As President Vladimir Putin calls up some 300,000 reservists to bolster Russian lines in Ukraine, he is hoping to turn the tide against a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has sent Russian forces into a hasty retreat from the Kharkiv region. New data, however, suggests he should be worried about turning a different tide: that of public support for the war.
As problematic as the Russian military has been for Putin, insight from a recently released trove of data on Russians’ attitudes toward the war suggests that the draft could hit hardest precisely where support for the war is weakest: young men who have not openly opposed the war, but who have been equally reluctant to support it.
After Ukraine’s counteroffensive liberated in days territory that it took Russia months to occupy, Putin’s loudest critics were calling not for an end to the war, but for an escalation. Whether the Russian military can fight any harder is itself an open question. While Putin and his war remain outwardly popular, recent elections suggest that enthusiasm may be waning. Randomly sampled public opinion data released recently by the independent Levada Center polling agency, includes raw survey results from the first four months of the war. The data reveals surprising findings about who supports this war, who does not and who might be persuaded to change their mind.
Who supports the war
Ever since the war began in February, Levada Center surveys have consistently shown an overwhelming majority in support, beginning at 81 percent in March and falling only slightly to 76 percent in August. While researchers have raised questions about the validity of these surveys — including whether Russians are likely to tell the truth in wartime, and whether people might be hesitant to respond to surveys in Russia’s current, more repressive climate — the data and accompanying statistical analyses that Levada released recently suggest that polling numbers have been reasonably accurate.
With more than 3 in 4 Russians supporting the war, significant majorities of every social group and demographic category tell Levada that they fully or mostly approve of what the Russian government calls its ‘special military operation.’ Nonetheless, some categories are particularly fervent in their support, including older Russians and, unsurprisingly, people who voted for the ruling United Russia party.
Levada also asked people how the war made them feel emotionally in the early weeks, and the 51 percent of respondents who said that the war gave them a sense of pride were, also unsurprisingly, most likely of all to support it. Hope and happiness also tended to go hand in hand with support for the war. Indeed, of people who reported feeling just one of these positive emotions, 98 percent said they supported the war; that rose to fully 100 percent of the respondents who felt proud, hopeful and happy at the same time.
Who opposes the war
Just as older Russians have consistently been among the biggest proponents of the war, younger Russians have been among its most consistent opponents. Among respondents aged 18 to 24, ‘only’ 68 percent supported the war — still a large majority, but much less than the 81 percent among the total population, or the 88 percent among those aged 55 and older. The surveys also show that women are more likely to openly oppose the war than men.
Equally importantly, the data reveals a range of negative emotions closely connected with opposition to the war: anger, shame, depression, fear and shock. Indeed, 31 percent of respondents said that the war made them feel horror, fear or anxiety. Feeling just one of the negative emotions in the surveys increased opposition to the war from 4 percent to 21 percent. Of those who said they felt all four or more negative emotions, 74 percent opposed the war.
A close look at these data, then, gives us a clearer picture of who the war’s biggest opponents are: young, fearful women. Among women aged 39 or under who said the war made them feel fearful, 29 percent said they opposed the war. That should not be surprising, given the preponderance of young women among those arrested for taking part in antiwar protests, and the leadership role played by the Feminist Antiwar Resistance.
Who might be persuaded
For the resistance to the war to grow, young, fearful women will need to be joined by someone new — and the Levada data strongly suggest that the answer is young, married, unemotional men.
Going back to the data, 8 percent of respondents said in March that they had no particular emotional response to the war — a number that is likely to have increased as people have become accustomed to the conflict. Those 8 percent, however, were particularly likely to oppose the war itself. And young, married men were particularly likely to say they had no emotions about the war.
On the face of it, those young married men with no emotional response to the war were just as likely as anyone else to say they support the war — if they answered the question. But 26 percent of those men avoided the question altogether, a number 20 percentage points higher than for the survey as a whole. While there is not enough data to provide a precise estimate, statistical analysis shows that young, married, ‘unemotional’ men are significantly more likely than any other category to keep their opinions about the war to themselves — a pattern found among young men in other analyses of survey cooperation since the war began.
For Putin, then, asking young men to commit their lives to a flagging war effort is risky — not only because it might not bring benefits on the battlefield, but because it is likely to provoke many of those men into outright opposition to the war itself. For the war’s opponents, on the other hand, appealing to young married men looks like the clearest route to stymying Putin’s plans.
Samuel Greene is director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis and professor of Russian politics at King’s College London. He can also be found on Twitter and Substack.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.