Two Sides of the Same Coin: Russians Support the War in Ukraine, Or Do They?

russian protester

As Ukraine enters the third month of Russian invasion, a major victim of the conflict — truth — has been hidden under the covers of bloody war and propaganda. Russia invaded Ukraine’s sovereign territory on February 24, 2022, triggering one of the greatest humanitarian crises since WW2. The brutal killings, mass displacement, and constant bombardment in Ukraine lie heavily on Vladimir Putin’s shoulders. It is convenient to blame these atrocities solely on the Russian President, despite recent polling data suggesting that the majority of Russian citizens support the “special military operation,” as the president has famously called the invasion. According to a nationwide survey of Russia’s population, conducted by independent research organizations from February 28 to March 3, 58 percent of respondents approve of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, with only 23 percent opposing it. Gary Langer, a U.S.-based polling expert, described the Russian organizations from which he obtained the results of the study as “strong, independent survey research firms.” Due to the risk associated with Moscow’s tightening censorship, Langer declined to state the names of those organizations.

To understand the extent of Russian support for the war, it is crucial to take into consideration the manipulation of public opinion through state media and propaganda. According to The New Yorker, the Kremlin allegedly knows that a brutal war with their “brother nation” would be hard to sell to most Russians. Hence, the domestic media portrays the invasion as  “a special military operation against nationalists to protect the people of Donbass, ensure denazification and demilitarization.” The data above likely reflects a sentiment born of fear and propaganda. Denis Volkov, the director of Russia’s premier independent polling and research organization, the Levada Center, adds that “Surveys don’t show what people think, but what they are ready to say, how they are prepared to carry themselves in public.”

In a recent list experiment conducted by Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub, 3,000 Russians were recruited in order to understand whether the polls paint an accurate picture of the domestic public opinion. Half of the respondents were asked whether they personally supported none, one, two, three, or four of the given statements (shown in random order) including (1) monetary monthly transfers for poor Russian families; (2) legalisation of same-sex marriage in Russia; (3) state measures to prevent abortion; (4) the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. The other half were given the same prompts excluding the last one. The difference between those numbers would reflect how many people actually support the war. Afterwards, all respondents were directly asked whether they support the war. Although it is important to take into account that most of the respondents were younger, more urbanized, and received better education than more Russians, the results still suggested discrepancies with the earlier polls. As it turned out, there was a significant drop from 68 percent (when asked directly) to 53 percent (when given the list), which is too big of a decrease to be ignored. This suggests that in the other polls, the respondents’ inauthentic replies have caused inaccurate results that do not fully reflect the Russian public sentiment. The self-censorship of the respondents is a result of Russia’s authoritarian regime spreading fear in its citizens.

While the polling data may not be faultless, it would be dishonest to say that Russians did not greet the invasion with an impressive groundswell, fueled largely by The Kremlin. Russian public endorsement of the war has been evident in various articles, videos, and posts. Examples include the ubiquitous shorthand “Z” (a symbol of Russia’s war in Ukraine) appearing on public transit and government-sponsored billboards after first appearing on Russian equipment involved with the invasion. Another way Russians have shown their support for the invasion involves public figures and professional collectives releasing backing statements of the war, such as the heads of over 250 Russian universities releasing official statements by the Union of Russian Rectors on March 4 justifying the war and calling on Russians to rally around Putin.

On the other hand, Russian citizens demonstrate resistance against the war as they continue to protest in various ways. As a counterattack, the administration is tightening restrictions. For example, Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining free Russian media outlets, had to suspend their work on March 28 after receiving a second official government warning. Despite this oppression, the domestic resistance to the war in Ukraine is growing. Examples include the “women in black,” locals of St. Petersburg dressed in the colors of grief and mourning whilst standing in front of famous landmarks to show their stance. In another case, the jailed opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, called on his supporters to join anti-war protests in various cities across the country. With various demonstrations happening around the country, more than 15,000 individuals have already been detained for promoting anti-war ideologies.

While it is tempting to infanatalize the Russian public, arguing that they do not receive veritable information, it is important to realize that Russians are readily accepting the Orwellian lies promoted by The Kremlin. Levada polls show that 81 percent of the Russian population supports the war, yet, it also found that 35 percent paid “practically no attention” to the events in Ukraine, showing disinterest and apathy. Despite the display of domestic resistance of Putin’s personalist regime and invasion of Ukraine, it still fails to gain momentum leaving little hope for the coup of the Russian government ending the atrocious war against Ukraine.

By Ani Bayramyan

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