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SOCIETY

Fighting an uphill battle: Even pro-Kremlin Russians are growing weary of the war against Ukraine

From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the autonomous think tank Public Sociology Laboratory has been conducting research on how the conflict is perceived by ordinary Russians. The group uses in-depth interviews with so-called “non-opponents” of the war, those who either openly declare their support for the invasion or fail to express any disapproval. Laboratory expert Oleg Zhuravlev has analyzed 300 such interviews and focus group results from various regions of Russia and has concluded that, two years into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, anti-war sentiment among Russians is on a noticeable rise. According to the research, the conformism seemingly on display in society stems from passive acceptance of the circumstances rather than enthusiastic support for the government and its militaristic policies.

Content
  • Not great, not terrible

  • Non-existent values are hard to believe in

  • A “bad” but “inevitable” war

RU

Not great, not terrible

Two years after Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine, the Russian economy remains more or less functional, partly thanks to the Kremlin’s policy of “military Keynesianism,” which has propped up aggregate demand through additional defense outlays. The government spends money on military production and pays military personnel and their families, stimulating activity in the civilian economy as a result. In theory, this economic approach should nurture the growth of a “war beneficiary” class supportive of Putin’s regime and enthusiastic about forming a more aggressive, militaristic Russian society.

But qualitative interviews conducted in the spring of 2022 (around 200), the fall of 2022 (over 80), and the winter of 2022 (a special study of a small town revived by a new military enterprise) provide real-world insight into the correlation between the impact of the war on the wellbeing of individuals and their attitude to it, and the results are decidedly mixed.

Overall, respondents whose financial situation has improved because of the war and the new Keynesian policy propping it up tend to show firmer support for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. This has been confirmed by sets of interviews taken from the same individuals with an interval of six months and first-time interviews of the second and third waves. Moreover, some of the respondents make a strong connection between supporting war, defending their homeland, and protecting their family and personal wellbeing.

As an example, we can quote one of the respondents, a 27-year-old sound engineer. His support for the Russian armed forces and government grew stronger between the spring and the fall of 2022. He has become notably more aggressive towards Ukraine and Ukrainians. Ultimately, he equates defending his country with protecting his family, declaring his readiness to take up arms:

“If I have to, if things go south, I’m sure I’m up to the task. I’ll grab an assault rifle and beat the sh*t out of anyone who attacks us. I won’t even take a moment to consider who he is: an occupant or a would-be liberator. I’ve got to protect my mother and the woman I love. ...Had it been up to me, I’d already be there [in the combat zone], but they rejected me. I’m not after killing anyone. All I want to do is protect my country's interests. I only have one country,” he said in October 2022.

In the period between two interviews, the respondent quit a previous job he hated and secured a well-paying position in the music industry – a domain that used to be his hobby. His experience of career growth and professional success reinforced his conviction that the war had been beneficial for the Russian economy. Most importantly, the respondent is confident that his own social standing is improving:

“Strangely, living conditions have become much better over the past six months. It's not only because my salary is higher. New opportunities keep emerging here and there.”

However, focus groups organized by Khroniki and ExtremeScan to study lower-income Russians suggest a grimmer outlook. Ordinary industrial workers and recipients of various social benefits are more skeptical about their economic prospects.

When asked whether the macroeconomic situation and their personal financial circumstances had improved, the respondents noted positive developments in specific industries and at specific enterprises (such as “agriculture,” “drone factories”) or for particular groups (“the IT crowd,” “military top brass,” and “the elites,” or “high-profile individuals”). As for negative trends, these lower-income Russians noted a decline in fortunes at both the national and personal levels.

“People are chasing discounts.”
“This is relevant for 10% of the population, tops... The rest are dirt-poor; many can't even afford soda.”

Meanwhile, when speaking about their peers who had received benefits related to military service, the respondents emphasized that it was hard to find a decent application for the extra income — or that the benefits did not make up for the hard work, suffering, and hardship caused by the war.

“When his contract ended, he came back from the special military operation. He brought 900 [thousand rubles, which is a little under $10,000]. Not bad, you might say. But what can he do with all that money now? He can either go back or try to build a life here, in Samara. But he came back from prison a little bit messed up,” a 37-year-old male industrial worker said in November 2023, speaking of an acquaintance.

Even though the economic decline is perceived as universal, few regard it as a catastrophe.

“Our quality of life has declined, of course, but it's still higher than we anticipated,” an industrial worker in his thirties told the sociologists in November 2023.

Some of the respondents found solace in the thought that “things could be worse,” especially in comparison with Ukraine:

“I might’ve had a better life three years ago, but I’m thankful for what I have now. I can't even say I’m worse off. There are power outages sometimes, but it’s just a matter of perception. I still have electricity and gas, and there are no explosions. When I look at what's happening in Ukraine, I can't help thinking: ‘Thank God for what we have.’ Because everything could have been infinitely worse,” said a fifty-year-old woman employed in the public sector.

However, far from all beneficiaries of the wartime economy are willing to endorse Russia's new militarist policy.

Non-existent values are hard to believe in

Much has been made of Russia’s — and Russians’ — supposed ideological commitment to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But has Kremlin propaganda really been successful in convincing its people that their country is waging a just war, whether against Kyiv or against forces of the “collective West”? The study suggests two years of war have not given the majority of Russians a better understanding of the conflict’s causes, goals, or purpose:

“Frankly speaking, I wish [Putin] would say, ‘Folks, here's our goal!’ Remember how we had five-year plans in the Soviet times? We had a project for the current five-year plan, and another project for the five-year plan to come. But now we have no idea where we're headed. We don’t know what this is for or what's in store for us. What are we fighting for? What is our final destination? How long do we have? Five years? Or maybe ten, twenty, or fifty? We have no deadline or plan. We’ve got nothing,” a 35-year-old female industrial worker said in November 2023.

If the purpose of the war is unclear, such a conflict cannot become “the people's cause.” Unsurprisingly, the political leadership waging it also remains alien to the nation. The schism between Russia’s government and its society is best illustrated by another respondent's quote:

“They have their own society up there, and they are making all of the decisions,” a female musician, 48, said in November 2023.
If the purpose of the war is unclear, such a conflict cannot become “the people's cause”

Although the respondent does not express disapproval — either of the Kremlin leadership or of its war — she still admits that the authorities and society live in parallel worlds. It is an observation shared by many. In the eyes of several respondents, Russia's war against Ukraine only deepens the divide between the government and the general population, suggesting a belief that the conclusion of hostilities is imperative for the emergence of a new policy capable of resolving Russia’s very real domestic problems:

“And whatever [the presidential candidate] promises, let him fulfill at least 10% of it. It's a cock-and-bull story. But let him do 10%. He’ll embezzle 90% as usual. But we’ll have 10%. Inside the country. We don’t need anything outside. I couldn't care less about America. I’ve never been there. My mom wants Ukrainians [the respondent used a slur] to lose. Have you seen Ukraine? You haven't. Do you know anything about it? Let them all go to hell. What matters is what we have. So we need to put an end to it and focus on what’s inside the country. Inside,” a female public sector employee, approximately 40 years old, said in November 2023.

Somewhat paradoxically, the sociological research suggests that many Russians who are preparing to vote for Vladimir Putin in the March 2024 presidential election explain their choice by citing the incumbent president’s capacity to put an end to war. According to them, such an ambitious goal requires a seasoned leader at the helm.

A typical quote from a focus group:

Moderator: “Is anyone expecting a change of any kind?”
Female respondent 1: “I think we’ll see change when everything is over. That's when we might see some new beginnings.”
Female respondent 2: “The first thing that we’re waiting for is the end of the war, period. I’m waiting for the military operation to be over.”

Other respondents cite ending the war as Putin's mission as a presidential candidate:

“I will give my vote to Putin. Why? Because it all started during his rule, and it's up to him to end it.”

Another focus group quote:

“I’ll clarify: it’s time we ended all of this. Enough victims on both sides. We need to sit down and negotiate peacefully. All we need to do is bury the hatchet, from both sides.”

Even though opinion polls cannot show a relevant distribution of opinions in a dictatorship, they may still be useful for analyzing trends. The observed trends show an increase in anti-war sentiments, as the nation is growing tired of the war. According to Khroniki surveys, the share of Russians opposed to a hypothetical withdrawal of troops from Ukraine had shrunk by almost one-third by the end of 2023. As we have seen, even those who accept the war do not see it as “theirs” — and do not see the government as representing their interests.

Moreover, respondents expressed the hope that Putin will end his “special military operation.”

A “bad” but “inevitable” war

But what about those who sincerely support the war and the Kremlin in its stated ambition to win? Could this group form be the Kremlin’s support base as it pursues the policy of radical militarism? Such enthusiasts exist, of course. However, the majority of them still do not see the war as just and do not believe its goals are worthy. Moreover, they do not consider the aggressor state — Russia — to be just either.

A great many respondents harshly condemned the full-scale war in its early days but soon came to justify it. Still, they did not go as far as to approve of it, instead saying they saw it as inevitable. A closer look shows that in the first weeks of the war, many of those who would grow opposed to it were indistinguishable from its future advocates. Researchers are yet to finalize the list of factors contributing to a change of opinion in those who expressed more or less the same sentiments in March 2022 before diverging as events unfolded. For now, we can only attempt to explore the trajectory of those who moved from condemning the war to accepting it as inevitable.

Again, it bears repeating that at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, many Russians who would come to support it initially condemned Putin's decision. Later, however, they reached the conclusion that the full-scale war, while abhorrent, had nevertheless been unavoidable, as it had supposedly been forced on Russia. Eventually, this idea of inevitability became a bridge to their support for Russia’s “special military operation.” Their lack of experience in political thinking or participation had caused them to assess the war in ethical, rather than political, terms.

Naturally, this group considered mass military violence unleashed for no apparent reason to be immoral. Paradoxically, however, their apolitical attitude served as the reason why they failed to transform their rightful indignation into a consistent political stance against the Kremlin regime that had committed exactly the kind of aggressive, militaristic act that they professed to oppose. Being against the war, it turned out, was too “political” a step to take in an effort to escape the difficult moral and emotional situation the Kremlin’s war-of-choice had created.

The idea that war was inevitable became a bridge to their support for Russia’s “special military operation”

Respondents’ day-to-day circumstances certainly influence their capacity to understand what is happening around them. Inside Russia, there is no space for anti-war protests or criticism of the war. Open discussions are also out; even among friends, opinions become polarized. Furthermore, many opponents of the war left the country, only to be faced with hardship and isolation abroad before renewing their connection with their homeland.

Gradually, many of these Russians concluded that the war was horrible but inevitable. Moreover, this change of heart has been observed not only in apolitical onlookers, but also in prewar opposition sympathizers. How did that come to pass?

One of the study’s respondents is a successful creative industry worker who abandoned her earlier pro-opposition views in favor of support for Russia's “special military operation.” As she says, “I’ve experienced all stages, from hatred for my country to the feeling of unity with it.”

When asked how she took the news about the beginning of the war, she said: “First, I couldn’t accept my state’s policy. I wanted Putin dead.” After a while, her attitude changed: “At some point, I came to a realization that Russia's involvement was sort of inevitable.”

Like many other respondents, she tends to project the reality of the ongoing war, which she cannot eliminate from her life, onto the general inevitability of wars in human society:

“It was a tough choice but an inevitable one. Agreements had not been honored for a long period of time. We lived without war for a long while, and we thought we could go on like that forever. But as it happens, war is always out there, somewhere on the planet. It used to be far from us. ... It's horrible, it’s reprehensible that such a thing has happened, and our suffering will go on for decades. I see the Russian army's participation in this as something inevitable. It’s disgusting, it's hard, but inevitable.”

With time, she took an interest in history and discovered the fabled geopolitical “confrontation of interests.” When she speaks of it, she uses the expression “grindstones of history.” And so she has picked a side in this eternal standoff between Russia and the West — a “standoff” that is an “objective fact,” as far as she is concerned. However, this does not mean that she adheres to the Kremlin's values or goals.

In their creative attempts at explaining the inevitability of the war against Ukraine, many respondents simply began to forget that they had once seen an alternative path. They see their own position on the war as something that was beyond their capacity to control. Yet accepting the perceived inevitability of a geopolitical struggle is a far cry from actively supporting an unprovoked war of conquest, let alone believing it to be a just one. Still, the Kremlin’s efforts to rally Russian society under its militarist banner have mostly resulted in passive acceptance, even if there remains minimal enthusiastic support.

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