A dive into support for war in Russia (and the US)

December 10, 2022

I my last post I noted some trends in opinion polls in Russia, but it seems to me a closer look might be warranted to understand how the read them and what they mean. Even though public (lack of) support for the war in Russia is unlikely to be the critical determinant in the Kremlin’s decisions, it can affect the battle-worthiness of the mobilized as well as the country’s resilience in what Putin has now said would be a long war. One of the fundamental aspects of Russia’s strategy now is to target Western unity, and in this respect, they have had some success, as evidenced by opinion polls in the US. I discuss these trends and some recent developments in Europe and Central Asia as they pertain to the war.

Operational Update

We begin, as usual, with an operational update. The most active sector of the from remains Bakhmut-Soledar, where VSRF have been attacking for several months. After ZSU pushed them back in the south at the end of November and stalled their attempt at encirclement in the south-west, VSRF have increased the intensity of attacks from the east trying to split the ZSU forces defending Bakhmut from those defending Soledar. It is difficult to overstate how bloody and constant these battles have been. Recently, the attacks are nearly continuous — up to 20 per day — and are coming so fast that the defenders have trouble reloading. It is unclear how many casualties there are but they must be immense as the Russians keep pouring in mobiki who are led by survivors from previous attacks. Although VSRF use tanks and artillery in support, the attacks are done by infantry trying to locate breaks in the Ukrainian defenses. Russian officers report that often half of the attacking force does not even make it to contact with the Ukrainians. It is estimated that for the last month, VSRF have suffered 14,000 KIA/MIA and 30,000 wounded here, while ZSU have 5,700 KIA/MIA and 18,000 wounded. The numbers are, as always, much worse, relatively speaking, for ZSU given the overall mobilization potential of the Russians and the higher quality of the troops lost by the Ukrainians. All of this for an advance of less than a mile in a month.

Aside from the fact that the attacking force usually takes higher casualties, some of the discrepancy is due to the fate of the wounded. The Ukrainians can, generally speaking, take their wounded to the rear for treatment and recovery, while the Russians — with their hit & retreat tactics — are almost always forced to abandon their wounded on the battlefield. If they cannot make it back on their own, they either die of their wounds in the mud or get captured by the Ukrainians. They used to have locally negotiated ceasefires to collect the wounded and the dead, but about a month ago Wagner mercenaries attempted an attack on ZSU positions while pretending to collect the wounded, and as a result no such ceasefires have been implemented since. The abundance of rotting corpses in the mud is contributing to infections and all sorts of diseases, especially on the Russian side.

About a week ago, the Russians took Yakovlevka near Soledar but stalled again. As I reported previously, they have been amassing a significant grouping around Alchevsk to the east (about 70,000) in order to launch an offensive after taking Bakhmut, and now they have been compelled to start using some of these forces piecemeal to replenish the units depleted in the thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to take the desired towns. The Russian command believes the Ukrainians are about to break, and so are throwing in units from this “offense group”, whose battle-worthiness is actually questionable since ZSU is regularly targeting them with HIMARS and artillery.

It is unclear whether the Russians will be able to take Bakhmut, but at any rate the battles for it have thus far been the bloodiest for the entire war.

To the north, Russian attempts to counter-attack have all failed despite some minor initial successes. ZSU has recovered the lost ground and has regained control of the Svatove-Kremennaya road. The Russians had to bring in fresh reinforcements just to stop ZSU from advancing further. It is not clear that the Ukrainians are trying to advance very hard there right now. The Russians believe it’s because they are aware of the large numbers of mobiki they have brought to Luhansk, making any ZSU advance slow and costly. The Ukrainians merely say that it’s because they have not received orders to do it — when the order comes, it will likely be coordinated with events at other sectors of the front. The vaunted defensive “Surovikin Line” that the Russians have constructed might appear more vulnerable than it looks on the maps, if recent revelations about shoddy construction of some of the pyramidal “teeth” are to be believed. Contrary to the impression created by lack of dramatic developments, the fighting here has been serious as well, with about 4,000 KIA/MIA and 9,800 wounded for VSRF, and 1,500 KIA/MIA and 4,200 wounded for ZSU.

The front between Avdyivka (which the Russians have been unsuccessfully trying to encircle for months) and Vuhledar (where they had launched a serious attack last month) has stabilized. The Russians are gathering another strike force to make another attempt on Vuhledar in about a week or so. They are also frantically building up the defenses north of Mariupol, apparently having come to the conclusion that there is significant risk of ZSU breaking through in that sector. ZSU have been preparing a large strike force in Zaporizhzhia but so far nobody has any idea what they intend to do with it. Rumors about an offensive in this sector have been circling from October but whether they would go toward Donetsk or Crimea, has been anyone’s guess. The Russian intelligence did discover the locations of some units, and the artillery strikes appear to have caused considerable damage.

What is more intriguing, one of the places that VSRF has been expecting ZSU to attack — and Girkin made several near-hysterical videos about — has been the south of Zaporizhzhia oblast. While said attack never materialized, the Russians have begun to fall back — without a fight — toward Tokmak, apparently as part of the plan to consolidate the defenses of the land route to Crimea. It is unclear whether Melitopol is part of that defense line since there is a lot of construction south of it. One consequence of this fallback is that VSRF would not be able to hold Enerhodar, which means that the deal about the transfer of control of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that IAEA recently said was coming (but Peskov denied) really might be in the works. It appears that Surovikin has decided to hold the access to Crimea at all costs, even if that means abandoning conquered territory.

Not much has changed on the left bank of the Dnipro in Kherson oblast. The Russians have moved out about two-thirds of the forces evacuated from the right bank, ZSU is slowly enlarging its bridgeheads on the left bank, and the Russians landed on Potemkin Island in an attempt to interfere with the activities of the Ukrainians.

Public Opinion in Authoritarian Russia

Let’s turn now to the question of opinion polls in Russia. There are several reasons why these are interesting. One of the most persistent refrains one hears in the West and among Russian opposition members in exile is “This is not Russia’s War but Putin’s War,” as in, it is the regime that’s the enemy, not the Russian people. On one hand, it makes perfect strategic sense to say this even if you do not believe it: you do not want to hand the Russian government a rallying cry “They are going to exterminate us!” The propagandists are doing it anyway, but it would certainly be making their job a lot easier if the Western governments even hinted at it. On the other hand, we should not just assume something and not bother to investigate if it is supported by the evidence. Know thy enemy, so to speak. (Incidentally, not all Russian opposition members agree that this is Putin’s war — Kasparov, for one, has been very clear that, for him, it is Russia’s war.) Ascertaining what the level of support for the war (and Putin) in Russia really is, and what might change it, seem like a worthwhile activity irrespective of whether the result can be made part of policy officially. This is especially pertinent for arguments that related peace terms to domestic support or opposition (i.e., people that claim that Putin would be punished if he “lost” the war).

In my last post, I reported data from Levada and from internal Kremlin surveys published by Meduza. By far the main problem with interpreting the results about “willingness to negotiate” and “support for the SMO” come from the imprecise form of the questions, which permit multiple reasons to result in the “same” answer, but which have wildly different interpretations and expected dynamics as result of changes in information or the battlefield. Here, I am going to bring in two more data sources, Chronicles — run by Russian opposition politician Aleksei Miniailo, and an article by Dossier, which reports results from interviews with two focus groups of war supporters (so people who would not be afraid to state their opinions) conducted in July and November in Moscow, Saratov, and Ekaterinburg.

The first thing to understand about public opinion of the war is that the war looks very different to the average Russian than it does to the average Westerner.

The Russian propaganda machine has proven remarkably effective in conveying the message that there is no war at all — rather, there is a special military operation that is going according to plan and hardly touches on anyone’s daily life in Russia. This might be hard for a Westerner to fathom, but for tens of millions of Russians, there are no destroyed Ukrainian cities, there are no slaughtered civilians, there are no massive Russian casualties, there is just a SMO that is supposed to help Ukrainians get rid of their awful Nazi Western-installed government, and the only reasons the operation is not over yet are that the Russian army is advancing very slowly because it must make sure that no civilians are hurt, and because NATO is sending arms and soldiers to fight in Ukraine while the Ukrainians themselves are welcoming the Russian soldiers. And at any rate, the Russian armies had to go to Ukraine because the West had been planning an attack on Russia — just yesterday Lukashenko emphasized this by “revealing” that NATO had been planning to invade Belarus during the 2020 episode where only the Russian intervention helped him stay in power, and that its ultimate goal had been to go through Belarus to Donetsk in order to start an invasion of Russia from there.

The Russian government had carefully prepared the ground for all of this. It started discrediting independent media outlets by labeling them “foreign agents” years before the war began, and it drove into exile the few remaining ones almost overnight when the war began. The regime has gone to seemingly absurd lengths to banish the label “war” from public discourse of the SMO, mercilessly prosecuting anyone who would dare use it. Even after declaring “partial” mobilization, the Kremlin has clung to the SMO label and narrative. The censorship laws are, in fact, rather broad as almost anything that paints the SMO in a negative light can be labeled as “discrediting the Russian military forces,” and land the author in prison for many years. (The most recent example is opposition politician Yashin, who talked about Bucha on his stream. He told his audience that there are two interpretations of what happened — the official Kremlin line (staged with crisis actors) and the Ukrainian/Western line (atrocities committed by the Russian army) — without taking a stand which one was correct. He was just given 8.5 years in prison for failing to clearly state his position that the Kremlin line was correct.) Russian news aggregators and search engines filter results and also present a view of the war consistent with the official government line.

Up until the mobilization, it was entirely possible for many Russians to simply go on with their lives as if nothing unusual was happening in Ukraine. Sure, there were Western sanctions and many Western businesses disappeared. Sure, it became more difficult to vacation in some places in the world (but not others), although this affected only a minuscule portion of the population. The initial fear that life will become hard was relieved by smart government policies that used the bonanza from energy sales (with volumes and prices sky-rocketing during the first months of the war) to cushion the sanctions impact, by inventive “import substitution” which allowed Russians to quickly find alternative suppliers for contraband or just switch to alternative products, and by intelligent management of state finances by the Central Bank. As a result, the war was virtually non-existent for the majority of Russians: the only ones aware of what was going on were either its ardent supporters (estimated to about 15% of the population) or ardent opponents (estimated to less than 10% of the population), with both groups following the SMO very closely for obvious reasons. Once the initial wave of protests due to moral opposition to the war was successfully repressed, Russians saw no systematic reminder than a war was going on until September.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Russians are well aware of the kind of government they have, and know that expressing certain opinions can land them and their relatives in serious trouble. (This is not to say that they disapprove of that kind of government, by the way, at least in general.)

This is evident from the fact that many refuse to participate in polls, and even when they agree to, they refuse to say where they live, and also give non-committal answers or claim not to pay attention to politics. (This is why the second set of results here is very interesting.) And so, even though many of them might know that the SMO is, in fact, a war (Yandex searches for “war in Ukraine” were 570 times more frequent than “military operation in Ukraine”), they also know that they are not supposed to call it a war. Along these lines, Chronicle found that giving respondents the option not to express an opinion about the SMO (versus declare whether they support it or not) led to a 7% decrease in support compared to the group that was not given that option. In other words, fear could be driving at least 7% of the reported support.

The third thing to consider is that the Kremlin works very, very hard on manufacturing the appearance of a consensus about its activities, the SMO, and the strength and popularity of the regime.

What the Russian government has done was limit and redirect any public discussion of the war into a specific “SMO” channel, which ensures that everyone in Russia knows that this is the only view of the war that any other Russian is certain to have received. Any potential opponent has absolutely no idea whether other Russians are even aware of the information they know, and so cannot expect support for overt opposition to materialize. Any attempt to disseminate such information is severely punished, which certainly deters a non-negligible number of potential opponents from becoming active ones, which further reduces the chances that someone might actually try, let alone succeed, in reaching audiences with such information. (The role of the Russian opposition media like Dozhd and Meduza in this are relevant, and I will discuss them shortly.) And on top of this, the constant drumming of consensus in approval of regime policies can solidify the impression that one is alone and everyone else is “zombified.” It does not really matter that everyone knows that everyone might be lying — the phenomenon Timur Kuran called “private truths, public lies” — as long as one does not have a decent estimate about how many others in society potentially agree with their position, the incentive to act will be very weak indeed. For instance, we have a lot of evidence that Putin’s regime organizes the so-called “putings” (demonstrations/concerts in support of Putin) by bussing in state employees lured with a free trip to the capital (or just a paid day off) and threats of “consequences” if they refuse.

The pervasiveness of an officially sanctioned view that is seemingly held by everyone contributes to a social conformity bias — people become very reluctant to express opinions divergent from those held by the majority, even when the majority opinion contradicts facts. While this will not affect dedicated opponents (or natural contrarians, 25% in Asch’s experiment), it seems that it does affect a significant part of the population (37%, although only 5% did so consistently). Now, add some doubts about the correctness of one’s own position, and you have a lot of reasons to not go against the official line.

All of these three factors should be instantly familiar to any student of non-democratic regimes, who knows that authoritarian rulers crucially depend on projecting certain attributes — power, popularity, competence — and work hard on preventing any cracks in their image from becoming common knowledge. This idea is so old, actually, that it has its own well-known parable, the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.

Speaking of Kuran, one of the interpretations about the undoing of communist rule in Eastern Europe involves the unravelling of this common knowledge of regime invincibility. If the costs of action for a particular opponent of the regime are lower if more people oppose the regime (the logic of “they can’t put everyone in jail”), then the following dynamic might occur. A core of dedicated opponents — such as the moral opposition that swept Russia in February — takes to the streets, and with their numbers lower the costs of participation of somewhat less dedicated opponents, then the latter will join them, swelling the numbers, and further lowering the costs, triggering another set of even less dedicated opponents to show up, and so on. The effect snowballs until the protests are so large that the government is compelled to offer reforms or the elites execute a palace coup to remove the offending leadership. In every step of the process, the image of regime invincibility gets another crack by the new information that even more opponents than previously thought exist, until the image is shattered.

Now, there are two problems with this beautiful story of informational cascades. It does not take into account the regime’s ability to suppress the protests before they can trigger the cascade. But, as the Tiananmen Massacre (in the same summer of 1989) showed, and as Putin’s repression in the spring confirmed, a determined regime is quite capable of dealing with small-scale protests, which short-circuits the revelation mechanism. When these protests snowball, it’s because the regime is either unable or unwilling to stop them. It could be unwilling because it severely underestimates the risk they pose (this is very unlikely), and it could be unable because the elites have split on the issue or the government has lost control of the repressive apparatus. In Putin’s Russia, there could be no doubt in the loyalty of Rossgvardiya, certainly at the start of the SMO.

The other problem is that there might not be enough opponents to make the cascade self-sustaining. In other words, it could be that the moral opposition to the war was exhausted in the spring. It could go no further not only because its activists were repressed, but because the vast majority of Russians were never going to join them. This seems to me a most plausible interpretation of the lack of opposition given the nearly decade-long incessant anti-Ukrainian propaganda, the way the SMO was portrayed, and what at the time was total belief in the inevitability of Russia’s success in a short and victorious operation that would return the Ukrainians to their senses.

So What Do We Know?

With all these caveats, what can we know? We know that when asked whether they support the war, Russians say they do in large numbers: anywhere between 51% and 80%. We can roughly think of respondents as belonging to one of four groups when it comes to questions about Ukraine:

  • Imperialists. They believe that Ukraine is not a legitimate state, that it must be part of Russia, and that Russia must use all means necessary to conquer it. They support full mobilization, and some even support using nuclear weapons. They believe that failure to conquer Ukraine would mean the end for Russia itself. I have seen estimates that this group might be as large as 25% of the population.
  • (Conditional) Hawks. Generally believe that parts of Ukraine (certainly Crimea) is Russian, that Ukrainians are a brotherly nation led astray by Nazis and Western manipulation, and that NATO threatens Russia and wishes to conquer it for its riches. They see themselves as liberators, so learning that this is not how Ukrainians see them might change their views. While generally annexationist, they would not do this at any cost, so learning about the tremendous losses suffered by the Russian military might well sour them on the SMO.
  • Loyalists. They have no strong preferences about Ukraine aside from the general warm glow from the Soviet era. They do not desire any Ukrainian territory (except perhaps Crimea), believe Ukrainians are a brotherly nation, wish to help Ukraine solve its problems, and pay almost no attention to the SMO, believing that it’s not a huge deal and that it is going according to plan. Generally support any decision by the government on the assumption that “Putin knows best.” Unlikely to be shaken from supporting the regime whether the Kremlin orders full mobilization or does a 180 and agrees to a peace deal that does not meet any of its original stated aims.
  • Doves. They believe that Ukraine is an independent state with its own nation, that the borders agreed to in 1991 should be respected irrespective of their own feelings about Crimea, and do not regard NATO as a threat. They have opposed the war from the start. I have seen estimates for this group that put it to no more than 8% of the population.

Clearly, this typology is a simplification as there would be some “bleeding” from one group into another, but the rough classification is useful enough for the following argument. When ask about supporting the SMO, imperialists and loyalists would answer in the affirmative, and this will be a genuine answer. Doves would either refuse to answer, answer in the negative, or lie because of the reasons mentioned above. Hawks are conditional: they will answer positively and genuinely so if they believe the Kremlin description of the state of the SMO, but would behave like a dove otherwise. Knowing that among people who support the SMO, 73% rely on the TV as their primary source of information, there is no reason to suppose that a significant portion of these people would think of the war differently from the Kremlin line.

One thing that no propaganda can hide is the duration of the conflict, and after four months of fighting — after VSRF’s retreat from the north but before ZSU’s Kharkiv Offensive — cracks in the support started to show, as some conditional hawks began to realize that the war would not be short and victorious as originally claimed. While this drop might not be easily detectable in the usual surveys — because these hawks would have the incentive to lie about it — Chronicle’s specialized survey claims that there was a 4% drop in support for the SMO compared to February already evident in July. Since support had escalated initially after VSRF’s early victories, this drop was a full 8% from the high achieved in April. The fluctuations in support depending on the battlefield situation is what one would expect from the conditional hawks. In this case, some hawks got their hopes up early in the war, and overcame their doubts about the SMO, but many began to worry about it once it became clear that victory is not within grasp.

This leads me to the conclusion that until September (when the mobilization started), the high degree of support for the SMO in Russia was mostly genuine — the most important group that could be the source of any significant changes are the hawks, who would not have been aware of the disasters the Russian army was suffering at the front, and so their conditional support would have remained high although it would have started eroding because of the unexpectedly long duration of the SMO. Of course, anyone personally touched by the war — either because they or someone they know lost someone there or because their personal economic circumstances have worsened considerably — would have revised their opinion about the desirability of the SMO irrespective of what propagandists say on TV. It also clear that Russians are realizing that they are not getting the whole picture because relying on the TV as credible source of information has declined. This is why the government has been making gargantuan efforts to keep alternative sources of information out of reach (going even after VPN) while boosting the budgets of the propagandists whose have also altered their programming to make it more entertaining in the hopes of retaining viewers.

But what about after the mobilization started on September 21? It is difficult to see how this could be read in a positive way despite the efforts of the Kremlin to play it down. It is a sure sign that something is not quite right with the SMO, which is why Putin put it off for so long. Some people will, of course, be swayed by the argument that it is because NATO got involved into helping Ukraine, and so it might be necessary to pay higher costs than originally anticipated. But others would start to reevaluate their support because of both higher costs and the lower chances of success (after all, for all the anti-Western propaganda in Russia, the United States is still seen as the undisputed world superpower, especially when it comes to military matters).

This must have caused a lot of hawks to reevaluate their support for the war yet again, especially now that they could personally be called upon to fight in it. The huge emigration of men we saw in the weeks following the mobilization decree would have included significant numbers of these hawks, along with doves, and even loyalists and imperialists who do not wish to go to the front despite agreeing with the government policy in Ukraine. Numerous incidents from the crossing suggests that not all who flee are opponents of the war. Assuming that on average a hawk who decides to skip mobilization by fleeing abroad is less supportive of the war than a hawk who stays home despite mobilization, the exodus would have led to an increase in genuine support for the war among remaining hawk respondents. Meanwhile, hawks who have become opponents of the war but stayed home would now behave more like doves and falsify their responses, especially if they are afraid that a negative answer might cause them to get mobilized immediately.

Both of these dynamics bias the results toward answers that support the war in general surveys, which explains why Levada has not found any real fluctuation in support in theirs. But it simply beggars belief that such a massive intrusion into the personal lives of the Russians would not generate some ripple in society. Looking at the age and wealth distribution among supporters of mobilization, we see direct evidence that those most supportive of it are the ones who do not expect to be caught by it: older and wealthier Russians tend to support the mobilization at much higher rates than younger and poorer ones.

Given all the attention paid to how the Kremlin is mobilizing primarily from the poor regions — with attendant stories about how people there are too uncivilized and stupid to understand how they are being used — it seems very clear that the Kremlin is simply using the path of least resistance. But the resistance is least there not because the poor do not understand that they are being used — their answers in the survey suggest they know this very well — but precisely because the lack of resources severely limits their ability to resist. In other words, they know they are being used but they cannot do anything about it, which is why they do not support the mobilization.

Dealing with the wealthier Russians would be harder for the regime, as these hawks quickly become doves when they realize that they might actually have to serve. The second mobilization wave would have to affect the larger cities in a way that the first wave avoided, and I believe we will see a lot more issues with mobilization across the board as the drafting net begins to ensnare people with resources to resist it. I do not believe it will be enough to derail the mobilization because the regime had the first wave to figure out problems and learn how to deal with them, but the problems will become more obvious, and thus contribute to cracking the informational screen the regime is trying to maintain around the SMO.

Things get even more interesting when we take a look at supporters of the SMO — these are focus groups that comprise imperialists, hawks, and loyalists. In the surveys, they separated them into “alarmists” (people who follow Girkin), “ultra-patriots” (people who follow Kadyrov, and various warcors), “left patriots” (socialists who sometimes even oppose the war), “traditionalists”, and “loyalists” (who watch TV propaganda channels). In our typology, the “ultra-patriots” and some “alarmists” are imperialists, while the rest are divided among hawks and loyalists.

During the first wave of interviews in June, the supporters were generally optimistic. They reported initial stress when the West imposed sanctions and companies began to leave Russia, but then noticed that their personal circumstances did not change much, and they adapted successfully to the new reality. They even expressed pride that the Russian economy proved so resilient. However, consistent with the results reported above, many expressed concern about the SMO because of its duration, and the puzzling behavior of the Russian high command (failure to respond to Ukrainian provocations and attacks). Many were worried that the SMO has turned into a conflict with the West, and that Russia had not prepared for such a confrontation. Despite these worries, the supporters remained aggressive, wanting the unconditional capitulation of the Ukrainian government, denazification of Ukraine, and attacks on the civilian infrastructure. Many noted that Russian must not only take LNR/DNR but all of eastern and southern Ukraine, including all of the Black Sea coast. Some of the most radical imperialists wanted to conquer Poland, all of Europe, and blow up the UK. Cooler heads preferred to stop the annexations with LNR/DNR and start negotiating. (This is relevant for our discussion about the meaning of negotiations below.)

The second wave of interviews in November saw very significant changes in the attitudes. The combined shocks of ZSU counter-offensives, losses of conquered territory, and mobilization caused many supporters to become fearful about the future. Even though supporters were happy about the annexations of new territories, some expressed reservations about the territories being “theirs” and were unhappy that they would have to pay for their reconstruction and recovery. Some of the most enthusiastic hawks in the summer — who had advocated conquering all Ukraine — had now become among the most pessimistic ones, having been so disappointed with the Russian army that they were ready to relinquish all conquered territories (some, even Crimea!) just to end the war. Many noted that the TV propaganda is lying to them about the true state of the SMO. Others, however, say that while theoretically the annexations should be sufficient to end the SMO, since the conflict has become one with the West, it is unlikely to end unless Russia wins it. Therefore, they reason, they must rally around the flag and “go to the end.”

The focus group also shows that the Kremlin’s strategy of smoke and mirrors is starting to fail: many respondents were aware of the numerous problems with the Russian military, and many were either personally touched by mobilization or knew someone who had been mobilized — and several complained about acquaintances with resources who had managed to leave. Many expressed doubts about the official figures of Russian casualties, or the government’s ability to supply the mobiki. Many fear that the war is now directly affecting Russian territory, and what they see as lack of adequate response from the Kremlin is shaking their confidence in Putin. Although many also expressed fear of nuclear war, it was always in the context of the West attacking Russia if Russia were about to win the war.

The reaction of the majority of war supporters to the possibility of defeat is clear — it would be tantamount to treason — but with an unexpected twist — they would not go out to protest against Putin, both because they fear repression and because they believe the replacement might be worse.

All of these results raise some serious questions about what Russian respondents mean when asked about support for negotiations. Without further disaggregation and some more specific questions, it just is not possible to tell what portion of respondents who say they are for negotiations mean this unconditionally, or expecting some (or all) gains to be recognized as part of that peace. Consequently, it is not possible to tell whether this support is very meaningful except for what seems to be a clear reduction in the number of people expecting an unconditional military victory and imposition of terms on Kyiv. The increase in desire to start negotiations seems to be related to the increasing fear that one might get personally involved in the war, and when it comes to that, the enthusiasm among Russians — even war supporters — is distinctly lacking.

So what is the conclusion from all of this?

The Russians do support the war in large numbers because of a combination of imperialism, loyalism, and conformity with the public consensus. The specific proportion is difficult to ascertain because people either lie or refuse to participate in surveys out of fear. Aside from imperialists, support is conditional on the perception of how well the Russian army is doing on the battlefield and the personal costs suffered or expected as a result of continuing operations. Belief in total victory is fading while fears of a protracted conflict, for which Russia is not ready, are increasing. There is a rally around the flag effect but it seems dependent on the regime being able to convince people that Russia’s own existence is at stake (this might explain the digging of trenches and positioning of battle groups in Belgorod and Kursk oblasti — they have little or no military value but could be portrayed as defensive against soon-to-be-invading Ukrainians). The Kremlin’s hold on the narrative is strong but is not absolute, and is slipping. Further defeats are likely to erode support for the SMO even more, especially if they come accompanied by revelations about the government’s inability to keep the army properly supplied and commanded.

Even then, falling support for the SMO is unlikely to lead to open opposition to the war — the numbers are not there, people are afraid, some are rallying around the government, and others will just support it out of loyalty. The is no evidence for any backlash against the regime if the Kremlin decides to seek a negotiated peace on terms that would be perceived as defeat. This is very important because it is counter to the arguments that “all defeats in Russia lead to collapse of government” and the narrative that “Putin is cornered.” The Kremlin has a lot of room to maneuver, certainly with respect to the newly conquered territories, but — in the extreme — even about Crimea.

What Does This Mean?

While Ukrainians and Westerners might be disappointed in these conclusions — preferring that more Russians were opposed to the war on principle or because they believe Ukraine is right — the fact that support for the war seems heavily dependent on propaganda success and expectation that the war would not be personally costly is good news for Ukraine. The ideological component is biasing Russians toward support, as does loyalty to the regime, but it does not seem to be strong enough to outweigh the personal factors. It also seems susceptible to invalidation through breaks in the Kremlin information shield.

This means that as the situation on the front deteriorates for the Russian army and the sanctions continue to strangle the Russian economy, the Kremlin will find it increasingly difficult to deal with discontent arising from the lack of success on the front, especially when it tries to mobilize even more people to send to it. The Kremlin is clearly preparing the country for a protracted war — as Putin recently admitted quite clearly — but it is not at all obvious to me that the rallying cry would succeed. Especially if more and more revelations about incompetence, thievery, and corruption solidify the perception that the Russian military cannot, in fact, win the war to achieve the maximalist goals. Putin also tried to argue that annexing new territories is good enough, but it does not seem that the respondents are buying it — either because they still believe it is insufficient or because they never thought it should be the goal.

I expect the Kremlin to encounter more and more problems as it is trying to mobilize society for the war. And I expect the regime to be unable to deal with them effectively.

The reason for the second expectation is the nature of the regime. It is very different from the single-party dictatorship of the Soviet Union. Even under Stalin, who was as close to a personalist dictator that regime had that is comparable to Putin, the regime still had at its disposal the apparatus of the communist party (CPSU), or, rather, the regime was symbiotic with the party. The CPSU had its own structure, parallel to the state’s administrative one, that penetrated deep down to the local level. While the Party controlled the state, obedience was guaranteed by the party’s total control of the coercive apparatus and this deep reach in the local soviets.

Putin’s Russia is structured very differently. As in any personalist dictatorship, the coercive apparatus is fragmented, with different units purposefully kept at loggerheads to prevent their potential coordination against the ruler. While they might be effective in suppressing popular dissent, they might falter if it becomes widespread, regionalized, and not even ostensibly directed against the regime.

Putin’s party, United Russia, has an estimated membership of about 2.3 million, and has about 40% of the vote (assuming elections were not fraudulent — this support is down because the Party supported increasing retirement age, and a lot of its voters are pensioners). A lot of its membership draws from state employees, retirees, and military personnel — that is, people dependent on the state for income. It controls the state administrative apparatus, which is essentially a graft machine that allows party members to enrich themselves personally at the public’s expense. But it does not control the coercive apparatus, and it does not have the social penetration of the CSPU. This means that it will not be able to organize nearly as effectively as the communists could when the time comes for more draconian measures. (Incidentally, the CPSU also fell victim to the graft arising from its guaranteed access to the state apparatus, which eventually strangled the economy and led to the fall of the USSR.)

Putin’s regime cannot escape the institutional structure that it created for its own political perpetuation. Moreover, since the party itself only exists to serve Putin’s commands, it cannot produce a credible replacement. It is not at all clear to me that it could even survive him leaving power, let alone designating, installing, and supporting a legitimate successor.

The conclusion is that the regime will not be able to overcome the inherent institutional weaknesses despite increasingly frantic efforts to reform (there are indications that Putin is about to do a thorough cleansing of people dealing with foreign policy), and so the resistance to the continuing war will provide a drag on the war effort that will further curtail VSRF’s ability to mount significant offensive operations in Ukraine.

As before, Putin’s biggest hope is that the West folds and betrays Ukraine before his government would have to capitulate on Kyiv’s terms.

The problem is, he has reasons to think that this can happen.

The Russian Media Campaign in the US is Working

This section has a deliberately provocative heading. The media campaign I am talking about is not Russian — as in, the Russian propagandists doing it directly — but right-wing, led by Fox News and assorted “alt-right” outlets, and spearheaded by Trumpists like Greene in Congress. It is also buttressed by seemingly well-intentioned, but equally misguided, “progressives” on the left, and academics who wish to appear unbiased but who are woefully misrepresenting and misinterpreting the war.

I have discussed the scholars/analysts at great length on this blog, so I am not going to deal with them here. I have also noted instances of leftist pro-Kremlin critiques, but these are not nearly as prominent here as they are in Europe, and their main voices in Congress seem willing to stay the course maintained by the Democratic Party and the White House.

The right-wingers, on the other hand, are a problem. There is a fatal misperception in Ukraine (and elsewhere in Europe, and even here in the US) that the Democrats are “weak” on Russia but the Republicans are “strong.” Had the GOP/Trump been in power, this narrative goes, the US would have already helped Ukraine so much, it would have won the war. Or maybe the Russians would not have even dared start it.

This argument is, for lack of better word, idiotic. Setting aside whether the GOP has historically been “tougher” in foreign policy than Democrats (and it has not), this narrative seems to be rooted in 1980s nostalgia, when Reagan & Thatcher apparently single-handedly (or is that double-handedly) won the Cold War. Nobody who has studied the history of the Cold War would subscribe to that nonsense, but it is a surprisingly common perception, especially among older Eastern Europeans. The GOP has been consciously drumming up its “toughness” credentials on foreign policy forever, and the Democrats have simply conceded the field, probably not realizing that it might matter even with the end of the Cold War.

The irony right now is while these time-stuck people are pining for a GOP that might have existed two decades ago, the actual GOP of today — at least some non-trivial part of it — is the only political grouping here that is actively working against helping Ukraine. The “party organ” that is Fox News has been dutifully amplifying Kremlin messaging and spreading all sorts of disinformation and outright lies about the war, trying to undermine public support for Ukraine among its views. The consistent messages are that the war is not going nearly as badly for Russia as other — presumably liberal — Western outlets are claiming, that Russia cannot possibly lose this war and has not even unlocked its potential, that the Ukrainians are corrupt, non-democratic, and possibly pilfering the help we are sending them, that we are dangerously denuding ourselves instead of gearing up to confront the real enemy China, that Putin has legitimate security concerns triggered by NATO and Western expansion of liberal values by Clinton and the like, that Russia is fighting for traditional Christian values, and that the war can escalate and become nuclear.

In his most recent segment that I saw, Tucker Carlson accused Ukraine of being a non-democratic state and Zelenskyy of consolidating his personal power by banning political opposition and now forbidding the Christian Orthodox Church. He did not clarify what the first means, and the second one is a lie.

Briefly, as of the end of October, there are twelve political parties whose activity has been banned in Ukraine under the law of May 14. The National Security and Defense Council had suspended the operation of 11 pro-Russian political parties back in March using its authority under martial law. The Parliament then passed a law that regularized the ban, and it became effective on May 15. Among the original eleven were:

  • Opposition Platform — for Life: the largest, with 44 seats (nearly 10%) in Parliament, led by Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter, and Russia agreed to a prisoner swap with over a hundred Ukrainians to get him out of a Ukrainian prison, where he had been put after getting caught during an attempt to flee the country.
  • Nashi: led by Yevhen Murayev, whom British intelligence had identified as being groomed by the Russians for leadership of Ukraine.
  • Volodymyr Saldo Bloc: led by Saldo, who was installed by the Russians as gauleiter of Kherson (and still operates as such there).
  • Socialist Party of Ukraine: still influenced by its former leader (who went over to the OP-FL) Illia Kyva, who has been accused of an arrangement with a VSRF general.
  • Party of Shariy: which had been involved with projects to “restore Russia’s sovereignty” alongside Russian ultra-nationalists, and whose members had spoken against territorial defense units (calling them “bandits”) before the invasion began.

Most of the banned parties were too small to even clear the threshold for getting a seat in Parliament. All of them took part in cooperating with the invading Russians, some even organized the fake referenda for the annexations. While a Westerner might decry their ban as infringements on freedom of speech, people here must understand that the Russian security services had thoroughly penetrated Ukrainian politics, and were exercising enormous influence through these various parties. Moreover, I am not sure that even our law would permit an openly seditious party that advocates for the takeover of the government by a foreign state to operate legally.

The situations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is more complicated — and I have dealt with some of that in my previous post — but for now it should be sufficient to note that Zelenskyy has not banned it. He has called on Parliament to work out a way to make sure it is not being used by Moscow to conduct its policies in Ukraine. Whether this leads to a ban is unclear (and might not be likely given how large this still is) but it could lead to the Church leadership having to take some more specific steps to reassure the authorities over their purely verbal declaration in the spring.

None of this would really matter if US citizens were not gobbling up the drivel served by these Kremlin stooges. The new poll conducted the the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on December 5 is very alarming. While solid majorities of Americans support Ukraine with arms (65%), economic aid (66%), accepting refugees (73%), and sanctioning Russia (75%), the responses to what the US should do next diverge, and they do so along party lines. In particular, while the majority of Democrats prefer to continue current support as long as it takes (53%), a plurality of Republicans want to gradually withdraw from Ukraine (43%). Moreover, 63% of Republicans want the US to urge Ukraine to settle soon so that the costs to American households are not that great even if that meant Ukraine losing some territory. In contrast, 61% of Democrats say the US should continue to support Ukraine even if that meant higher gas and food prices. (Independents are evenly split at 46% each.)

"bar chart showing partisan preferences on US policy toward Ukraine"

The level of support for Ukraine seems to be conditional on whether one believes Russia or Ukraine has the advantage. While plurlaities in all three categories think that neither does (48% Republicans, 44% Democrats, and 47% Independents), the proportion of Democrats who think that Ukraine has the advantage (32%) is noticeably higher than that of Republicans who think that (23%). There is some evidence that this discrepancy is driven by one’s primary source of information: 25% of Fox News viewers think that versus 48% among those who watch MSNBC. Watching more centrist coverage (NBC, CNN, or public television) still yields numbers closer to the Democrat’s overall view: 36%, 32%, and 33% respectively. (The survey notes that the media coverage relationship is merely suggestive since they did not include enough observations in these subsamples.)

The good news is that the American public largely supports Biden’s policies in Ukraine. The worrying trend is that Republican support has noticeably cooled off since the start of the war, and given the Ukrainian victories in the field it is difficult to understand this unless it’s the result of bad news coverage. (Another alternative is that Republicans for some reason had really high expectations that Russian would be quickly defeated but have now soured on supporting Ukraine because that’s not happening soon enough — a reverse of the process that Russian imperialists are going through. I do not think this is a good explanation though.) When MAGA zealots who wish to do anything possible to make Biden’s life hard — and consequences for the US be damned — are getting enabled in Congress through the new GOP majority, these trends might accelerate. While I do not think that this will cause the US government to change its policies, it might be yet another reason to escalate the aid to help Ukraine win faster.

One thought on “A dive into support for war in Russia (and the US)

  1. The average American has only a tenuous grasp of history and geography. At first glance, the policies advocated by the peace mongers seem quite appealing – who, after all, would not prefer jaw jaw to war war. In contrast, the effect of the war on gas prices is real and visible. My hope is that support for Ukraine will solidify as people start to consider the effect of a frozen conflict or Russian victory on European security.

    Liked by 1 person

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