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How Does Putin Stay So Popular While Losing the War in Ukraine?

Seven months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re faced with a serious paradox: As things go from bad to worse for President Vladimir Putin’s troops on the ground, he remains overwhelmingly popular at home. But what does overwhelming popularity actually mean in a nation with virtually no political opposition, little free press and a siege mentality?

For an answer, I turned to the people behind some of those polls: Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center in Moscow — which has been surveying Russian public opinion monthly since before Putin assumed the presidency — and his frequent collaborator Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center. And their answer was ... well, it’s complicated. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:Tobin Harshaw: Putin gave a speech this week proclaiming that Russia was annexing four territories in Ukraine . How  is this being received by the Russian people?

Andrei Kolesnikov : There was a double motivation: Electoral, which is designed to provoke joy over the fact that Russia is regaining its ancestral lands, and military, which should support the electoral. But there is no joy. It is a bloodbath. 

Putin is forcing Russian men to share responsibility for the war with him [with] the announced mobilization of 300,000 new troops. That is why even if formally the numbers of support for Putin and the war decrease only slightly, the distrust of the regime will increase. 

TH:  Do you feel you are able to get an accurate picture of public sentiment, or are people who may be displeased by Putin’s actions too intimidated to say so?

Denis Volkov: The social climate has become more tense. But up until now the response rates, which we calculate for each poll according to the recommendations of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, haven’t changed much since February. Also, our additional research does not back up assertions that people who do not approve of the country’s leadership are more likely to refuse to take part in a poll, or that polls only represent people who are prepared to engage and answer questions. So, I believe that polling in Russia is still informative.

We try to supplement polling with qualitative data from focus groups. This helps us to listen to the language people use, explanations they make. Also, we regularly use open-ended questions in our surveys to get people’s reactions, not just making them choose from the predetermined options. This helps to make our research more nuanced and adaptable to the changing situation.

TH: The data in the new September poll on Russian attitudes toward the war show some change since the invasion : Those who “definitely” or “mostly” support has dropped from 81% to 75%, and those who mostly or definitely do not support has risen from 14% to 20%. Still, that’s an overwhelming majority that favors the invasion, so is the change significant?  

AK: When analyzing big polls, it’s a good idea to look at the details. Less than half of Russians definitely support the special operation. An average of 30% are wavering, hesitant, passive conformists who have no opinion of their own and are often afraid to have one in the face of very strict authoritarianism. But they are the reservoir of discontent.

About 20% of respondents do not support the special operation, and they openly say so. And in September, there were slightly more of them. Within each of these groups there are a lot of subgroups and a variety of motivations. So the situation is more complicated than it seems.

TH: Have opinions changed because of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and Putin’s order for mobilizing more forces?

DV: The Ukrainian counteroffensive was noticeable, but the partial mobilization announced on Sept. 21 had a much more significant effect on public opinion. The mobilization brought Russian society out of a coma. Over six months, Russians more or less got used to the war, as it became a distant war, waged by the government with the help of professional soldiers. Many convinced themselves that it would not affect them directly.

The news of mobilization came as a shock, and we see a significant rise of pessimism and uncertainty about the future, as people realize that the war is much closer that they used to think. Yet, this has only limited effect on the ratings of the authorities. Putin’s approval rating went down from 83% to 77%, approval of the government from 68% to 63%, and so on.

The support for the military operation didn’t change much, but the number of people supporting peace negotiations rose from 44% to 48%, shifting the balance of opinion slightly in favor of the talks. The limited scale of these changes can be explained by the rally-behind-the-flag effect that happened in spring and is still in place.

TH: As you note in an article you co-authored, hopes that Russians would oppose the war have been dashed. Why?

AK: First of all, passivity and indifference: “The boss knows best, his opinion is my opinion; I do not want war, but Putin had nowhere else to go —  NATO was at the gate.” 

For many respondents, of course, both fear and unwillingness to reveal their opinions are at work, but one should not exaggerate the proportion of such people among those who support Putin.

There is also a considerable group of ideologized supporters; nationalists and imperialists who possess — sometimes consciously, sometimes intuitively — ultra-conservative thinking.

There are also those who are simply accustomed to Putin and have no idea who else could be the leader of Russia. Putin has been in power de facto for 23 years — an entire generation has been born and raised.

TH: You note that only 9%–10% of respondents say they are “prepared to attend a protest.” Can you explain why? 

DV: The price of open protest is very high. The nationwide ban on holding mass events introduced during the coronavirus pandemic has not yet been lifted; on this ground, officials refuse to grant permission for any antiwar rallies. Taking part in unsanctioned protests is punishable by hefty fines and prison sentences for repeat offenses. Incitement of others to take part in unsanctioned protests and “the discrediting of the Russian Armed Forces” have also been criminalized. 

At the same time, people see the protest activity as futile and pointless. The dominant feeling is that the authorities will have their way anyway. And still, some people are going out to protest — youngsters out of bravery and recklessness; mothers and wives out of despair and fear for their loved ones.

TH: Do you see any scenario in which Putin is toppled from power?

AK: For the moment, there are no scenarios for Putin’s departure. He has, of course, gone too far with the militarist craze, and replaced public mobilization with military mobilization, which causes frustration and dissatisfaction among the population. But now all the power is concentrated in his hands. The elites are disunited, do not trust each other, are under sanctions — and all they can do is to be near Putin.

Russia is unlikely to go the way of the Arab Spring in 2011. Putin’s power will degenerate, mobilization will undermine confidence to a certain extent; if he can end the war by fixing the losses and calling it a victory, public opinion will accept this with relief and mechanically continue to support him. Putin needs to offer something for the elections of 2024, and it seems that it should be something peaceful and material, given the clearly impending problems with the economy, rather than purely military.

TH: Putin announced the troop mobilization and made an overt nuclear threat in a televised speech. It looked to me like the actions of a man finally admitting he is losing badly. How far will the Russian people support him toward nuclear Armageddon?

AK: In recent years, fear of a world war has come second on the list of fears of Russians (second only to “illness of loved ones”). In January 2022, 65% said they feared a world war. By comparison, even in post-Crimea 2015, 32% of respondents said they were afraid of a world war. Putin’s nuclear blackmail should inspire the masses, making them proud of how strong we are. But here, as with military mobilization, he may overstep the mark, and nuclear war will be feared more than he will be feared himself. And this, too, would to some extent undermine the foundations of his overly bellicose regime.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin, Nukes and Keeping the West Strong for Ukraine: Tobin Harshaw

• Putin’s Ukraine War Forces Ugly Bargains on Food and Fuel: Liam Denning

• Russian Draft Dodgers Are Europe’s Newest Refugees: Andreas Kluth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and writer on national security and military affairs. Previously, he was an editor at the op-ed page of the New York Times and the newspaper’s letters editor.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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