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Phases of Perception of the War in Ukraine by Russian Population

Elena Koneva's presentation at the King's College Symposium, London, April 2024

 

I would like to begin by telling my story from the first days of the full-scale war. In the beginning, there was a word – actually, two words: immediate survey. In ExtremeScan, we launched the fieldwork on 28 February, and my partner project, the Chronicles, did so on 1 March 2022.


How did the law of 5 March 2022 on fake news about the army lead to the compelling question about support for the war?


Slide 2. Source: ‘Chronicles’, ExtremeScan.  Waves 1-6, February-July 2022
Slide 2. Source: ‘Chronicles’, ExtremeScan.  Waves 1-6, February-July 2022

On 5 March, the Russian government passed a law that imposed criminal liability for fake news about the actions of Russian military personnel in the special operation, with a penalty of up to 12 years in prison.

Before launching the second wave of the survey, we decided to change the question's wording. Half of the sample was asked the question in its original wording. The other half was asked a new question: "Do you support or not support the Russian military operation on the territory of Ukraine, or do you find it difficult to answer, or do you not want to answer this question?" 

We allowed some respondents to hide behind the refusal to answer or to use the option “difficult to answer.” As a result, 12% of the respondents refused to answer the question. 

Due to that, the share of those who said they were "not supporting" the military operation decreased, but the share of (so to say) "supporting" respondents also partially shifted to refusals. Since the "supporting" respondents had no reason to fear expressing their stance, it can be assumed that these 7% of respondents were merely expressing an "approved" opinion, not sharing it sincerely. And that was our goal: to clean the "support for the war" from insincere responses as much as possible.

But we realise and accept that this was achieved at the expense of sacrificing the visibility of the war opponents.


Unwillingness to say "I support" means confronting the regime


Slide 3. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan and Levada Centre, 2022-2023
Slide 3. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan and Levada Centre, 2022-2023

This method distinguishes our survey results from those of other pollsters, yet it shows similar trends. Aggregating Levada Centre's "somewhat support," "somewhat do not support," and "undecided" figures reveal comparable ratios. We were polling the same people but framing questions and responses differently.

The question of support for the "military operation" in the particular repressive-propaganda context of today's Russia also has a specific resonance for the respondent. The answer "Yes, I support" is strictly normative, while the answer "No, I do not support" is openly confrontational – towards the regime. By answering this question, the respondents were deciding whether they were ready to identify themselves as being in confrontation with the government and in opposition to the "imaginary majority" of Russians supporting the war. 10-15% of respondents recognize it and answer: “No, I do not support the war.”


Agreeing, disagreeing, evading. A society with three majorities


Slide 4. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, March 2024
Slide 4. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, March 2024

Until the last survey, which we conducted from 7 to 12 March 2024, the majority (more than 50%) of respondents in our polls expressed support for the war. 

However, we can use control questions that uncover attitudes towards pro-war political decisions and beliefs to discover a "core of support" and to cluster different groups of respondents according to their stance on the war. 

We use a two-level analysis technique to cross-reference the main question with other relevant questions to enable segmentation.

This technique revealed three majorities:

The first one is the "declarative majority" supporting the war (53%).

The second one is the "non-resistance majority" (54%), and it includes 

  • those who avoid answering direct question about supporting the war; 

  • those who declare support but do not endorse pro-war decisions and beliefs: they are willing to support troop withdrawal and not willing to spend the state budget on military needs. 

We can also identify a third majority, comprising those who do not express support for the war. According to our calculations, this majority is 69%. This is the most significant majority of attitudes towards war.

However, today's silent stance of the "non-resistance majority" allows the pro-war minority (31%) to confidently dominate the public domain and create the illusion that they are the majority.

I would like to reiterate. In today's Russia, support for the war is a strictly normative position, almost a requirement, not complying with which can make a person subject to social pressure and even persecution. Therefore, when people avoid expressing it in a survey, it mostly appears as a meaningful gesture, and indeed, refusing to answer is significant in this case. If in a non-sensitive question, the "Difficult to answer" option often means unwillingness to bother with "choosing," here it means unwillingness to confirm loyalty to the official normative position.

In this sense, it is significant that 40% of respondents in early 2023 and more than 50% in March 2024 did not express loyalty to the normative position of approving the war (the "evaders" plus open opponents of the war).


Dynamics of the war support. Growth of the party not supporting the war


Slide 5. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, March 2022-March 2024
Slide 5. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, March 2022-March 2024

The share of people who supported the war in February 2023 was at the same as it was at the start of the war – 59%. However, interpreting this as 'stability' would be misguided; between these two identical figures lies a year of dramatic changes in public sentiment, which we can break down into several phases.

Phase One began with the shock caused by the announcement of the "special military operation", which led to panicking and rapidly stockpiling essential goods. During this shock period, people formed their initial attitudes towards the conflict. This happened against the backdrop of the Russian military's advance, fostering a belief in a quick victory and dividing the public opinion between supporters, opponents, and the undecided.

In Phase Two, even though Russian forces started to retreat, pro-war enthusiasm was supported by propaganda, and the impact of sanctions turned out to be less severe than expected. All that pushed war support to 66-64%. At this phase, we saw the beginning of opposition and the first significant wave of departures from Russia.

Phase Three, or recession, set in by late June as the expected short duration of the operation expired and military setbacks became apparent. The economy showed signs of adapting to sanctions and disrupted supply chains, but consumer demand froze, and support for the war fell to 55%.

In Phase Four, the mobilisation significantly increased public anxiety and fear, triggering a second wave of emigration, with people trying to avoid being drafted. Despite some initial worries, mobilisation was less extensive than expected and conducted mainly on the periphery. By December 2022, people somehow adapted, despite a general decline in morale, which signified a shift towards a new normal – which was still uneasy. This phase also impacted polling methodologies due to potential conscripts' reluctance to engage with unfamiliar contacts.


Immersion in war and marginalisation of war


Slide 6. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, May 2022-February 2023
Slide 6. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, May 2022-February 2023

We have named the fifth phase immersion in war.

The new normal had two distinct features:

  • people started perceiving the mobilisation as something unavoidable, meeting it with a sense of doom;

  • economics adapted to the new reality, which led many people to feel that, individually, they were in a somewhat stable place.

However, the most striking characteristic of the changes that took place from October 2022 to February 2023 is not even the growth of revanchist sentiments, which helped the Kremlin maintain the "high degree of war support" – but the fact that public expectations adapted to a "long war."

Already in October 2022, compared to July 2022, confidence that the war would end quickly decreased sharply, and the share of those who found it difficult to define the war's potential timeframe increased. In February 2023 (compared to October 2022), the proportion of those who believed the war would last a year or more jumped from 34% to 50%. This was the most significant change compared to the previous measurement in the entire spectrum of assessments.

Phase Six was the marginalisation of the war. The primary trend of 2023 was the war becoming routine and marginalised (as if psychologically repressed to the periphery of life). 

There were two essential parts to this phenomenon:

  • the share of real war supporters reduced;

  • the pro-war position in society became much less heard.

We saw societal demobilisation from spring to autumn 2023.

As the accumulated data from various studies show, by the summer of 2023, the war had started to be marginalised. It turned into a prolonged calamity from which there was no escape and no chance for anyone to exert influence.

This marginalisation occurred for two reasons: people felt afraid and helpless, and the war was happening at a distance. At the same time, life had stabilised, allowing people to not think or talk about the war all the time.

In 2023, alternative import flows were established, and Russia’s economy stabilised and significantly shifted to a war footing. Weaponry production increased, and after Prigozhin’s mutiny, there was no more disorganising dual power in the army.

The autumn conscription was carried out more carefully and discreetly. Apart from maintaining a degree of patriotism and radical formats, like talk shows on state channels, the war propaganda was reduced in the media space. Public consciousness responded to this with relief.

The next phase began with the electoral campaign at the end of 2023.


​​Desire to end the war: the prevailing mood among Russians


Slide 7. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, February 2023-February 2024
Slide 7. Source: 'Chronicles', ExtremeScan, February 2023-February 2024

According to data from all research organisations, the desire to end the war has become the prevailing mood among Russians. However, it's crucial to frame the question realistically. Understanding the commitment to peace, not just the desire for victory, is essential. War-time research requires careful and neutral question wording to ensure response authenticity. Directly asking about Russia's defeat in the war in a way that meets such conditions is challenging. Yet, we regularly ask a practical question: Would you support or not support Putin's decision to withdraw troops and shift to peace negotiations without achieving the goals? This phrasing, used in the Chronicles and ExtremeScan surveys, is most relevant to the willingness to end the war. We inquire about defeat in a soft manner that is acceptable for respondents and consists of four elements: 

  1. The troops could be withdrawn from Ukraine soon; 

  2. Shifting to peace negotiations;

  3. Goals are not achieved;

  4. However, it would be Putin's decision, not a total military defeat (which was more acceptable for respondents psychologically).

Withdrawing Russian troops from Ukrainian territory (despite unachieved goals) is the clearest sign of defeat, closely associated with fears that Ukrainian forces might enter Russia. In 2023, 56% of Russians nationwide and 69% in border areas believed that Ukrainians would invade. However, when asked, "How would troop withdrawal affect your or your family's life?" two-thirds mentioned positive outcomes, and only one-third mentioned adverse outcomes. "Return from war, return of those who left, end of bloodshed, psychological relief, open borders, economic improvements'' versus "Worsening economic situation and continued threat to Russia."

Most respondents – 54% – believed that withdrawing troops from Ukraine would not negatively affect their families' lives, but only 34% thought that it would not harm all Russians’ lives. Simply put, this is primarily the state’s war, not the people’s. There is a vast gap between the propaganda narratives and how people feel about their place in this war.

Throughout 2023, we had a steady 40% share of those who indicated a willingness to support pulling out the troops. 

Based on recent research conducted by the Chronicles project, the ExtremeScan agency, and a qualitative study conducted jointly with the Public Sociology Laboratory, we can say that when the Russian population approached the beginning of the election campaign, there was a consensus that the war should be stopped. People were ready to hear the anti-war rhetoric from an "ideal candidate", even though hardly anyone had faith in the emergence of such a candidate.

So when a little-known politician, Boris Nadezhdin, appeared on the political scene – and only 38% knew him or had heard something about him – he had some excellent grounding.

Nadezhdin was swept up by a wave of striving for peace, and his public campaign, in turn, acted as a catalyst for pacifist aspirations.

For the first time in a year of measurements since February 2023, the positive response to the question about willingness to support Putin's decision to withdraw troops from Ukraine rose from 40% to 49%.

Such a burst of this indicator occurred within 2-3 weeks of the campaign's peak to collect signatures for Nadezhdin and the struggle for their recognition. It was as if the censorship weakened and the political domain unfroze for a brief moment, and it was possible to want peace and talk about peace.


The Impact of Elections on Attitudes Towards the War


Slide 8. Source: Electoral monitoring', ExtremeScan, Waves 1-6, 25 January 2024 - 12 March 2024
Slide 8. Source: Electoral monitoring', ExtremeScan, Waves 1-6, 25 January 2024 - 12 March 2024

The anti-war rhetoric led to the activation of opposition-minded voters. Thoughts of peace, legitimately expressed during the three-week signature collection campaign, triggered the reduction in the declared support for the Special Military Operation. This figure had shown inertial stability for a long time. Initially, it dropped by 4% during one week of Nadezhdin’s active campaigning, from 56% to 52%. In the last week of measurement, it fell to a record low for the two years of the war — 46%.

During Nadezhdin’s campaign, the share of open non-support for the war increased by 1.5 times, reaching 15%. This most significant result demonstrates the impact of Nadezhdin's anti-war campaign narrative.


The seventh phase of the war: Electoral thaw of protest. 

What comes next?

As I mentioned earlier, for the first time in a measurement year since February 2023, the positive response to the question about willingness to support Putin's decision to withdraw troops from Ukraine rose from 40% to 49%.

Afterwards, it returned nearly to the level before the election. Meanwhile, in the latest round of electoral surveys, the percentage of those unwilling to withdraw troops fell to 30%. The elections have had a visible impact on public sentiment: anti-war feelings have become more visible within the country, and more Russian residents have expressed their willingness to support withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine.

People's view of the war has shifted into a new realm: the range of support for the war has now become permanently lower, whereas support for ending the conflict consistently remains higher than before the elections.

We do not anticipate a new long-term increase in support because there is no sustainable basis for increasing support for the so-called special military operation.

Foreign and domestic terror, propaganda of hostility towards the West and Ukraine, highly repressive laws, and further mobilisation could increase fear, prolong periods of silent protest, and force some people to demonstrate their loyalty. However, we at ExtremeScan believe that the change in the true sentiment in Russian society is irreversible.


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