81% of Russians support “the actions of the Armed Forces in Ukraine” and, at the same time, a large part of them is against the war. A supposed contradiction in which another reality is included: the so-called “Putin’s war” even has the support of his detractors, 32% of Russians who disapprove of the president support his offensive. And these percentages are not a machination of the Kremlin’s propaganda factories: they are the results of a recent survey carried out by Levada, a renowned independent sociological studies center on which the sword has hung for years of having been declared a foreign agent by the Russian authorities.
The survey was carried out house by house between March 24 and 30 with a representative sample of 1,600 people from all towns and cities in the country. According to the agency, the statistical margin of error is 0.95 -within the margins of serious polls- despite the great pressure to express an opinion on the attack: a law approved in early March punishes with up to 15 years of jail anyone who discredits the work of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine.
Likewise, according to the same center, the approval of Putin’s management has skyrocketed from 63% in November 2021, when the negotiations with NATO and the military deployment around Ukraine began, to 83% in March this year. , already started the conflict.
Support for Putin’s military campaign and rejection of a conflict are not contradictory for the average citizen. “To the question ‘Do the Russians want wars?’ you must answer ‘no’. In fact, they think that the word ‘war’ is a terrible disaster”, the head of Levada’s socio-cultural research department, Alexéi Levinson, wrote weeks before in another analysis. The issue here is the but: “We are not used to calling war to the armed confrontations in which they participate ours outside Russian territory. What happened in Georgia in 2008 was not called war, but peace enforcement. Therefore, the development of events on the border with Ukraine is not considered a war by the Russians,” he added.
In addition to the Kremlin’s assertions that it was a “surgeon’s operation”, without bombing the civilian population, a key aspect that explains the position of public opinion is the dehumanization of the enemy. Antón Barbashin, director of the portal Riddle, explained it in a debate of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR, in English). “The media follows a line to refer to the people we fight. They use other words: Nazis, far-rightists, terrorists… They don’t call them Ukrainian forces or the Army of Ukraine. They try to show a nation kidnapped by the Kyiv Board, which is supported by the West. And the Russians, especially the older ones, try to think of themselves as two different entities: the Ukrainians, who are there and different from the Russians, and the people we are fighting against, put in by the US or indoctrinated by the West.”
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“No one wanted war, but I did not expect this reaction from the jojly. They are not neo-Nazis, that word is… but they are nationalists, very radical people,” Mijaíl, a retired acquaintance, told this newspaper. Jojly is a derogatory term used to refer to Ukrainians, it comes from a Cossack haircut and would be the equivalent of calling them “Russians”. The Ukrainian and Polish word against the Russians would be Moskali. Ultimately, it is about jokes that ultimately dehumanize a group.
This kind of rhetoric has been present on Russian television and in the press for years. On April 3, the state news agency Ria Novosti published an article titled “What should Russia do with Ukraine?” Based on Putin’s theory that Ukraine should be “denazified”, the author stated that “a significant part of the country” has joined “the Nazi regime in kyiv” and, since so many citizens cannot be tried as war criminals , must be “reeducated” through “ideological repression and censorship.” According to the article, even the name of Ukraine should disappear after this process of “desucranization”, whose ultimate goal would be to end “with the artificial ethnic component in the populations of the historical New and Little Russia”.
The defense of the Russian people
According to the Levada survey, 43% of citizens believe that the military offensive seeks “the defense of the Russian people”, compared to 25% who consider that it is a preventive operation to prevent a future Ukrainian attack against Russia. The most striking thing is that despite the insistence on it, barely 14% think that the goal is to prevent the expansion of NATO in Ukraine.
With Ukraine as the main theme, this April 5 an exhibition was inaugurated at the Museum of Modern History in Moscow entitled NATO, chronicle of cruelty. The exhibition, apparently improvised as it occupies only a small room, mixes wars in which the Atlantic Alliance participated with and without the support of the UN (Libya 2011, Yugoslavia 1999) with conflicts in which it did not take part, such as Vietnam or the US atomic massacre in Hiroshima. and Nagasaki years before it was founded.
The role of the media is important in shaping the opinion of Russians. According to another recent Levada survey, 41% of citizens were unaware that there had been protests over military actions in the neighboring country, despite the fact that 91% claimed to be aware of “the situation around Ukraine”. In addition, a third of those surveyed (32%) were sure that “many demonstrated because they were paid”, a higher percentage than those who believed that they only took to the streets to demand an end to the conflict (25%). According to the OVD-Info journalistic portal, specialized in following the protests in Russia, 15,409 people have been arrested since February 24.
On the other hand, support for the so-called “special military operation for the defense of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics” is general across all age groups. 86% of those over 55 years of age support the military campaign, the same as 71% of young people between 18 and 24 years of age.
However, reading between the lines of another question (“What did you feel about Russia at the beginning of the operation?”) reflects more doubts about that unconditional support. 51% said they were proud of their country, compared to 31% who felt “anxiety or horror” and another 12% who were “shocked”. Of course, only 5% felt “shame”.
Maksim Katz, a politician from the Yábloko party, recently said that his formation had commissioned a survey on the conflict “and of 31,000 calls, in 29,400 they hung up on us.” In addition, he exposed opinion polls from past wars where, at the beginning, the support for the Government was greater than the rejection of its population, but the attrition ended up sinking his popularity. Specifically, the US intervention in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have been fleeing the country since Putin ordered the offensive on February 24. Only in the case of computer scientists is it estimated that their number would exceed 150,000 in two waves despite the fact that much of the airspace with Russia has been closed. They are also joined by many people who fear reprisals for their political positions in an increasingly dangerous environment. According to another Levada survey published on Wednesday, one in ten Russians want to move abroad permanently.
The Dvach channel interviewed people on the street about this matter. “They are cowards, they are afraid to defend their country. A patriot does not leave”, said an old woman. “They are not Russians, they are nationalists, fascists. You have to push them to the Atlantic Ocean. To all and to the Europeans”, said another middle-aged man. “It’s a good thing they’re gone. Here we are the normal people. When I saw Putin for the first time, I understood that he was a man who was going to help us. Thank god he showed up and everything has changed. Tranquility, food… We are Russia”, added a third.
Nor are these good times to express yourself in public in another way. After the liquidation of several historical media and NGOs such as Memorial, the Moscow Higher School of Economics has canceled its master’s degree Human rights and democratic governance. And in Penza, a 55-year-old teacher faces up to 10 years in prison for the crime of discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. “We are North Korea … the international community is shocked at how a civilized country can behave like this,” she told two students who recorded her without her knowledge.
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