RussiaPost article, November 28, 2023
Vladimir Zvonovsky Professor at Samara State University of Economics
Based on data from a new survey, sociologist Vladimir Zvonovsky writes about how Russians’ understanding of their country’s borders has changed and what influences their views on whether a particular territory belongs to Russia.
Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space is chiefly focused on bringing territories that were once part of the USSR or under the control of the Soviet state back into the orbit of Russian influence. The “special military operation” (SVO), preceeded by the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 and the incorporation of Crimea into Russia in 2014, embodies this policy, and the state media has worked to raise the level of support for it across Russian society.
On the other hand, as the country expands, Russians themselves are often not entirely sure which of the territories formally included in Russia are under the full control of Moscow. Even in the Soviet lexicon there was the expression “there is no Soviet power there,” meaning that in an area local laws (“the law of the mountains,” “the law of the taiga”) were in effect and the power of the central authorities was weaker.
Over the last decade, not only Crimea, but also Dagestan and Chechnya have become ‘Russian’
In September 2023, as part of a national survey commissioned by the research group ExtremeScan, Russians were asked the following question: “do you think the following territories are basically Russian [rossiyskiye] and belong to Russia, or are they basically not Russia?” Respondents expressed their attitude toward various territories that were once part of the USSR but are now either inside or outside Russia, or whose status is disputed. Almost all Russians see Sakha (Yakutia), Kaliningrad Region and Crimea (89-90%) as part of Russia. To a slightly lesser extent, they feel the same about the Kuril Islands, Donetsk and Luhansk regions (these regions, together with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, were included into Russia in September 2022; in reality, Russia only partially controls them), Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan (72-82%).
Less than two thirds of Russian citizens believe that Russia includes Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions (64%), and South Ossetia (59%). Meanwhile, less than half of Russians consider Transnistria (41%) and Abkhazia (40%) – territories with “frozen conflicts” – Russian.
“Ukraine as a whole is seen as part of Russia by just over a quarter of respondents, at 27%.”
* The 2013 data was obtained through a VTsIOM survey and represents the population of Russia within the borders of the country at that time. Sample size: 2,000 respondents. Back then, they were asked the same question: “do you think the following territories are basically Russian [rossiyskiye] and belong to Russia or basically are not Russia?”
As we can see, a significant majority of Russian citizens consider most of the territories mentioned to be “basically Russian [rossiyskiye].”
Seeing a particular territory as part of Russia reflects both the country’s map as taught in schools and changes in borders as a result of post-Soviet political processes, learned mainly from the mass media.
Added to this are the realities of recent times: the territories where the Russian army is fighting are perceived as Russia. For example, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, where fighting is taking place right now, and South Ossetia, which was occupied in 2008 but not incorporated into Russia, are considered Russia to approximately the same extent, while Abkhazia and Transnistria, where Russian proxies fought in the 1990s, are regarded as Russia much less often.
It may seem that these results are quite intuitive: current Russian legislation, the state media and the education system clearly regard most of the territories asked about in the survey as under Moscow’s jurisdiction. However, just a decade ago the picture was different: Sakha (Yakutia) was seen as Russia by only 71% of Russian citizens (now 90%) and Chechnya 39% (now 77%).
Today, almost all the territories from the survey are perceived as Russia significantly more than in 2013 – in all likelihood, this is due to the mass media and actual military operations, which have made relevant the question of to whom these territories belong.
Perception of Caucasus regions as Russia – Chechnya (+38 pp), Dagestan (+31 pp) and South Ossetia (+30 pp) – has increased a lot since 2013. Another jump was seen in relation to Crimea (+33 pp), which back in 2013 was both de facto and de jure still part of Ukraine. Note that the pacification of Chechnya after the Second Chechen War (1999-2005) and the invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 did not by themselves create a feeling among Russians that these provinces had become “their own.” In fact, it was the full-scale intervention in Ukraine in 2022 that shifted their views.
And though the media coverage of the SVO did not concern the status of Dagestan, Chechnya or South Ossetia, nevertheless the state of war has forced Russians to more clearly draw the boundaries of their country.
For example, in the 2010s, Russians did not even consider the so-called “national republics” of Tatarstan and Sikh (Yakutia) to be entirely Russian, whereas today even Chechnya, which in the 1990s fought a secessionist war against Moscow, is perceived as “basically Russia.”
“Russians now see all territories inside the country and on its periphery as ‘Russian’ to a greater extent than a decade ago.”
It may be the case that over the past decade the value attached to the question of to whom these territories belong has increased for Russians.
It is the media – to a greater extent than people’s understanding of geography and the Russian Constitution – that determines whether Russians regard or do not regard certain regions as part of their country. This is evidenced by the fact that more Russians regard Donetsk and Luhansk regions as Russia than those who do Tatarstan, even though Tatarstan has been part of the Russian Federation since the country was proclaimed. Television constantly repeats that the territories of the Donbas belong to Russia, but in relation to Tatarstan it does not feel the need to emphasize it.
Russians do not need Ukraine
The only territory asked about in the survey that the majority of Russians continue to consider not Russian is Ukraine as a whole. The country, which could not be incorporated into Russia by force, is much less perceived by Russians as “their own,” even though the country’s highest-ranking officials insist that “we are one people” and that “Lenin invented Ukraine.”
That Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Ukraine as a whole are Russia is most often stated by people without higher education, while those who graduated from a university take this view much less often. It may be the case that the latter are more often guided by knowledge of their country’s political geography, hence they are also more likely than their less educated compatriots to consider Tatarstan, the Kuril Islands, Kaliningrad, Dagestan and Sakha (Yakutia) to be part of Russia. When there is little talk about a particular part of the Russian Federation in the media and thus it does not stand out, less educated Russians more often rely on their political position than acquired knowledge.
In relation to Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk regions, the views of Russians, influenced by propaganda in the media, about to whom these lands belong do not depend on education. Thus,
“A higher level of education corresponds to a more correct understanding of which lands are part of Russia and which are not, but only as long as the question remains in the realm of political geography and not politics.”
Expansion has not become the national idea
Despite the expansionist rhetoric of state propaganda, it has partly failed to convince the majority of Russians of the need for further territorial expansion. Even with the considerable support for the special operation (55% of Russians supported it in September), just over a third of people (35%) believe that “Russia should strive to increase its territory by incorporating new regions;” 44% do not see the need; another 13% found it difficult to give a definite answer; and 7% declined to answer. In other words, the majority of Russians will readily agree with the authorities if they decide to incorporate new territories, but they themselves are not firm supporters of territorial expansion.
There is no difference in the data on territorial expansion between men and women, but there is depending on age. Among twenty-year-olds, approximately one in four (26%) approves of it, while 55% disapprove; among forty- and fifty-year-olds, the balance is 39% versus 36%.
In our study, we used what we call the “expansion support index” – the ratio of the share of those who support the idea of territorial expansion to the share of those who do not. The lower the index, the greater the share of the latter; meanwhile, an index value greater than one indicates a predominance of those supporting territorial expansion.
For Russia as a whole, the index is 0.79; in other words, for every four supporters of expansion there are approximately five opponents. The index value rises with age, peaking in the average age group of 40-50.
“Young people are the least supportive of territorial expansion, which, together with the fact that they show the lowest level of support for the intervention in Ukraine, makes them the most anti-war group in Russian society.”
Among the oldest respondents, high support for the intervention in Ukraine is coupled with not very high support for territorial expansion.
Residents of the regions along the Russia-Ukraine border, from Bryansk Region to Crimea, mostly support the idea of territorial expansion, with an index value of 1.38. It is possible, however, that this rather reflects not actual expansionist ambitions, but a desire to move away from the front line and regain security and tranquility.
Muscovites are quite skeptical about territorial expansion, with an index value of 0.57. It may be the case that these more prosperous Russians do not see the point and do not want to take on the large costs that expansion would entail. This is partly backed up by the fact that there is weaker support in the capital for the intervention in Ukraine.
Expansion support as a factor of social capital
The expansion support index value for Russians with higher education (0.53) is half that for people without higher education (1.08). In addition, the index decreases as income increases.
“More educated and prosperous people are less interested in territorial expansion than Russians with lower levels of education and income.”
Perhaps this is because the former are more aware of the possible costs and are less willing to pay for geopolitical projects.
The desire to redraw borders is directly related to the perception of certain territories as Russia or not. The expansion support index is lowest among people who called “Russian” only the regions that are part of Russia according to the 1993 Constitution.
Among people who called “basically Russian” the territories that Russia has claimed since 2014 (Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions), the index value is higher, while among people who called “Russian” territories that are now formally not part of Russia, such as South Ossetia and Transnistria, the index peaks (1.14-2.02). In other words, this index differentiates groups according to their attitude not only toward the idea of a large state, but also toward the incorporation into Russia of certain territories.
Expansion and the SVO
Naturally, among supporters of the SVO the index value is higher than among SVO opponents (1.37 versus 0.29) and people who one way or another avoided giving an answer (1.37 versus 0.38-0.47).
It would seem that supporters of territorial expansion are counting on just that from the special operation. Russians who support the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine generally do not support the idea of territorial expansion (0.60). Among those who oppose the withdrawal of troops, the index is significantly higher than one, at 1.40.
Thus, the index well reflects the attitude of public opinion toward actual expansion. Supporters of the SVO support the intervention as a manifestation of expansionism, while supporters of territorial expansion do not support the withdrawal of troops from already-occupied territories. In addition, the index peaks for the group of people who consider territories that do not legally belong to Russia, even according to Russian legislation, to be Russia.
“Russians are split almost down the middle between those who believe that defense spending will boost the country’s economy and those who think that it only hurts it (37% and 35%, respectively).”
Note that those who believe that higher defense expenditures are beneficial also generally support territorial expansion (index value 1.14).
Meanwhile, among those who see militarization of the Russian economy as harmful, the index value is a low 0.45. It may be the case that the ideas of territorial expansion, defense spending and economic development are closely linked in the mass consciousness. Those who see benefits from expansion also see defense spending as beneficial.
Attitudes toward the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine and how it could affect the lives of Russians in general also correlate with the index. People who believe that the withdrawal of troops would only make things worse are largely confident in the benefits of territorial expansion, with an index value of 1.16; meanwhile, among those who believe that it would make things better or would not change things, the index is significantly lower, at 0.51 and 0.62, respectively.
Thus, in the minds of many Russians, the value of territorial expansion as a way of increasing prosperity remains. In their worldview, the larger the country – the more resources, subjects and influence – the more benefits.