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#17. The War is getting closer

Updated: May 26, 2023

Post-release #17, May 5, 2023

Elena Koneva


Over the past year, we have conducted extensive research in Russia, having accumulated solid analytics and tested hypotheses about what influences attitudes toward the war. We have been looking into two factors: access to objective information, sympathy for Ukrainians – and the deterioration of one's quality of life, being deprived of habitual comfort. We have not found any significant influence of any of the above. Objective information comes in for processing through the already-established picture of the world. Sympathy is present, but nominally, alongside the stance of "we approve of the strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure". The economic situation in Russia has not collapsed as was anticipated in March 2022, there is no acute shortage of food and medicine, and rising prices are a familiar occurrence.

The first drop in support for the special military operation occurred by mid-summer when it became clear that a small and victorious military operation had failed. One event briefly lowered the support for the special military operation – the mobilization in September – but after a few months, it was back to the usual figures.

The April news about adopting amendments to the law on military service again led to decreased support. Russians were more likely to disapprove of the amendments, even though the idea of closing the borders to draft/mobilize evaders was supported by 63% of respondents, according to an ExtremeScan survey conducted immediately after the announcement of the decision.

Likely, we will soon see the support for the special military operation level off again.

Illustration 1. Dynamic trends of support for SMO, Chronicles project
Illustration 1. Dynamic trends of support for SMO, Chronicles project

So what can affect the level of support for the special military operation?

Should the physical proximity to war be when troops are stationed in your city or district, when military vehicles are moving down the streets towards the border, when explosions are heard, and when infrastructure is destroyed? The governor urges you to participate in building fortifications, should all that influence attitudes towards the war that is the source of these problems?

On March 27-31, 2023, ExtremeScan surveyed three border regions: Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk Oblasts.

What is happening on the line that is in contact with the war?

The war has been manifesting here since the spring of 2021 when Russia began pulling troops to the border with Ukraine. Since winter 2022, everything here has been surrounded by Russian soldiers' tent camps, and residents would wake up to the sound of military aircraft overhead. In the spring, fortifications began to be built along the entire border. From the first months of the full-scale war, missiles have regularly hit the areas bordering Ukraine. In July 2022, five people, a family of refugees from Ukraine, were killed in Belgorod, and starting in October 2022, in response to the extensive shelling of Ukrainian infrastructure, continued missile strikes and regular bombardment of the Russian border area began. At the same time, a "level of high readiness" regime was introduced. The population is regularly encouraged to take shelter in improvised bomb shelters. Occasionally, subversive acts take place, and these are attributed to the Ukrainian military. There have been injuries and fatalities among the civilian population. Evacuation from hazardous areas is occurring, and people are also leaving alone.

There are plenty of reasons for this. On April 21, an aerial bomb from a Russian bomber exploded in the center of Belgorod.

In the April 21 morning newscast on the Russia-1 TV channel, in a story about the "abnormal" bomb drop from a Su-34 on Belgorod, the host delivered an enigmatic phrase: "Modern combat equipment allows Russian units to eliminate extremists in the special military operation zone from a minimum distance".

The borderland residents live close to the war, which has become their new normal.

They actively participate in volunteer activities, help the military, send aid to residents of the so-called "new territories", let Ukrainian refugees through and help them too.

Below is a table of events and changes in the lifestyle of borderland residents. It shows the changes in the personal life of the respondents, as well as war-related events in the localities.

Illustration 2. Consequences of SMO and events
Illustration 2. Consequences of SMO and events

Context of Life in the Frontiers

Here are some of the news reports from April alone.

During the day on 17 April, several localities were shelled: Krasnoye, Lozovaya Rudka, Murom, and Spodaryushino. There were no casualties, but in Krasnoye, a hay barn on a farm caught fire.

In the evening of the same day, the head of the Bryansk Oblast, Aleksandr Bogomaz, reported that near the village of Zapesochye, there was an attempt of illegal border crossing from the Ukrainian side, during which the trespasser blew themselves up on a booby-trapped security line.

On 12 April, several municipalities in the Belgorod Oblast came under fire. In the village of Novostroyevka-Vtoraya, a man sustained a minor concussion.

On 7 April, Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported the shelling of two villages in the Shebekino urban district, with ten cattle killed.

On 6 April, a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group of 20 people attempted to infiltrate the Bryansk Oblast, according to the governor of the region, Aleksandr Bogomaz. The attempt was foiled, the armed forces defeating the saboteurs with fire, Bogomaz said. The saboteurs allegedly attempted infiltration near the village of Sluchovsk in the Bryansk Oblast, not far from the border with the Chernihiv Oblast of Ukraine.

On the same day, the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka in the Belgorod Oblast came under mortar fire; residents of the shelled streets were transported to a safe distance in armored vehicles, according to Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. The shelling of two localities was also reported by Roman Starovoit, head of the Kursk Oblast.

On 3 April, a Ukrainian drone dropped two explosive devices on the territory of the Sevsky District of the Bryansk Oblast: during the first attack, the building of the district military commissariat was damaged, and during the second attack, an Interior Ministry directorate was hit.

On 2 April, the village of Nikolayevo-Daryino in the Kursk Oblast came under mortar fire; seven local residents were wounded, including three children and a teenage girl. On the same day, the governor of the Belgorod Oblast, Vyacheslav Gladkov, reported the shelling of the Novopetrovka village.

On 1 April, an explosive device was dropped from a drone on the roof of a house of culture in the village of Dronovka in the Kursk Oblast; no one was injured. Over 20 incoming attacks were also recorded in the town of Iskra, according to Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoit.

We have cited these few reports to provide a glimpse into the atmosphere of this part of Russia.

People, of course, are tense. An increase in anxiety was noted by 55%. This is only 5% more than in the rest of Russia, which is not being shelled.

The population from the main border area is either displaced – or people have left on their own.

28% of the population reported that their close relatives, neighbors, or acquaintances had left because of the war. 25% were also ready to move to a safe zone.

The more war-related events occur in the respondents' localities, the greater their willingness to leave, which is natural. Where war-related events have not become an immediate reality, only 17% of such people exist. And in places where people have witnessed shelling, wounds, or deaths, more than twice as many – 34-39% – are ready to leave. However, along with confusion and panic, we have seen severe consolidation, not around the flag but under the shelling

Volunteering: voluntary, socially desirable, and forced

Our data, propaganda broadcasts, and eyewitness accounts show that the population in the region is massively involved in various types of volunteering.

Half of the population expresses a desire to participate in such activities.

Only a quarter of the respondents have not participated in anything, and the most active group is the 40-60-year-olds.

We see mass involvement – 67% – in helping the military.

For 24% of respondents, someone in the family has participated or is participating in military actions in Ukraine. This contributes to the willingness to help – 83% of such people have experienced various types of assistance in the army. Among those whose relatives have not participated in military actions, such volunteers comprise 61%.

In the region, one encounters slogans like this: "Help the refugees and help the army – otherwise you will become a refugee yourself."

23% of respondents help residents of the "new regions'' (LPR, DPR, Kherson Oblast, and Zaporizhzhia). Respondents also mentioned going to these territories to help people in the interviews.

29% help refugees from Ukraine.

The population of the three oblasts is approximately 3.8 million. The 67% who help the army would be about two million people involved in such activities. About 200,000 people were involved in the building of the defense lines.

The intensity of voluntary assistance and volunteering is the highest in the Belgorod Oblast since more military units are located there. 37% of Belgorod residents participated in helping Ukrainian refugees (in the other two oblasts, 25% each). The Belgorod Oblast is a transit zone for residents of the DPR, LPR, and Ukraine, who have been forced to leave their homes: according to official data, 33,000 Ukrainian refugees passed through the region in 2022.

Illustration 3. Volunteering
Illustration 3. Volunteering

Half of the population desires to participate in this kind of activity.

The scope of coverage looks impressive: from 40% in the Kursk Oblast to 60% in the Belgorod Oblast.

These high figures of participation in assistance include not only spontaneous and organized volunteering but also occasional assistance to various social groups, as well as mass donations of funds, clothes, and food at the place of work or study. In this case, participation is only sometimes voluntary.

The willingness to help (or unwillingness to refuse to help) is actively encouraged by regional authorities. There are constantly real or demonstrative events of assistance to shelling survivors, citizens being resettled, and housing being rebuilt. All the media cover/promote such events daily.

Governor as a tool of defense and propaganda warfare

Maintaining the spirit of unity, demonstrating federal support, and engaging governors yield high results in loyalty to the authorities, primarily in the Belgorod Oblast.

The level of satisfaction with the governor's performance is highest there.

Illustration 4. Governors x Federal Authority
Illustration 4. Governors x Federal Authority

The governor's role in shaping loyalty to the federal government, patriotic sentiment, and tolerance for war has become a tool in consolidating the population and quenching discontent and protests.

Here is a quote from a recent meeting between the governor of the Belgorod Oblast and students of the Belgorod State University on "Devotion as a way of life”:

Society is changing, becoming more responsive, focusing on those close to us, not on itself. Our university's volunteer association alone numbers over 5,300 volunteers in various governmental areas. Also, the university's Academic Council has given students an additional 10 points for having the governmental badge of honor, ‘Belgorod Oblast Volunteer’.

We see that among young people aged 18-29, only 16% would have started the war (against 51% in the whole sample), 48% against 24% in the whole sample, would support stopping the war, 60% against 36% are sympathetic to draft/mobilization evaders, and more than twice as little support the shelling of Ukrainian infrastructure.

At the same time, 91% of young Belgorodians are satisfied with the governor's performance!

The same government is responsible for the mobilization, for digging trenches, where young people are actively recruited.

Appealing to heroism and devotion, assistance not only to the army but also to the residents of the "new regions" and Ukrainian refugees, and the active participation of the authorities in these activities shifts the moral assessment of the war's administrators.

It is no coincidence that the core of the new law on volunteering, which was adopted in 2018, was not only taking control of the volunteer movement in Russia but also equating the concepts of "volunteering" and "volunteerism."

Which consequences of the war and living on frontiers affect attitudes toward the war?

We have included in the questionnaire three groups of questions about personal life facts or events happening around the respondents.

The first group is the personal consequences of the war. These are the same consequences that we regularly ask all Russian residents about.

The second group is the personal events that occur in near-border areas. That is what distinguishes life in the borderlands.

The third one is the war-related events in the borderlands. That is what significantly distinguishes life on the frontiers.

We must understand what events may still lead to decreased support for the special military operation.

Respondents who have experienced curfew, inspections, restrictions on movement within the region, who have incurred additional expenses in connection with the war, and who have encountered difficulties in buying medicines, goods, and food are generally 1.5 times more determined to see the withdrawal of troops and peace negotiations.

This correlation is consistent with the picture throughout Russia.

Illustration 5. Personal Consequences x Support for SMO
Illustration 5. Personal Consequences x Support for SMO
Illustration 5. Personal Consequences x Support for SMO

Discomfort and difficulties in one's personal life significantly affect both the unwillingness to have started the war and the willingness to end it.

Are war-related events likely to have even more of an impact? No. Surprisingly, significant and frightening events of the war hardly shifted the responses of borderland residents to whether or not they would have started the war.

Moreover, about 60% of those who have witnessed the mentioned military threats are not ready to support Putin's potential decision to withdraw troops and start peace negotiations, compared to only 44% of those who have not experienced these harrowing events.

The willingness to voluntarily participate in mobilization in the regions is 22%, influenced by war-related events. For Russia, in February 2023, only 15% of men were willing to volunteer for military action.

Half of the men who had witnessed war losses tried to enlist as voluntary combatants – against 30% of those with no military experience.

At the same time, this experience does not affect readiness to mobilize under orders (36% of men). The figures are comparable to Russia's (where we even see 40%). If we are to speak about unwillingness to go to war, then, as everywhere else, the youngest – "draft" – group of respondents is the least willing to make such sacrifices: for 18-29-year-olds, the percentage of those unwilling to go to war is 29%, while at the average age of 30-55, it is 15%.

Illustration 6.  The impact of war-related events on willingness to leave or willingness to go to war
Illustration 6. The impact of war-related events on willingness to leave or willingness to go to war

Residents of the region have a slightly less loyal attitude to draft/mobilization evaders than Russia as a whole: 41% against 47% across the country take a sympathetic attitude – but in any case, this is higher than the share of those disapproving: 37% in the borderlands, 32% across Russia.

For a respondent's fighting spirit, it is crucial to believe that Russia is achieving its goals in the war.

Almost half of the respondents who believe Russia has not achieved any goals do not want to participate in the special military operation. Among those who think that Russia has acquired all or almost all of its objectives, there are only 5-14% of such "pacifists." Among those who assess Russia's achievements in the war at "B," we see a maximum readiness to fight – 77%.

In general, the mobilization in the region is being taken more seriously than nationwide.

The war is nearby, and civilians can witness directly the soldiers going to Ukrainian territory and those returning to hospitals: 3% of the borderland residents indicated that they helped in the hospitals.

24% of the respondents have relatives across the Ukrainian border, with whom the borderland residents keep in touch. 20% of the respondents discontinued such relations.

Having relatives does not significantly affect militant sentiment. A more powerful indicator proved to be the change in relationships with relatives in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.

The share of answers "would have started the war" (63% vs. 51% among all) and "do not want to stop the war" (82% vs. 50% across Russia) is higher if the relations have worsened. Here we see the "personal" effect: if a "personal," personally related, Ukrainian person tells you over the phone that your country is the aggressor, then it is significantly easier to justify the war.

What will happen when war comes to Russian territory?

In this case, the spirit of Russia-wide propaganda and the local tangible context leaves no doubt that such a scenario works as a motivator for the mobilization – and at the same time as preparation for such an outcome.

We have registered an increase in anxiety. The more shooting (Belgorod), the higher the anxiety.

Some respondents refuse or find it challenging to answer sensitive questions, and judging by their mood, they are not ready to support the war, they want to leave the area, and they certainly do not agree to participate in hostilities. There are about 20-25% of them. An equal number of respondents openly say that they would not have started the war a year ago and would end it now without achieving its goals. But protest activity in these regions is under strict control, even more so than in Russia in general, "due to the region's unique position." Even protest actions in the form of solitary pickets are equated in the media to crimes against the foundations of the constitutional order and state security.

The other half has consolidated in the face of danger and is ready to fight back the enemy. Figures of support for the special military operation in the border areas – in responses to a direct question throughout the war – have always been 5-6% higher than throughout Russia.

The war is very close, and it is already here. And if it is frightening, the majority is not scared of it yet.

72% of respondents in the region and 77% in the Belgorod Oblast are sure that if Russian troops are withdrawn from Ukrainian territory, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue fighting on Russian territory.

For Russia as a whole, only 56% think so.

Such fears influence one's approval of the decision to start the war and unwillingness to support Putin's potential decision to stop it: "We must fight to the end." The readiness to be mobilized is also most likely related to the fear of bringing the war to the stage of external invasion into Russia and getting payback for the aggression against Ukraine – and everyone understands or guesses its true nature, even if they call it "protecting Russians' interests in Ukraine'' or "freeing Kyiv from the Nazi government".

A quote from a respondent in a nationwide poll: "We have done so much evil to Ukraine that the Ukrainian army will inevitably come to our land, and then I will have to defend my home".

Illustration 7. Revanchism
Illustration 7. Revanchism

An "unexpected" discovery

For us, the situation in the border regions has become a natural laboratory for the processes that will take place in the public consciousness of the country when the war rolls eastward.

Our search for factors affecting attitudes toward the war has led us to unexpected findings.

We hypothesize that as the war and actual hostilities approach Russian territory, we will observe further polarization: consolidation in the face of danger and an increase in open, convinced support for the war among one segment of the population, and an increase in (tacit) non-support among the other. There is no answer to how loud the voice of resistance to the war will be.

We have been looking for factors leading to decreased support, but it has been around for a while. It is the personal costs.

We have also found a paradoxical factor influencing the growth of support for the war – its proximity.

So far, the war has manifested itself in the border regions sufficiently materialistically to consolidate people but not destructively enough to frighten and cause mass rejection and active protest.

That phase will begin later.

This post-release was published on the website of The Moscow Time.


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