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Do the Russians Want War? Why we can't trust opinion polls and what ‘partisan sociology’ is telling us

Sergei Erofeev

Those Russians who are appalled by the war Putin has unleashed on Ukraine are even more appalled by their compatriots who support it. If we were to trust official opinion polls, more than half of the population does. Sociologist Sergei Erofeev explains why such polls are not to be trusted and quotes data supplied by “partisan sociologists”, which inspires careful optimism and shows a few less obvious trends, for instance, that most low-income Russians do not support the war.

  • How data on public perception of the war gets distorted

  • Data inferiority and dependence on propaganda

  • A lack of stance on foreign policy

  • A war no one wanted?

The full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine started over a month ago. Its scale is so enormous that Russian society will remain in a state of shock for a long time, in many aspects, and with a variety of repercussions. Moreover, with a certain delay, those capable of critical thinking experience an additional shock – reflexive in nature. The perceived strong support of the government's actions is disheartening even to those who insisted that the Russians were being manipulated by their leaders, that the people are better than the state, and that Russia’s slide towards dictatorship is its tragedy, not its fault. It’s worth remembering, however, that the feeling of reflexive helplessness is determined by three factors: inaccurate understanding of the social conscience, incomplete data, and its false interpretation.

To prevent the latter from intensifying the panic, we have to take these public polls with a pinch of salt. Let's start with the outright distortion of data.

How data on public perception of the war gets distorted

Data on the public support of the invasion gets distorted through two primary mechanisms. Firstly, the modality of opinion polls is important because there are ways in which a manipulative state can elicit a desirable response. As Alexander Romanovich, organizer of an alternative poll by the Qualitas Public Opinion Institute, points out, the very structure of a questionnaire can be suggestive: if the first few questions have to do with the nation’s leader, they are bound to affect answers to further questions. At the same time, pro-Kremlin pollsters typically decrease the multitude of nuances by using simplified response scales.

The most vivid example of attempts to skew the results is the use of questions with intentionally unprofessional wording. Alexander Romanovich cites the following case of a suggestive poll conducted by FOM (the Public Opinion Foundation) on February 25-27, 2022:

“On February 24, Vladimir Putin announced the launch of a military operation in Ukraine. In your opinion, was the decision to conduct the military operation right or wrong?”

Such questions employ the effect of framing (when the presentation influences our perception of the content) by replacing the term “war” with the term “military operation”, in which regard Lev Gershenzon, former head of Yandex.News aptly remarked: “The fact that the majority of Russia’s population is encouraged to think there is no war is the main driving force behind this war.” The question being inserted into a particular frame that bears the name of the president further intensifies the framing effect.

Naturally, such surveys never include crucial questions about one's attitude to aggression, its victims, or losses among Russian soldiers. Remarkably, the elimination of suggestive language in Qualitas’ alternative poll changes the landscape drastically: public support of the Kremlin's aggression is considerably lower than VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) claims it to be and way, way lower than the 86% that supported Crimea’s annexation back in 2014.

The study was conducted at the initiative of a group of independent sociologists and IT professionals. The project brought together independent researchers and analytical companies from multiple regions: Moscow, Samara (FSI, Social Research Foundation), Voronezh (Qualitas), Cheboksary (Maksima), Kazan, and more. The research team developed a questionnaire, designed the sample, and questioned 1600 Russian residents aged over 18.
(Options left to right)
“I definitely support it” – light green
“I’d rather say I support it” – dark green
“I support some of its aspects but not all of them” – yellow
“I’d rather say I don’t support it” – dark red
“I definitely don’t support it” – bright red
“I don’t know / I hesitate to answer” – dark blue
“I’d rather not answer” – blue

Another public opinion distortion mechanism is the self-selection of respondents, which makes polls biased and prevents them from reflecting the opinion of the nation as a whole. In a corrupt communication environment typical of Russia’s authoritarian society, pollsters are more likely to elicit responses from those who tend to provide “socially desirable answers”. The situation exacerbated even further after March 4, 2022, when the government introduced de-facto military censorship and harsh penalties even for calling the war what it is. The Russian Field research group also points to a drastic decrease in people's willingness to participate in polls in such an environment, and the second wave of Alexei Minyailo's analytical initiative Do Russians Want War? chose to focus on measuring fear instead. Presently, we’re on a fast track to being completely unable to gauge public opinion. When total opinions are being instilled, ordinary citizens are afraid not only of doing something wrong but also of NOT doing something the totalitarian state demands of them.

People’s willingness to participate in polls has dropped

Data inferiority and dependence on propaganda

Considering how much these factors distort data, we must minimize its inferiority and incompleteness with whatever means available. The most obvious way to achieve this is to use the technique that works even in polls with skewed absolute indicators: to show long-term trends and correlations. The latter is less illustrative to the general public, even though some facts remain universally accessible, for instance, lower support of the Kremlin among the youth and those who prefer sources of independent information. Having analyzed the same set of VTsIOM data, sociologist Mikhail Sokolov writes: “If you’re under 30, live in a big Russian city, have a degree, and don’t watch television, the probability of your denouncing the Russian invasion is over 80%.”

When it comes to observing trends, overcoming data inferiority is even easier. Thus, it's not hard to showcase the fact that Vladimir Putin's approval ratings always spiked whenever the state launched initiatives to distract the nation’s attention from domestic problems and reinforced them with an intensified propaganda effort. Vice versa, whenever domestic problems came to the fore, Putin's support waned. The former manifested, among other things, in Putin's “approval ratings boost” in the fall of 1999 (the Second Chechen War) and the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, whereas the latter showed in the leader’s turn toward authoritarianism in late 2003, the economic crisis of 2008, the political “castling move” of 2011, and the retirement pension reform of 2018 (a Levada Center chart, February 2022).

Vladimir Putin’s approval rating: I approve (dark blue) / I disapprove (light blue)

On another important note, Russians generally show little interest in foreign policy, and the overall engagement with events in Ukraine was extremely low in the pre-invasion years, which somewhat weakened propagandists’ attempts to draw public attention away from domestic issues and towards the foreign agenda.

Public engagement with events in Ukraine: “Paying close attention” + “Paying some attention” (orange) / Low interest or no interest (red)

A lack of stance on foreign policy

It is crucial to understand that very few Russians have their own opinion on matters of foreign policy and questions of “friend or foe” – unlike the issues of justice, corruption, and even more so, matters directly affecting their quality of life, personal safety, prices, education, or healthcare. That said, in the long term, respondents’ opinions on foreign policy matters are the most volatile. They are also the most dependent on centralized propaganda, which wanes and waxes as the Kremlin responds to new geopolitical circumstances.

Public opinion on foreign policy matters is the most dependent on propaganda

Thus, the Levada Center registered an increase in anti-Ukrainian sentiment against the backdrop of the escalation in Donbas initiated by Russia in late 2021: “Whereas 43% were negatively inclined towards Ukraine last November, as many as 52% admitted feeling this way in February. When propaganda was relatively low-key, the general public was more moderate on the Ukrainian problem: 55% and 45% had a positive attitude towards Ukraine in February and November 2021 respectively. With an onslaught of anti-Ukrainian propaganda in May 2021, this rating plunged to 33%; paradoxically, despite a much more explicit confrontation in 2022, somewhat more Russians approve of Ukraine – 35%.

If we consider the nation's attitude to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics, a year ago, when the agenda was dominated by imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny's hunger strike instead of Ukraine, corresponding rates in the Levada Center's polls showed a downward trend.

Which of the following opinions on the independence of the Donetsk and the Luhansk People’s Republics would you rather agree with?
%% of respondents
red – “The DPR and the LPR must become an independent state(s)”
blue – “The DPR and the LPR must accede to Russia”
green – “Autonomy of the DPR and the LPR within Ukraine is sufficient”
yellow – “The DPR and the LPR must remain part of Ukraine on equal terms with its other regions”
gray – “Hesitate to answer”
Timeline: March 2014 – May 2014 – March 2015 – May 2016 – March 2017 – May 2019 – March 2021
The Levada Center, @levada_center, declared foreign agent
Created with Datawrapper

A war no one wanted?

Notwithstanding the tremendous challenges researchers face when exploring the reality of social consciousness in a society that is waging war and sliding towards totalitarianism, there are ingots of information that can shed light on the future evolution of public consciousness. Thus, on March 7, 2022, when the Dozhd television channel and other independent media were still around, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published a survey that wasn't representative but showed an important trend among Internet users in the Russian capital: it exposed a 2.5-fold increase in the awareness of Russia's role as the aggressor in the first week of the war.

In your opinion, who is to blame for the ongoing conflict?
red – Russia
light blue – Ukraine
dark blue – the West
navy blue – all of the above
gray – I hesitate to answer
Timeline: February 25 – February 26 – February 28 – March 3.
An online survey of Muscovites, quota sampling by gender and age, with 700 study participants in each wave of the questionnaire.

This case demonstrates how the collapse of conventional polling practices creates an environment that drives the development of “partisan sociology”. Apart from the AFC, we have seen new analytical initiatives by Project Athena, the above-mentioned Alexei Minyailo’s team, and Voronezh-based Qualitas Institute, whose data generally disprove the victorious declarations of pro-Kremlin pollsters. As to the study by Qualitas, what draws attention is the trend its authors overlooked in their conclusions: the correlation between a low level of income and low support for the military operation. As it turns out, contrary to the popular rhetoric about the strong anti-Kremlin sentiment being the privilege of the rich and the educated, the obtained data shows that the majority of those against the special operation belong to the low-income population group.

“Partisan sociology” shows that the majority of those against the special operation belong to the low-income population group

This discovery could serve as validation for economists’ forecasts about the economic decline triggering a social upheaval with the poorest Russians as its main driving force.

Filter by: Gender, Age, Information source, Community size, Income level, Federal district, Support for operation
“I definitely support it” – bright blue
“I’d rather say I support it” – light blue
“I support some of its aspects but not all of them” – light gray
“I’d rather say I don’t support it” – light orange
“I definitely don’t support it” – bright orange
“I don’t know / I hesitate to answer” – gray
“I’d rather not answer” – black.
Income level: All (N=1,642), Low (N=316), Middle (N=894), High (N=317)

If partisan sociology manages to continue its development, it will have to abandon quantitative surveys in favor of qualitative methods, trust-building communication with respondents, and processing discourse data arrays, including social media posts, like Tazeros data analysts did for the project Do Russians Want War?. Such sociological data, especially if it is more objective, will inevitably be used in the unfolding information warfare. With that in mind, researchers who use it should aim to address a variety of audiences and demonstrate to them the falsehood of pro-Kremlin ‘sociology’, which is designed to discipline its elite and demoralize its opponents, thus serving the same purposes as its propaganda and terror.

Presently, the Russian public is mostly in denial about the reality of war, which further contributes to the illusion of its massive support. However, as the actual state of affairs starts to hit home, independent researchers will get more opportunities to figure out who is more numerous: endorsers of violence and destruction, peace lovers, or silent, passive opponents of the war. Partisan sociology could help weaken the Kremlin's grip over civic affairs and the social dialog. Objective, if not fully representative sociology should offer the majority more opportunities to feel at least some unity in the face of the state’s repressive machine – to realize that many others feel and think the same way. It is impossible to wipe out horizontal communication entirely. Science must lend it a helping hand in today’s harsh circumstances.

This piece is the last article commissioned by Oksana Baulina, a journalist for The Insider who was killed in a shelling strike in Kyiv.

At the author's request, the payment for this article will be transferred to Oksana’s family.

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