What do polls say?
March 13, 2022
On February 24, 2022, Russian Federation troops entered Ukraine, and the war began, or as the Kremlin calls it, a “special military operation” (SMO). Two weeks have passed, and sociologists have provided the results of the first polls telling us about Russians’ attitudes toward the war. Today, I have data from polls by WCIOM, FOM, and a group of independent sociologists (Project Athena) conducted between February 25 and March 6.
The main question asked in all the surveys is whether Russians support the war. More precisely, how do Russians feel about the SMO—the use of the word “war” about the events in Ukraine is prohibited by Russian censorship and would lead to criminal prosecution.
The data from all polls show that a much greater number of Russians (slightly above 60%) support the start of the SMO, an average ratio of 2.5:1.
Why support the war?
I see three explanations:
First, the continued trust in Putin, who has taken full responsibility from the beginning and maintains a daily presence on TV screens. This was the most critical factor in the perception of the historical event at its inception. This can be confirmed because the polls conducted by the pro-government centers (FOM and WCIOM) have recorded a 10% drop in Putin’s approval rating—on average, from a base of 60%-65% over the course of one week.
Second, it is well known that Russian television determines Russians’ attitudes toward other countries and can change them to the opposite view quickly. At the end of 1999, when Putin became President of Russia, 78% of Russians felt good about Ukraine, and only 15% felt bad about it. After the “orange” revolution (winter 2004/2005), the attitude toward Ukraine began to change rapidly for the worse, and after two gas crises, at the beginning of 2009, these figures were 29% and 62%, respectively. Viktor Yanukovich’s victory in the presidential elections in Ukraine in early 2010 was perceived by the Kremlin as a victory by a pro-Russian politician.
By the middle of 2010, the situation was reversed, 70% against 21%. A new wave of worsening attitudes toward Ukraine emerged in May 2014 after the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. For five years, the proportion of Russians who had a bad attitude toward Ukraine noticeably exceeded the balance of those who had a good attitude toward the neighboring country. The situation changed dramatically in May 2019 after Vladimir Zelensky won the presidential election—and up until February 2021, the majority of Russians spoke of a good attitude toward Ukraine (55% vs. 31%). Since then, federal TV channels and Kremlin internet resources began to actively promote the image of Ukraine as an enemy and achieved a significant shift in this issue—in February 2022, on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the majority of Russians again had a bad attitude toward the neighboring country (35% vs. 52%). The virtual war against Ukraine began long before any real action.
Third, an apparent lack of information among Russians resulted from strict censorship and the closure of independent media.
Polls estimate the share of Russians who cite television as a source of news to be approximately 60% (FOM - 59%, Levada Center - 62%) compared to 86-88% in 2013. The second most important source of news is Internet resources (45% for FOM, 36% for Levada), and the third is social networks (23% and 37%). The notion that the Internet is a "space of freedom" and that more objective information can be conveyed to Russians through this channel is erroneous. According to FOM estimates, for 55% the main news site is a resource that actively promotes the Kremlin narrative, for 10% it is a resource that takes a critical stance toward the Kremlin, and for 11% it is a resource that tries not to take an unequivocal position (classification is mine).
Russian media, controlled by the government, shows footage of peaceful life in major Ukrainian cities and does not tell the story of military operations. The average Russian does not see footage of the bombing of Ukrainian cities, does not see Russian tanks destroyed, and does not know the number of Russian soldiers killed. The answer to the question about attitudes toward the war reflects not attitudes toward the event and its consequences but toward its virtual representation. Perception is reality.
In all surveys, no significant differences are found between the opinions of men and women, between people with different levels of education, or with varying levels of material wealth. The percentage of people who do not support SMO in large cities (over 500,000) is approximately twice as high as in small towns (under 50,000), but it does not exceed 30% even there.
The Athena poll says that the presence of a son or other relative of conscription age has no significant influence on support/non-support of SMO. Respondents do not express fear for their fate; they believe Putin’s promise not to use conscripts in military operations.
What are the differences?
The Athena poll suggests that the most vital factor influencing the difference in answers is different information channels. For 71% of respondents, the primary source of obtaining information is television (from now on referred to as “TV audience”); for 28% of respondents, other sources (from now on referred to as “non-TV audience”). For the TV audience, the ratio of support/non-support is 68%/16%; for the non-TV audience, it is 34% vs. 37%.
It is well known that the distribution of those who choose TV or other sources in Russia strongly correlates with age: Older groups gravitate to TV. Thus, it is not surprising that support for the war increases with the age of the respondents: From 29% among the 18-to-24-year-old group to 72% among older Russians (age 51+).
Reasons for the war
Although preparations for the war had been under way for several months, the Kremlin failed to develop a coherent explanation of its reasons for the outside world and its audience. While in the beginning, it was about protecting the Russian-speaking population in the DNR/LNR, after a few days, the main messages explaining the military operation were geopolitical threats, the restoration of historical justice, and the need to “demilitarize and denationalize” Ukraine. This was well reflected in the respondents’ answers.
The initial slogans of protection of the Russian-speaking population of the DNR/LNR found the most excellent understanding, which 34% of respondents indicated as the reasons for the war. This estimate is even higher than the WCIOM poll, where 26% accepted this answer.
Twenty percent of respondents in the WCIOM survey and 19% of respondents in the Athena poll agreed with the existence of threats to Russia’s security, sufficient to start a war. “Ukraine’s wrong policy” as the main reason for the war was cited by 33% of respondents in the WCIOM poll and 20% in the Athena poll.
Is a victory possible?
In recent years, the Russian population has developed confidence in the high combat effectiveness of the Russian (professional) army. Since mid-2018, more Russians trust the military as an institution than they do the President: The last Levada-Center poll on this topic in October 2021 showed 61% and 53%, respectively. Therefore, it should hardly surprise that respondents are confident that Russia will win, which is expected by 73%. The difference between TV audience and non-TV audience, between those who support the war and those who do not, is noticeable in answer to this question. Still, it is not qualitative—the majority in all categories are confident of a Russian victory.
 65% in FOM, 68% in WCIOM, 58% in Athena.
 It requires a powerful stream of negative propaganda to worsen attitudes toward another country. An improvement in attitudes comes almost immediately after this flow of negativity ends.
 Form Athena poll: 54 % of respondents said that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia, while 28 $ said it did not. The poll was conducted after the start of the SMO.
 Together, this 76% of the votes went to 20 news sites. 19% of respondents had difficulty answering this question.
 This factor also strongly influences the results of responses in the FOM poll, although the proportion of those who support SMO prevails in both categories: for "viewers" the answers were distributed 76/8, for "non-viewers" - 53/29.
 In the FOM poll, support for SMO among younger respondents is 47%, while among older respondents (age 44+) it is 74%.
 Answers such as the need for demilitarization and denazification, the problem in Ukraine, and saving Ukrainians also fell into this group.