Most Russians back war in Ukraine and buy Putin’s case for it, report says

RIGA, Latvia — Russians are growing weary of the war against Ukraine but are divided about how much harm it has done and how to end it, according to a report based on polling and focus groups by the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the Levada Center, an independent polling group.

Notably, however, as President Vladimir Putin appears poised to run in a highly managed presidential election in March, the nation has not turned against him, and Western efforts to punish Russia for the war have not weakened his grip on power.

“All the naïve predictions that popular discontent triggered by sanctions and the wartime restrictions imposed on daily life would bring down Vladimir Putin’s regime have come to nothing,” the report states.

Crucially, most Russians are convinced that Russia has paid such a high price that it must not relinquish any of Ukraine’s territory it now occupies, with Putin determined to force Kyiv to accept Russia’s land seizures, according to the report, which was published Tuesday.

A striking 68 percent of Russians support continuing the war, which has killed tens of thousands on each side, according to the report, and a hard-line group of 22 percent strongly oppose a cease-fire under any circumstances. A similar number, about 20 percent, strongly oppose the war, a figure that has not budged since the February 2022 invasion.

A majority of Russians — 72 percent — support peace talks, yet only 19 percent are willing to make concessions to Ukraine for the sake of peace. Polls cited in the report were face-to-face representative national surveys of 1,600 people.

Much of the strongest support for the war comes from a motivated, vocal minority, many of them older, militaristic men, who tended to cite Russian propaganda on the need to “combat Ukrainian Nazis.” Fewer young people and women were strongly supportive of the war.

The decisive factor in the Kremlin’s capacity to control popular opinion and sustain the war despite massive casualties is a dutiful centrist group who are not vehement supporters of the war but believe the population must support the president and military in wartime.

“While the public is tired of the ‘special military operation,’ there are different views on how the fighting should end,” the report said, using the Kremlin’s official euphemism for the war. “The problem is that the average Russian believes it is their duty to endorse what the state deems to be moral and right. This explains the increase in support for repressive and restrictive laws.”

The report follows up on earlier in-depth research in the first six months of the war and indicates that support for the war has remained remarkably stable, despite military setbacks and high casualties. The military does not publish up-to-date casualty figures, and propaganda channels have consistently played down battlefield setbacks, denied Russian atrocities and extolled the military.

The report by Denis Volkov of the Levada Center and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center suggests that the softening of support for the war in some sections of the population will not derail Putin’s reelection, as the Kremlin strives to use the campaign to enhance his personal legitimacy after ditching the limit on Putin seeking another presidential term in 2020.

“Russian mass consciousness is stuck between two contradictory views,” the report said. In focus groups, most of the war’s supporters argued that “we need to finish what we started” and “we have already lost too much to stop now, only victory will suffice.”

Those who want peace talks expressed views such as “too many of our boys are dying” and “there are too many casualties on both sides.”

The Kremlin’s war propaganda — that Russia is fighting a war for its very survival against Ukrainian “Nazis” backed by the West — was often repeated in focus groups, both by strong supporters of the war and those who are more equivocal, according to the report.

But the high costs and lack of clear benefits of the war have caused some unease: 41 percent of Russians believe the war has done more harm than good, slightly higher than the 38 percent who believe the opposite, the report said.

Most Russians equate the political interests of Putin with the interests of the nation as a whole and tend to support the war even if they see it as harmful, the report said.

“Many people back government initiatives while recognizing the harm they are doing.” the report stated. “This tells us something about the mechanism behind people’s decisionmaking: they will submit to anything the government has decided.”

While Russians voice little trust in the government on everyday matters such as provision of services, they nonetheless seem to accept the Kremlin’s argument that the war is necessary.

“The state continues to create the prevailing public opinion through propaganda,” the authors wrote, adding: “A year ago, this segment of society might have chosen to hide from reality. Today it is living in an artificial world in which the Russian nation is carrying out a messianic mission.”

Most Russians, according to the report, accept that the war will last a long time, and many prefer to tune it out. “They prefer to concentrate instead on their own lives,” the report said. “By refraining from announcing another wave of mobilization, the authorities are able to sustain public calm and indifference. They sedate people with propaganda and buy their support with financial assistance.”