Many in the West have been easily convinced by assertions that an overwhelming majority of Russians support the war. Such claims are based on the interpretation of recent opinion polls, including the latest poll by the Levada Center which came up with shocking figure of 81% supporting the war. Many far-reaching conclusions and generalizations are articulated based on this data— that Russians are hopeless as a nation, that the problem is not just with Putin but with the whole Russian society espousing imperialistic, chauvinist worldviews, and so on.
I would like to warn against drawing such conclusions from the raw wartime polling data, as it may result in severely misguided policy choices for which the West will pay dearly.
Besides the obvious challenges related to conducting reliable polls within the context of a brutal totalitarian regime in time of war, examination of the survey’s methodology uncovers a lot of nuances.
Let’s look at the latest Levada poll stating that “81% of Russians support Putin’s war”. When asked whether they follow the events related to Putin’s “special operation”, only 29% of respondents said they follow them “quite closely”. This detail alone should give us a pause, as the poll primarily reflects Russians’ unawareness of what’s really going on in Ukraine.
For Westerners, it is difficult to imagine the kind of propaganda and disinformation bubble that characterizes the Russian information space. This misreading of the environment, naturally, feeds the shock and grief in response to the polling data churned up, a profound disbelief that Russians can possibly support such barbarity.
It begs to be reminded that in Russia, the television tells people every day that what’s going on is not a war but a ‘limited scale military operation’. Russians have grown desensitized to military operations over the past few years— with continuous reports on the operations in Donbas, Crimea, Syria, Georgia, Abkhazia, Ossetia. Practically an entire decade has passed under the shadow of some war going on in the background somewhere. As long as they are not affected directly, Russians just don’t pay much attention to foreign operations anymore.
This is what the Levada poll actually reflects. The 81% of popular support for Putin’s war should never be mentioned without the second figure— the meager 29% who follow the events in Ukraine closely.
Moreover, when one examines the range of support from “full” to “partial”, the picture becomes even more complicated. Solid support for the war (“definitely support the Russian military action in Ukraine”) stands at 53%. Given the conservative estimate that 10-15% are against the war but are afraid to answer questions honestly, the actual support for the war is below 50%. The rest of what’s bundled under support is a partial, or conditional support (“closer to supporting than opposing”)— light blue on the Levada graph below.
Among Russians under 40, this group is above 30%, and among Russians younger than 25 it stands at 42%. That’s a large portion of the Russian society, which is confused about what’s going on, is leaning toward supporting the government propaganda, but at the same time isn’t fully sure about this stance.
This is a profound point that begs reiterating—even after years of heavy bombardment with poisonous propaganda, more than a third of “supporters” aren’t really sure. This gives us a good reason to double down on the counter-propaganda efforts. If members of this group are purposefully targeted with truthful coverage of the events, there’s a decent likelihood that they may change their minds.
The disparities between age categories are significant.
Admittedly, the respondents in the age group of 55+ are the most entrenched supporters of Putin’s war, and at that, most informed supporters — 39% say that they follow the war “quite closely”, and 76% of others who follow less closely are added (as opposed to just 29% and 64% overall respectively). The support of the war among older Russians is not only the highest, but also quite deliberate — seniors watch TV and truly believe it. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, that, once we look beyond this demographic group, the support for Putin’s war is drastically different. Among Russians younger than 25, only 29% “definitely” support the war. Among Russians aged 25-39 —just 42%. Putin’s support here diminishes.
When asked about the reasons for supporting the “military operation”, Russians generally do not come up with narratives of bloodthirsty imperialism. Only 21% of those who support the war echo Putin’s “denazification” argument, and just 14% speak of the need to contain NATO enlargement and “demilitarize” Ukraine. These figures are the percentage of those who support the war, not the overall percentage of Russians—which will be even smaller, in the range of 10-15%. It means that a large number of people does not buy into Putin’s geopolitical propaganda constructs.
Higher frequency responses include “protection of Russian-speaking peoples” (43%) and “preventing an attack on Russia” (25%)”. It means that Putin’s propaganda has been successful in instilling the sense that Russia is besieged, and Russian-speaking peoples are under threat. Similar narrative surrounded the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. People were told that that if the USSR hadn’t invaded, the U.S. would, and would place missiles to target them. However, even in the 1980s, the support for that argument steadily dissipated as the Soviets realized that the reality of the Afghan war was very different from what TV told them.
The point is, even among supporters of the war, the prevailing rationale is defensive, not that of aggression.Russians do not share Putin’s worldview, nor his motivators of imperialism and conquest. They have been duped by the propaganda into thinking that Russia is “under attack”. These fallacies will become evident to them over time, and the support will fade.
Now, let’s turn to the domestic context for these poll results. Russia has just adopted a number of harsh laws threatening up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the actions of the Russian military. Every day, at their places of employment, people are subjected to government-mandated lectures and warned to not even dare to express opposition to Putin’s “military operation”. When they come home in the evening, and their stationary phone rings, and they are asked whether they support the war, it is fear that may be the main driver for their responses. Notably, pollsters report a skyrocketing number of refusals from respondents to talk and dropped calls.
How many of those dropped calls can be interpreted as anti-war voices? A group of independent Russian opinion polling experts led by Alexandr Romanovich from the Kvalitas Opinion Polling Center, has conducted an experiment comparing the results of polling by phone with anonymous street polling. Their conclusion is that the real proportion of respondents who are against war is substantially higher, often in the range of 10-15%, but they are afraid to speak when conversation is not anonymous. (The data can be found here.) Similar conclusions can be drawn from a list experiment that is presented here.
Given a significant proportion of anti-war minded people who refuse to answer questions as part of polls, it’s clear that the “solid” support for Putin’s war— without reservations and conditions— is much lower than 53% cited by the Levada poll discussed in the beginning of this piece. Or, to put it simply, it is well below 50%.
None of this is to categorically assert that there is no sizable aggressive portion of the Russian population that supports the war. There is. Many members of the Russian diaspora have been deeply disturbed in recent weeks by conversations with their Russian relatives and acquaintances, who have been aggressively channeling Putin’s propaganda verbatim as heard on TV. We don’t know how many exactly take the aggressive pro-Putin stance currently— according to the available data, it can be anything up to 30-40%. But not 50%, and quite certainly not 70% or 80%.
Why is it so dangerous to amplify the message that “70% or 80% of the Russians support the war”? There are two major problems which create serious long-term negative consequences. Firstly, believing in the non-existent “70-80% pro-war majority in Russia” is a prelude to giving up efforts to inform the Russian society and attempts to change the public opinion in Russia. If successful, such efforts would open a “third front” against Putin. In addition to the Ukrainian resistance and Western sanctions, Putin would face domestic political challenges, which will help weaken him and may contribute to his demise. On the contrary, if the domestic “third front” is not established, Putin will remain completely free to behave as he will in Ukraine and beyond. That is an opportunity that the democratic West simply can’t afford to squander.
Secondly, the Russian civil society is further alienated by such generalizations. The message they are getting now is “because 80% of you support the war, you’re all guilty and bad”. Without question, all Russians— even those who have opposed Putin’s regime and his policy of perpetual war for a long time —will bear some collective responsibility for Putin’s actions, which is an inevitable consequence of the scale of Putin’s barbaric attack. But purposefully alienating the Russian people now contributes to the consolidation of public opinion around Putin, strengthening him. Paradoxically, the more some commentators in the West and in Ukraine blast all Russians as “hopeless imperialists by genetic code”, the easier it is for Putin to consolidate resources to continue his attacks on Ukraine. On the other hand, if Russian public opinion shifts and people start to openly question his policies, Putin may be forced to adjust his actions.
Our data shows that the interest in points of view alternative to what the Russian propaganda is saying on the war has grown significantly in the recent weeks. The monthly audience of the Navalny Live YouTube channel in March exceeded 20 million people, the great majority of them from inside Russia. That’s comparable with the audiences of state television channels. The number of subscribers of the MilovLive YouTube channel has jumped by about a quarter since the start of the war and is nearing 400,000— and this is just one of the many channels providing the point of view on the war diametrically opposed to Putin’s propaganda.
Putin understands this. Since the beginning of the war, he has quickly criminalized spreading of the truth about the war, and doubled down on censorship. People are arrested for simply standing on the street with anti-war posters quoting Lev Tolstoy’s books. Why would he do that, if he has the full backing of his people?
This presents us with a great opportunity. Feedback from Milov YouTube viewers suggests that some of them have been able to convince even the most hardline supporters of Putin that something is wrong. Not to mention the “grey zone”: people who don’t pay enough attention, are unsure, etc.
Again, it’s helpful to recall the experience of the USSR in the 1980s: in the early years of the war in Afghanistan, people were unaware of its scale and negative consequences, they thought it was some sort of limited operation in their genuine interests, military servicemen were escorted to war by their families with honors. But by mid-1980s, it was all gone, and people cursed the Soviet leadership for getting involved in Afghanistan.
Without doubt, Putin’s propaganda is effective, and its roots run deep. But this weed can be uprooted. Many passionate and talented Russians— opposition activists, journalists, public opinion leaders— have practical ideas on how to break through an information blockade. These efforts are currently in demand and successful, against all the odds. The West needs to support them, and to calm down the hotheads rushing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, labeling all Russians as “hopeless imperialists”. They are not. They can be an important ally of the free world in defeating Putin. Let’s make it happen.