‘We are being dragged into a war’

Denis Volkov on Russian public opinion on a possible conflict with Ukraine

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Photo: Scanpix

For several months, the Western press has been preoccupied with the topic of Russia’s troop build-up at the border with Ukraine and ‘preparations for an invasion’. Russia has given assurances that it has no such intention but has also demanded that the US and NATO guarantee not to expand the North Atlantic Alliance eastward. American and European politicians warn that, in case of the outbreak of an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, severe sanctions will be imposed not only against Russia but also against Vladimir Putin personally as well as his entourage. And what is the opinion of the Russian public on this?

Fear of a war

According to public opinion polls, slightly more than 50% of Russians believe that clashes in eastern Ukraine will not escalate into a war between Russia and Ukraine. A considerable proportion of respondents — 39% (the sum of those who replied that ‘it is inevitable’ or ‘it is very likely’) — believe otherwise. As few as 15% of respondents absolutely rule out such a possibility. One fourth of respondents consider an armed conflict between Russia and NATO possible. This might not seem to be a high number, but this figure is higher than the results registered during previous polls (14% in 2019, 19% in 2018 and 23% in 2017). More than half of respondents spoke of the deterioration of relations with Western countries and NATO in late 2021, which is one of the highest results in the history of observations. Apart from the confrontational year of 2015, the percentage was higher only in 2014.

The fear of a world war is much more prevalent in Russian society. Back in spring 2021, 62% of respondents experienced such a fear, which is a record high among regular national polls conducted over the last quarter of a century. One of the focus group participants added:

When the mouthpieces of the government [Channel One, Russia-1, Skabeyeva, Solovyov, etc. — DV] say that we are about to enter a war any day now, that’s scary! It scares the hell out of you; it gives you a headache … Compared to this, everything else pales into insignificance.

To be fair, by the end of the year the fear of a war had dissipated a bit (in December 2021, the respective result was 56%). This might have been a reaction to the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the US as well as Russian-American negotiations.

A significant percentage of Russians seem to believe that a war between Russia and the West has been going on for a long time, even though it is in the form of invisible information warfare, a cold war. This has been a recurrent theme in focus groups across the country for many years. It is also common to hear the opinion that the confrontation between Russia and the West is unfolding on the territory of third countries: Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Syria and in other parts of Europe. According to surveys, the Russian public has perceived Russia’s involvement in all recent international conflicts almost exclusively through the prism of a geopolitical confrontation with the West, primarily with the US.

Hence, the following statements by focus group participants were not uncommon in December last year: ‘Ukraine is stuck in limbo between Russia and the US. Ukraine’s establishment are bankrolled by America, and they have their way with the people’; ‘Ukraine is a mere figurehead in a big game; it is America which is taking the lead … It’s clear that Ukraine is doing whatever America is telling it’; ‘This is just a game played by the US, Western countries and NATO, which are trying to get at Russia via Ukraine.’

The US bears the responsibility

Our research shows that 50% of Russians blame the US and NATO for the existing tensions. As few as 3%-4%, which can be regarded as a marginal group, hold the Russian authorities responsible. Such a distribution of opinions is quite stable. It is not only that views did not change during the last year. The truth is that ‘interference by the US and the West in the internal affairs of other countries’ had long become the universal rationale behind any conflict with other countries: from the conflict in Syria to the most recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh or the crisis at the Belarusian-Polish border. Whatever happens in the world, America is always to blame.

Focus group interviews enable a deeper insight into the prevailing sentiments in society. It is noteworthy that relations with Ukraine and the West were not predefined as topics for discussion. Respondents raised these issues spontaneously while discussing current events that they considered worthy of mention. The confidence and straightforwardness with which respondents assessed Ukraine-related events add an additional dimension to the interpretation of the above survey results. References were also made to the situation on the Belarusian-Polish border: ‘They want to attack Russia now and then — let’s put it this way — and they are looking for leverage through Ukraine and Belarus, among others’; ‘The situation with refugees on the Belarusian-Polish border … almost turned into a war … We would have had to intervene. And that’s it: we would be dragged into war!’

Respondents picture the US and the West not simply as the parties responsible for the conflict but also as parties that are deliberately and purposefully dragging Russia into war. The word ‘provocation’ was repeatedly mentioned by respondents. At the same time, the prevailing opinion is that Russia could not help but respond: ‘America and Great Britain are provoking Ukraine so that it acts aggressively towards the Donbas, and by doing so they are trying to force Russia to stand up for Russian citizens who live on the territory of the Donbas; eventually, this will be yet another reason for more sanctions against Russia’; ‘All this is done to drag us into a war. This is also really scary. And we fall for it, we actually fall for it!’; ‘It looks more like a provocation [by the West — DV]; they want us to look inferior to them’; ‘They provoke us on purpose, to impose sanctions, so that the economy deteriorates again, and the currency depreciates’; ‘Russia will have to respond … We are being pinched from all sides; they’re biting us. What are we supposed to do? Give in?’

At the same time, most focus group participants believed that publications in the Western press about the Russian troop build-up near the Russian-Ukrainian border were not about Russia’s aggressive intentions but were an incitement to war by the West itself: ‘There is information on the Internet about alleged military actions against Ukraine, an invasion of Ukraine — it’s Chinese whispers … There are no hostilities there, but they’re already writing that Putin has invaded Ukraine’; ‘They keep talking about Russia attacking someone, that Russia has attacked someone; it’s become hackneyed. It’s like a joke: Ukraine has lost arms, soldiers, but the enemy never arrived. That’s why you stop even paying attention to that’; ‘Russia is going to attack: What for? To grab territory? We have enough territory of our own. To loot? There’s nothing left there. It is the West that wants to grab part of Ukraine.’

In the eyes of many focus group participants, NATO’s military presence near Russia’s borders undermines the validity of accusations against Russia: ‘After all, NATO is expanding eastward. You have to agree that American aircraft and ships are in the Black Sea, they are all amassing, and there is an expansion eastward, to Ukraine. Ukraine is letting everything in; it’s moving closer to our borders. We have to protect our borders’; ‘American ships are in the Black Sea, and we tolerate all this! We must be more decisive; these are our borders, our territory. We’ll amass troops at the borders and hold exercises there if we feel like it’; ‘We don’t want to obey [the United States — DV]. And they are used to ruling the world … That’s why we get this in return.’

For the average Russian, all the events of recent months (i.e. Western objections to Nord Stream 2, the Belarusian border crisis, NATO naval exercises off the coast of Crimea, the constant threat of new sanctions, Western criticism of Russian military aid to Kazakhstan and talks of ‘a looming invasion of Ukraine’) have long merged into a stream of poorly discernible negative news coming from the West. This news no longer causes anything but irritation in the case of the vast majority of Russians, and they do not want to decipher it. Given such a perception of most recent developments, it seems that a war is being imposed from the outside and is therefore practically inevitable — hence the growth of mass fears.

In unison

Both polls and focus group interviews reveal that Russian public opinion is extremely homogeneous when it comes to Ukraine-related issues. The available data do not show the usual distribution based on criteria such as the age of respondents or sources of information. Over the past few years — at least since late 2018 — Russian youth, viewers of video blogs and readers of Telegram channels, on the one hand, and representatives of the older generation and TV viewers, on the other, have differed markedly in their assessments of the government, political situation, most important political events and attitudes towards protests in Russia and Belarus. The former showed dissenting opinions more often, while the latter demonstrated more loyalty to the state.

Surprisingly, both groups are united when it comes to the Ukrainian issue. They perceive the actions of Russia and Western countries in a similar way and attribute responsibility for escalating the conflict to the same parties, using the same wording and phrases to describe the situation. Unless one knows beforehand who is speaking, it is virtually impossible to guess, as both young and elderly Russians speak with one voice when it comes to their assessment of Ukraine-related events. The youngest respondents are slightly different in that they are much more likely to have difficulty answering the question.

The apparent consensus can partly be explained by the fact that, despite being well informed about Ukraine-related events, respondents are not genuinely interested in the topic, which seems to be imposed by major media outlets. Respondents often mention fatigue from the Ukraine topic, from foreign policy in general and from confrontation with the West. Therefore, there is no desire to analyse what is happening in detail, to look for alternatives, to double-check the words of officials and TV show hosts. It turns out that alternative channels for obtaining and interpreting information about what is happening have been marginalised.

Small but significant differences in opinions about the party responsible for the escalation of the conflict can be observed among supporters and critics of the Russian government: among loyalists, more than half of survey participants (56%) hold the United States and the West responsible for the escalation of the conflict, compared with 39% among dissenters. At the same time, 1% of the former and 8% of the latter are ready to blame Russia. In other words, there is some deviation from the Russian authorities’ official narrative on Ukraine. However, non-mainstream opinions are usually not expressed: people who are not ready to blame Washington or Kyiv for what is going on around Ukraine are more likely to avoid answering questions in a questionnaire. The same goes for focus groups: criticism of Moscow’s official position is practically unheard of. Apparently, under the pressure of mainstream public opinion, these few individuals who have a different view of what is happening do not dare to express their opinion out of fear of disapproval and ostracism, accusations of a lack of patriotism or possible punishment at the hands of the authorities.

War and ratings

Thus, the majority of Russian citizens blame the West for the current escalation of the conflict and try to whitewash the leadership of their own country. At the same time, no mobilisation of public opinion around Russia’s leaders can be observed. In the last two months, when the topic of the conflict and new sanctions has been in the spotlight, the ratings of the president, prime minister and government have actually been falling. The slight increase in their popularity observed in September and October 2021 was the result of generous pre-election handouts to the population and was hardly connected with foreign policy. Clearly, the confrontation with the West has already become boring and mundane and does not stir up much emotion, despite strong statements being voiced by politicians.

The obvious lack of emotional response at the current stage of the confrontation may encourage certain conclusions. According to some experts, Russian foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy — i.e. any foreign policy statements or steps are made or taken in order to improve the ratings of top officials, which could be observed in the case of Crimea. Therefore, since the ratings are not improving, there will be no further escalation; Russia will simply step back, since there is no point in persisting. But what if this logic is wrong?

If we assume that the growth in popularity as a result of foreign policy is only a by-product, all the arguments that the current low ratings are some kind of deterrent for the Russian authorities prove to be wrong. Moreover, in the event of a real conflict (as opposed to a hypothetical one, as is the case right now) there would most likely be a mobilisation of public opinion. That is why it is necessary to look not at the ratings per se but at the entire picture of Russians’ perceptions of a possible conflict with Ukraine and the West. And, to all appearances, Russian society, although fearful of such a conflict, is prepared for it internally.

Full-fledged negotiations are perceived as virtually the only alternative to conflict. As one of the focus group participants put it: ‘Top leaders should sit down and negotiate; just talk, talk and negotiate; it is always possible to reach some kind of compromise by talking’. Nearly 80% of Russians have consistently been in favour of improving relations with the US and other Western countries in recent years. To reiterate, the mere fact that such talks have taken place — first, between Putin and Biden and, subsequently, at the level of official delegations — has already improved Russians’ attitude towards the US and Europe in recent months, despite the ongoing mutual accusations. However, neither politicians nor ordinary citizens are confident that the talks will lead to détente.

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