The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russians think they’re engaged in a heroic struggle with the West

A new survey finds that the public in Russia believes President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for the ‘military operation’ in Ukraine.

Pedestrians on a bridge in the Zaryadye park in central Moscow on Nov. 4, 2021. (-/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Just after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Western media reported on Russia’s antiwar protests. But a new joint Chicago Council-Levada Center survey conducted in Russia suggests that most Russians at least passively support the war and accept Putin’s account of Moscow’s military action, amplified by Russia’s state-run media.

Why? That support can be attributed in part to the fact that Russia’s media landscape is now dominated by state sources; by the rallying effect of war; and by Russians’ compounded mistrust of Western motives since at least 2014.

Polling in Russia today

As part of a joint effort by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Center, Russia’s most prominent independent polling organization, face-to-face interviews were conducted March 24-30 among a nationwide, representative sample of 1,632 Russian adults. Weights for gender, age and education were applied.

While surveys conducted in repressive wartime contexts can be criticized, the survey’s response rate, contact rate and refusal rate are generally consistent with readings since January 2021. In other words, there is no clear evidence that Russians have become less willing to cooperate with pollsters since the war started. The muzzling of alternatives to state media is probably a greater factor in Russians’ high level of support for the war.

Majorities say they support Russia’s military operation

Even though only 29 percent of Russians say they are following the situation in Ukraine very closely and 35 percent are following somewhat closely, a majority of Russians say they support “the actions of Russia’s military in Ukraine.” Half strongly support (53 percent), and 28 percent somewhat support, the military action. Just 14 percent oppose it and 6 percent decline to respond. If people felt nervous about signaling disapproval, more might express reserved support or simply say they don’t know.

At the same time, 7 in 10 Russians think that the country is on the right track (69 percent), and Putin’s popularity ratings have returned to heights not seen since the annexation of Crimea (87 percent favorable).

Why Putin uses Russian law to crack down on dissent

Military action to defend Russian speakers and Mother Russia

In an open-ended question that asked why the military operation is taking place, just 3 percent of those Russians who support it said that Russia aims to annex Ukraine and/or the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. In a separate question with multiple-choice answers, only 26 percent agreed that Russia and Ukraine should be united into one country, while 49 percent think the two countries should remain independent.

The Kremlin’s messaging seems to have taken hold: 21 percent volunteered that the military operation’s goal is to rid Ukraine of “nationalists” and “de-Nazify” the country. A quarter (25 percent) think the military operation is a preemptive measure to protect Russian borders and prevent an attack from Ukraine or elsewhere. And a plurality volunteered that the military operation aims to defend civilians, ethnic Russians, or Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine (43 percent). This narrative about the defense of Russian speakers in Ukraine, combined with the opinion that Russia is standing up to the West, appeals to Russians’ desire for Russia to again achieve great-power status. It also helps explain why 51 percent say the military action in Ukraine makes them feel proud. This pride is markedly higher among those who strongly support the military action (72 percent).

Russians’ support of the war is consistent with broader patterns of high public approval in the early days of a conflict. When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, his ratings rose to levels similar to those we are seeing today, although scholars have reached diverging conclusions about whether these expressions of support were sincere. More broadly, studies found that public support for the Iraq War was high when the White House and media framed the war similarly. As that changed over time, public support dropped.

How popular is Putin, really?

Crisis considered a confrontation between West and Russia

Putin has long depicted the West, especially the United States and NATO, as the source of tension between Russia and Ukraine. It appears that Russians largely accept this narrative. When asked why some countries have condemned Russia’s military operation against Ukraine, a plurality of 36 percent describes these criticisms as subordination to the United States and NATO. Others say it is because “the world is always against Russia” (27 percent), or they are “disinformed by western news media” (29 percent).

In the current Council-Levada survey, large majorities express unfavorable opinions of NATO (78 percent), the United States (73 percent, up from 55 percent in February), and the European Union (68 percent, up from 48 percent in February). Eighty percent oppose Russia’s making concessions to Western counties to lift sanctions.

Russians continue to feel threatened by the United States and NATO. When asked about threats facing Russia today, the possibility of a nuclear exchange with the United States is seen as the most critical threat (83 percent), followed by international terrorism (80 percent). Smaller majorities list as critical threats U.S. military growth (58 percent), NATO (56 percent), and an information war between Russia and Western countries (54 percent).

For all TMC’s analysis of the Russian war on Ukraine, check our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Most Russians are insulated from outside news

Russia has shut down many alternatives to state media, which undoubtedly affects these results. About 45 percent among those who most often access information sources that are less likely to be under Kremlin control strongly support the war; this includes those who most often use online news sites (29 percent overall), social media (37 percent), or Telegram (15 percent). But about 60 percent of Russians who most often use television (71 percent overall), radio (10 percent), and print publications (6 percent) support the war; those sources are overwhelmingly state-controlled.

We found evidence that some news is not making it to the Russian people. When asked how closely they are following news about antiwar protests in their country, 4 in 10 mention that the survey question itself was the first time they had heard about the protests (41 percent). Unlike the Crimea operation, this war has taken the lives of many Russian soldiers. If the war drags on — and word spreads about the extensive casualties — a shift in Russian support is possible.

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Dina Smeltz (@roguepollster) is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. From 1992 to 2008, she was a division chief and foreign affairs analyst at the U.S. State Department’s Office of Research.

Lily Wojtowicz is a PhD candidate in international relations at American University’s School of International Service.