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How Russians feel about the “special operation” in Ukraine and how long before Putin’s approval rating subsides

A Russian car with the inscription 'Everything for the front, everything for the victory' drives on St. Isaac's Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, 02 April 2022.
©EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV  |   A Russian car with the inscription 'Everything for the front, everything for the victory' drives on St. Isaac's Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, 02 April 2022.

On April 11, 2022, the Levada analytical center published a survey describing “the feelings” that the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine has stirred at the level of Russian society. The survey was carried out a month after the start of the war in Ukraine (March 24-30, 2022), and there is a good chance some indicators might have changed slightly, particularly in the context of the growing losses on the ground, as well as in light of the massacres that were publicized after the withdrawal of Russian troops from certain areas. Still, the data is relevant enough to notice how the “passions and feelings” of Russians have evolved in connection to this topic, and how Russian citizens adjust their support for the actions of their leaders.

According to the Levada survey, the emotional baseline generated by the “special operation” in Ukraine has divided the Russian world (more specifically the Russians at home) in two: 51% of Russian respondents felt pride for their country, whereas 31% felt scared. The other emotions generated by the said “special operation” are the following: anger (8%), joy and inspiration (7% each), depression (6%) and shame (5%). There were very few respondents who couldn’t describe what they felt or who recognized there have been no significant changes in their state of mind. What’s worth mentioning here is that these figures vary considerably from one age category to another. Whereas younger people felt more scared and unsafe, people over the age of 55 tended to support the decisions of their political leaders, and are usually the main reason why the Kremlin leader remains popular.

Rights and liberties have been violated, but it makes little difference

A brief historical overview all the way back to 2014 shows that, in crucial times such as the annexation of Crimea, the launch of the military operation and the support provided to separatists in Eastern Ukrainian, the Russians chose to “close ranks” around their leader, tacitly supporting his decisions against the neighboring country. The same didn’t happen with other political leaders. The system made sure there was only one figure of authority to whom everyone else would report to, without exception. Vladimir Putin’s popularity went up considerably in 2014. The same is happening right now. When Putin isn’t fighting an external enemy, his popularity goes down. The same happened when he launched the pension reform and allowed for a breach in the strategy that upholds his image as a strong leader. Social and economic subsidies, as well as his alliance with corrupt regional leaders or with public figures who were rewarded for their humanitarian initiatives are not as effective as the concepts of “citadel under siege” or “foreign enemy”.

In early April, the president’s approval rating reached 82%. Moreover, 81% of Russians who took part in the survey supported Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine one way or another. Some of them actually didn’t hesitate to express fear and discomfort towards the new reality. When saying “one way or another”, I actually meant this kind of support doesn’t always have a reasonable explanation.  Rather, at this point in time we are witnessing an inferred consensus: the Kremlin pretends to protect the Russians in Eastern Ukraine against a genocide, the Russians in Russia against growing fascism or to prevent attacks on the Russian state organized by the Americans, and the citizens pretend to support their leader, Vladimir Putin. The anti-war movement started after February 24 has piped down dramatically, although over 15,000 people have been detained so far.

The passive support provided to Vladimir Putin tells us that the Russian people are trying to identify a psychological comfort zone for themselves, where they need not explore any additional arguments or question decisions that might affect their individual rights and liberties. In fact, when Russians took to their streets to defend their political rights (December 2011 and May 2012), they were punished, and the opposition leaders were sidelined. In the current situation, people prefer to concede their political freedom in exchange for the illusion of individual peace and quiet.

Why do people keep silent then? Those who stepped up to voice their concerns in the past had to suffer the consequences, and now are either serving time or have left the country, hoping they might contribute to triggering a change in the political structure of their country. Over the years, however, the people who left Russia might discover that the system has disowned them and turned them into pariahs, depriving them of all credibility by means of much more elaborate propaganda and disinformation mechanism than those they previously had to deal with, while still on the territory of the Russian Federation.

In turn, those who chose to stay firmly believe they cannot make any difference, and it’s safer for them to fall in line and adapt to the new reality dictated by the authorities, who continue to undermine their individual liberties by means of even more repressive legislative mechanisms. More recently, the State Duma drafted a new bill that, if approved, will allow the authorities to declare individuals and businesses that do not receive foreign funding as “foreign agents”. Under the new bill, as long as they are under the “influence” of a foreign source (they completed formal or informal studies about political or protest actions, for instance), that makes them a target. Under these circumstances, it is becoming increasingly harder to act or be active in the public sphere in order to express a different point of view.

The soldiers’ “right to life” is of little interest to most Russians

In the aforementioned survey, Levada Center tried to explore the opinions of those who are against the war in Ukraine. Approximately 43% of respondents said they are against the war overall, and only 19% realize that Ukraine is a country whose sovereignty and integrity should be observed by Russia. Here, we can notice that merely 8% of those who took part in the survey claim they oppose the war because Russian soldiers are dying. This number is particularly important if we factor in the idea that Russian-language messages conveyed by influencers in Ukraine revolve around the Russian soldiers’ “right to life”. It is possible this percentage might have shifted slightly after the sinking of the Moskva flagship, considering that a number of mothers whose sons served on the Russian cruiser that went missing started asking questions about the whereabouts of their children. Still, the society-level impact has been toned down in terms of reach, preventing the aftermath of past crises in the history of Russia: the wars in Chechnya or the Kursk submarine disaster.

According to data published by Ukrainian authorities, over 23,000 Russian soldiers had died in the war in Ukraine by the end of April. Naturally, this number has been refuted by the Russians, who claim the death toll is below 1,900 people.

In her book, A Russian Diary, Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist killed on October 7, 2006, drew the perfect picture of the typical mother of Russian soldiers who were either killed in the Chechen wars, or their lives were forever changed by the war. At the time, the solidarity expressed by Russian mothers gave birth to a social movement – the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (comprising over 200 organizations on Russian territory), which took great effort for Moscow authorities to quell. Russian mothers were extremely active in public space, which the authorities had not yet managed to bring under their full control, and tried to voice demands to take part in certain electoral processes. Today, despite the expansion of Internet access and the large number of options for finding alternative sources of information, the Russians still fail to get out of their physical comfort zone, although their psychological welfare is increasingly affected as well. And the situation will continue to deteriorate, since the number of those killed in the war might be compounded by many more people in suffering: sickly people deprived of their right to healthcare and quality medical services, and people part of other vulnerable social categories.

The observance of individual rights and liberties in Russia has time and again been ignored by political leaders. On the contrary, they have always been searching for new mechanisms to suppress, transform and undermine the importance of these rights and liberties. This strategy has been pivotal in consolidating control mechanisms targeting the emotional welfare and general state of the mind of Russian society. More often than not, people adapt to or comply with new realities, and only when their suffering is at its highest do they actually end up eroding the authority of the regime. The following months could be crucial in this respect for the Putin regime. The effects of sanctions are increasingly harder to manage. And if so far Russian citizens preferred to strike a political deal with their leaders, soon the new social and economic realities will dawn upon each of them, making them rethink their priorities.

Tags: Russia , Vladimir Putin , War in Ukraine
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