Russian public opinion about Putin’s war in Ukraine continues to be one of the central issues preoccupying Western decision-makers, fueling heated discussions in the European media, and even triggering punitive policy campaigns— the latest of which is a misguided proposal to ban Schengen visas for all Russians.
In polling conducted in a repressive authoritarian state, answers “yes” or “no” to the question of “Do you support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s war or not?” are not helpful in improving our understanding of the nuances in people’s attitudes. These polls present respondents with a head-on yes-or-no loyalty test and trigger fear of prosecution. We explained it in our April analysis.
Asking indirect questions, however, is not only helpful to understanding the nuances in Russian attitudes toward Putin’s government and how they have changed over the past few months, but they are also uncovering monumental shifts that are taking place within Russian society. One such a shift is the collapsing trust in state media channels that we have observed over the past six months.
Between March-April 2022, the trust in television as a source of information fell thirty percent, leveling off with social media channels, which were on the rise. Updated data shows that this trend continues. A poll published by private Romir group in August captures a significant drop in audience of the main state television channels. Channel One audience share fell from 33,7% in February to 25,5% in July; the share of “Russia 1” TV channel— from 30,9% to 23%; and the NTV channel— from 21,1% to 16,6%.
At the same time, social media is supplanting state TV channels in popularity. According to the same Romir poll, between February- June, 2022, the audience share of Telegram channels in Russia has grown from 19,1% to 26,8%. This means more Russians now are relying on information from Telegram than from any of the state TV channels. This is an extraordinary societal shift with profound ramifications. State TV, which, since the beginning of the war, has significantly curtailed its entertainment content in favor of more aggressive political coverage is losing audience among all generation groups— but at the fastest pace among Russian youth.
Similar trend is detected by the July Levada Center poll on media consumption. Levada shows that only 31% of Russians say that they “completely trust” the state media. The fact that the data is confirmed by various pollsters not connected to each other can help assuage concerns regarding the reliability of opinion polling conducted in a totalitarian state.
The scale and timing of such a sharp drop of trust in the state-run media— coinciding with Putin’s war against Ukraine offers a new insight into our understanding of the attitude of Russians toward the war.
Numbers released by the Levada Center a few days ago purport that the solid unconditional support for the war (“definitely support”) stands at 46%. Combined with the 30% of respondents who “mostly support” the war, that could be interpreted as a whopping 76% -level of support and
justifies a scandalous headline “all Russians back Putin in his aggression against Ukraine”.
However, the two responses are not mere degrees of the same attitude but are qualitatively different responses. One should absolutely not add them up, as any conditionality in “support” for the war in the current totalitarian conditions is a meaningful deviation. When people refuse to fully back Putin’s aggression within the context of unprecedented brainwashing and
intimidation, it means that Putin’s propaganda and repression machine are becoming less compelling. It also offers us hope that those showing even a glimmer of doubt about Putin’s propaganda, are receptive to a continued discussion, open to learning the truth, and maybe even ready to change their mind.
Indeed, the same Levada poll shows that solid support for the war has dropped from 52% in March to 46% in August. That’s still high, but the trend offers optimism. It should be noted that the actual “full support” of the war is likely much lower than 46% —probably below 40% —due
to the silence of those who are largely against the war, but refuse to tell it to pollsters, because they are afraid of consequences. As we estimated in April, the share of such people is probably within 10-15% range— opinion pollsters define this share by a number of methods, including measuring the difference between anonymous street polls and telephone polls where identity of respondent is known.
The bad news, of course, is that these figures have largely stabilized since April, and there has not been a follow-on significant drop in support. War fatigue and the apathy stemming from inability to have any influence over this situation could explain why this is the case. Those who dare to protest face grave consequences. The Levada poll also shows that the number of people who “closely follow” the events around Ukraine fell from 29% in March to 21% in August; with the total number of those who “closely or somehow follow” these events— from 64% to 51%.
There’s little that the ordinary people can do— so they prefer to disconnect from ongoing events to not fall into a deep despair. The fact that there’s little actual enthusiasm beyond the protective “yes” answer to the pollsters’ questions dispels the assertion that “the majority of Russians support Putin’s war”.
All this indirect data— the sharp drop of trust in state media, low interest in the war— suggest that there’s probably a third of Russians who may enthusiastically support Putin’s aggression, actively watch state TV, agree with what it has to say. But beyond that, there’s little indication that the rest of the country really backs Putin’s actions, beyond just the minimal level of loyalty feigned as a self-preservation measure. A third, but no more. That’s still very high, but these numbers do not back the arguments that “it’s the war of all Russians, not just Putin’s war”.
When the Levada pollsters ask people whether they are in favor of continued warfare in Ukraine, or would support peace negotiations, the picture is clearly not in Putin’s favor. Despite all the aggressive propaganda war bravado, the answers are evenly split. Only 48% of total respondents favor continuation of the war (which is consistent with 46% who say they “fully support” Putin’s war— which is in reality below 40%, given the above mentioned 10-15% of anti-war Russians who are afraid to tell the truth to the pollsters), with 44% favoring peace negotiations instead.
Over 50% of Russians under 40 favor peace negotiations and are against continuing the war. Even within the most aggressive and Putin-loyal group—Russians over the age of 55, only 55% favor the continuation of war, with 38% favoring peace negotiations— a strikingly high number for the most warmongering segment of the Russian population.
What we are seeing is that Russians do not really trust Putin’s state as general loyalty numbers purport. There’s no consensus within the Russian population with regard to the war in Ukraine.
War fatigue is taking its toll. Trends over the past six months are clearly not in Putin’s favor. Overtime, these trends are likely to accelerate, turning the Russian public opinion around, reaching the majority of Russians who will favor peace over the continuation of war. Even with unprecedented repressions and brainwashing, Putin is not a decisive winner, as far as Russian public opinion is concerned.
Yes, the number of people who earnestly back Putin’s actions is still alarmingly high and is a major problem, that would take decades to address. But it is false to claim that “majority of Russians supporting the war”. For that reason, efforts to change the Russian public opinion – and create another anti-Putin front in this complex war of a global scale— are a worthwhile undertaking that bears fruit. We need to double down on these efforts, instead of continuing to dwell on the unhelpful and defeatist narrative about the “universal backing” of Putin’s actions by the Russian society.