" and how this would affect the outcome of the war, so 36% found it difficult to answer, and 9% gave a different answer, but 40% against 19% still assumed that the war would last despite a presidential change. That said, the longer the duration of the war the respondent expects today, the less they believe it will end as a result of a change in leadership. The war, which at first looked like Putin's personal initiative, appears increasingly to be an independent given, a framework of existence in its own right, as society further sinks into the war.

Figure 14. The duration of the war and its correlation with Russia's presidential succession. Chronicles, February 2023
Figure 14. The duration of the war and its correlation with Russia's presidential succession. Chronicles, February 2023

So far, the future remains as uncertain as possible, and this is the main reason for anxiety. There is no definite image of a victory – throughout the war, surveys have been confirming the instability of goals in the respondents' minds. Although more and more respondents named some goals, there is less and less consistency in their answers.

Here are the goals obtained in the February 28 – March 1, 2022 open-ended question. Even though the war is not even a week old, the repertoire is quite rich. The bewilderment of war opponents (50% of them found it difficult to answer) would accompany them all year.

Figure 15. Goals and reasons for the special operation. Project Athena, February 2022
Figure 15. Goals and reasons for the special operation. Project Athena, February 2022

And here are the answers to the same open-ended question asked a year later, in February 2023.

Question: In your understanding, what is the ultimate goal of the Russian military operation on the territory of Ukraine? 

Respondents who are willing to participate in hostilities, spend budget money on the war, and send their relatives to the front lines, instead of giving an answer regarding the goals, talk about why the goals have not been achieved: "bad leadership", "poor supplies", "corruption" and "stealing", "underestimated the enemy", "being excessively humane", "everyone is helping Ukraine".

Figure 16. Goals and reasons for the special military operation. Chronicles, February 2023
Figure 16. Goals and reasons for the special military operation. Chronicles, February 2023

To understand the image of the future, let's look at the perceptions of the personal benefit that a future victory might bring. The very victory in which 82% of our respondents had faith in the middle of the year.

Question: Do you think a possible Russian victory in the military operation in Ukraine would or would not benefit you personally? If so, what kind of benefit will it bring to you?

56% of respondents answered, "no, it will not."

That 29% who articulated expectations of personal benefit from a victory gave the following answers.

Figure 17. Personal benefit from Russia's possible victory. Chronicles, June 2022
Figure 17. Personal benefit from Russia's possible victory. Chronicles, June 2022

Half of the opinions are about the desire to go back to a place where there is no war yet.

Dreaming of the future as a return to the past.


Key Findings


  1. Support for the war has been steady throughout the war: 55-60%. At the same time, conscious support is estimated at 32-42%, with 38% in February 2023.

  2. The basic state of society, if we are talking about the majority, is non-resistance to the war. This group amounts to 55%.

  3. Society is polarized, the antagonist groups do not trade representatives. The group of undecideds, according to their profile, is more likely to relate to war opponents. The rest have minimal mobility. Opponents are isolated, discriminated against, and heterogeneous. They do not change their convictions and maintain a negative attitude. There are 30% of them.

  4. Factors influencing attitudes toward the war: informed empathy and subjective negative consequences of the war. The latter do work, but not in a radical way. Support for the war is influenced by multidirectional processes that polarize society.

  5. Verbal readiness for the mobilization is on the rise, but mostly "by order." The rate of voluntary mobilization is stable, but people do not queue up to get enlisted.

  6. The war is going through its fifth phase, sinking further into the swamps of war. Half of the Russians want the war to continue and are not willing to support Putin, even if he decided to withdraw troops from Ukraine and begin peace negotiations. There are several motives for this; the goals promoted by the propaganda are far from the main ones. The other half has made preparations to live with the new negative normality.

  7. There is no image of the future and no clear goals for the war. There is no understanding of what victory and defeat might look like. The image of war is detached from Putin and is more and more perceived as an inevitable given.


Sources:

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