oDR: Analysis

Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine?

More than 100 new interviews by Russian researchers have shed light on the different groups in Russian society who are pro-war – and why

Svetlana Erpyleva
16 April 2022, 12.00am
The letter "Z" has come to symbolise Russia's brutal military invasion of Ukraine
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(c) dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Since the very beginning of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, the reaction of Russians themselves to the war has remained a central question. What do they think about the war? Why do people support it?

Opinion polls generally show that the majority of Russian citizens support Russian military actions in Ukraine. But social scientists have criticised these polls as unreliable. They point out that many of these surveys are run by polling companies loyal to the Russian state; that respondents in authoritarian regimes tend to choose answers that emphasise their loyal attitude towards the authorities; and that all polling companies, including independent organisations, face a high number of rejections when asking people to participate, which again biases the results towards respondents who support government policy.

Most importantly, opinion polls do not show how people who apparently support the Russian military’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine think. Who are these people? What exactly do they support? What is the logic behind their thinking?

Only a more in-depth study of Russians’ perception of the war in Ukraine can answer these questions.

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Our research

Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent research collective, began conducting in-depth interviews in Russia on 27 February and continues to do so today.

We collected interviews with people both offline and online.

The offline work included interviews at public events in major cities of Russia (mainly Moscow and St Petersburg) – for example, at anti-war or pro-war gatherings – and interviews during the daily routine of our interviewers, for example, with the cashier of a store near home, a hairdresser in a regular salon, a bartender in a favourite bar, fellow train passengers, and so on.

Propaganda and repression mean it is becoming increasingly difficult to get people’s permission to discuss the war

The online interviews were conducted with people who responded to call-outs on social networks, and with people found by the ‘snowball’ method – where a previous respondent or personal acquaintance of the interviewer recruits other people.

Propaganda and repression mean it is becoming increasingly difficult to get people’s permission to discuss the war. At the time of writing, our archive contains 134 anonymous sociological interviews with an average duration of 40 to 50 minutes. Of these, 30 interviews were recorded with those who identify themselves as supporting Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

We often think of those who support the war as people who believe in Russian state propaganda, who believe Ukraine has been ‘captured by Nazis’ and/or that Ukraine (with the help of NATO) was planning an attack on Donbas and Crimea, and then on Russia.

Another stereotype is that these people support Putin or are ready to ignore the negative consequences of the West’s economic sanctions against Russia.

But our research shows that the reasons people support the Russian military operation in Ukraine are more complicated. The very first interviews we took demonstrated that we would not be able to compile a single portrait of a person who supports the war against Ukraine. Instead, we found a range of types of support, which we have separated into different groups.

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December 2021: Russian president Vladimir Putin gives his annual press conference

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c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

(1) The state propaganda audience

Among Russians who support the military’s actions against Ukraine, we found people who tend to reproduce the clichés of Russian state propaganda in their reasoning.

These people trust official Russian sources of information (and most often do not consume other media). They justify the war by referring to the need to protect the inhabitants of Donbas from the Ukrainian regime (referred to as “nationalist”, “Nazi” or “fascist”) and to fight Ukrainian “Nazism” or “fascism” in general.

These people are concerned about civilian casualties among Ukrainians, but they believe the Ukrainian army is responsible for this: the latter, they say, hide in residential areas and provoke return fire on civilians. They are inclined to admit that the sanctions will hit the Russian economy, but are ready to “endure” their consequences. They support Putin and despite the fact that they see internal problems in Russia, they are ready to forgive these problems during a difficult time for the country.

When conducting interviews with these informants, however, we noticed one interesting pattern: the more time that had passed since Russia’s initial invasion, the more likely these people were ready to doubt their picture of the world.

“It seems to me that no one except the [Russian] government knows what is really happening there. No one is giving me military intelligence”

In the first week of the war, none of the supporters of this type suggested that information received from official Russian sources could be inaccurate or incomplete.

A 52-year-old former doctor in Moscow interviewed at the beginning of the war said she constantly watched live broadcasts by state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov online – where he often interviews invited experts – and then proceeded to compare it with information from official state sources, the Echo Moscow radio station and independent Dozhd TV channel, which were shut down soon after the start of the war.

“I compare [official sources and Solovyov] to what Dozhd and Echo tell me, and it turns out that Echo and Dozhd, excuse me, were closed down correctly. Well, because what they were broadcasting was... was just embarrassing,” she told us.

And here are the words of an informant interviewed on 18 March, three weeks after the start of the war, who expresses some doubt over what the media are reporting:

“There is no genocide, at least from the Russian side. I say this on the basis of what I hear from the media, what we are given. It seems to me that no one except the [Russian] government knows what is really happening there. No one is giving me military intelligence.” (m, 44 years old, Yoshkar-Ola, builder, supports the war)

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(c) dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

(2) Supporters of the ‘Russian world’

We also found conscious, ideologically motivated supporters of the imperial project among our interviewees. These are people who formed their attitude to Russian foreign policy (in general, and to neighbouring states in particular) long before the 2022 invasion. These are mainly people with imperial sympathies and/or nationalistic views, who dream of a strong Russia that would finally defeat its eternal enemy: the West.

These people not only justify Russia’s war against Ukraine, but welcome it. In their eyes, the conflict between Russia and the Western world has been going on for a long time. The war on Ukraine is thus an attempt to establish peace in the future (despite the militant rhetoric of NATO), end aggressive nationalism in Ukraine and return eastern Ukrainians back into the “Russian world”.

Thus one informant, a 42-year-old music industry worker in St Petersburg, explains his support for the “special operation” in the following terms: “This was not a surprise, because I follow the development of international relations and the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, and so on, this whole story. Ukraine is just one of the angles [of the confrontation between Russia and the West]. Everything was building up towards this – it was clear how it was being prepared… This decision [to invade] will contribute to the establishment of peace in Eastern Europe.”

Or take the explanation of a freelance video editor, 28, in Moscow: “For starters, there is a threat to Russian statehood from the Nazi-adjacent regime built in Ukraine, which has been pumped full with Western weapons and is built on an ideology of hating Russia and Russians… First of all, we are talking about the security of Russia. It was on the basis of Russia’s security interests that the decision was made to annex Crimea in 2014. And then, indeed, the denazification of Ukraine, the rivalry with NATO on the territory of Ukraine, the protection of our, in general, gas pipeline on the territory of Ukraine.”

“You can sympathise [with Ukrainians], you can worry [about what is happening], all of that. But here the situation is what it is. War is war”

These people are skeptical about Russian TV propaganda, but rather because they think it is stupid and ineffective – they would prefer to have “better propaganda”. This group knows that Russian forces have killed Ukrainian civilians, but tend to believe that a) the Russian army is trying to avoid civilian casualties, b) the Armed Forces of Ukraine occupy positions in residential areas and provoke casualties, and c) victims are inevitable in any war.

“You can sympathise [with Ukrainians], you can worry [about what is happening], all of that,” said the music industry worker. “But here the situation is what it is. War is war. This war continues only because the Ukrainian side wants to continue it.”

People in this group are not afraid of sanctions because, from their point of view, sanctions will only help Russia rid itself of its economic dependence on the West. They support Putin’s foreign policy, but may be critical of domestic politics. There is no reason to believe that these people are liable to change their attitude towards the war.

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Russian authorities banned media from using the word "war" at the start of the invasion

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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

(3) The NATO threat

The third group would prefer that there was no war – but, since it has begun, justify the conflict by the need to respond to NATO’s eastward advance.

A 27-year-old clerk from Moscow told us: “I think that it should have been possible to come to an agreement in the past eight years, find some ways of contact in order to resolve this issue through diplomacy, without military action.

“Unfortunately, Putin launched a special operation. Again, there are prerequisites for this. I consider Russia a great country, isolated from the world, which is pursuing its own path. And, of course, the threat from NATO certainly exists. After all, these are two opposing camps and NATO military bases are placed around Russia. We have already lost many friendly countries in this matter. We’ve lost Ukraine. Well, since they couldn’t come to an agreement, then of course... I think the special operation should be carried out to ensure security in the Russian Federation.”

These people are sceptical of Russian military propaganda and do not trust Russian official media. They use a variety of sources of information, including Russian opposition and Ukrainian media. They tend to believe that the war will lead to economic decline in Russia, the impoverishment of the population, and the division of Russian society into warring camps (a particular concern to many of them).

These supporters of the war can also be critics of Putin’s domestic policies, claiming for instance that “many problems have accumulated inside the country” during his rule.

(4) Personal connections

The fourth group is most likely small, but still important: people who are personally connected with Donbas.

These people consider the “new war” a chance to end the “old war” – the ongoing conflict since 2014. They or their loved ones have already experienced the military actions of Ukraine towards the uncontrolled Donbas, have seen casualties among civilians, and are therefore not shocked by new victims. The prominent Russian propaganda cliché (“Where have you been for the last eight years?” - a reference to 2014) is a real-life experience for them.

This interview with a 28-year-old hairdresser originally from Horlivka, a town outside Donetsk, who moved to Moscow after 2014, illustrates this logic well:

Q: Do people in Horlivka support the [military] action, do you think?

A: Well, those who are from Donetsk support it. Why? Because since 2014 people have endured [war].

Q: How do you think this will end?

A: I would like to see a truce already. I get photographs every day about how my friends are all dying.

These people tend to treat the Russian authorities with indifference or even negativity, but at this “critical moment” they take its side, which may also be the same side as their loved ones.

For example, our next interviewee opposed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was involved in opposition activism – but in 2022 supported the war against Ukraine.

“My parents are there [in Donetsk],” he said, “so I’ve been following the situation all these years… I had to choose between my beliefs and between my friends; between all these Moscow creative and opposition circles and my parents… Although all these years I quarrelled with [my parents] about their attitude to politics, to Putin, to Russia. It is clear that it is pointless to convince them, therefore, at such critical moments, I believe that one must side with one’s relatives so as not to be divided on this issue” (m, 34, Moscow, analyst, supports the war).

These people really hope – based on concrete experience rather than abstract belief – that the current invasion can “end the war”. At the same time, in their view, the main goal of the Russian government should be ending hostilities in their homeland – they are less interested in a march of the Russian army on Kyiv than in another move in the confrontation between Russia and NATO. They probably now see that the end of the war will not come soon.

March 2022: ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ forces outside Volnovakha, Ukraine

15 March: "DNR" forces are seen outside Volnovakha

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REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

(5) Support “despite everything”

Finally, one of the most interesting categories of supporters of the war are people who criticise the apparent causes, course and consequences of the conflict, yet respond positively when asked directly whether they support the invasion.

These people were relatively few among our informants, which is not surprising. These are precisely the people who are not ready to answer questions about the war; it is difficult to convince them to give an interview and therefore they are underrepresented in research samples.

Our interview with the following interviewee, a 49-year-old education worker from Chelyabinsk, is typical: “I was born in the USSR, and brought up in the spirit of patriotism, so I support my homeland, my state, because I simply cannot do otherwise.

“I am against the war, of course. I feel very sorry for the people who suffer [in Ukraine], because many of us have relatives, friends and acquaintances there. Everyone has someone there. Very few people don’t know anyone in Ukraine.

“Naturally, I am very worried; I feel a sense of shame, although I don’t understand what I am personally guilty of. Probably because these people have stopped sleeping peacefully, living peacefully. And that is the fault of my state. That’s probably it.”

Throughout the rest of the interview, this woman frequently spoke about the negative aspects of the war, such as what Russian soldiers were experiencing (“it’s impossible to watch without crying when someone’s been buried or their body has been returned home”) or the destruction of Ukrainian cities.

Many Russians see the war in Ukraine in a contradictory way. They had little interest in politics and did not reflect on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine before the invasion

Like some informants of this type, she was open to opposing points of view, and is sympathetic to the protesters against the war, but does not believe in the possibility of change. “I think the state should listen to why people oppose war. The protests are, for the most part, useless.”

This interview illustrates the fact that many Russians see the war in Ukraine in a contradictory way. They had little interest in politics and did not reflect on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine before the invasion.

But after the war started, this group faced opposing ideological narratives; they have relatives and acquaintances in Ukraine, or children of military age who they are worried about; their friends and colleagues often bring forward conflicting facts; their immediate circle (including, say, opposition-minded children or relatives) try to convince them not to believe fakes; they feel sorry for people who are dying in Ukraine; their standard of living is falling due to sanctions; they do not see the point in what is happening, but believe there may nevertheless be important reasons for it.

These people do not have a consistent “opinion” that public opinion companies can measure, but they are “counted” as supporters of the war.

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"For peace!" sign - written with symbol of Russian invasion - in Khimki, Moscow

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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Sources of information

Many supporters of the war trust Russian propaganda and receive information from official Russian sources, mainly television. But not all. Some of them actively use YouTube and Telegram, subscribe to many channels and check, among other things, Ukrainian media and Russian opposition news. For some supporters of the war – or those who are dissatisfied with what is happening, but declare their support for the “special operation” – it’s an overabundance of information that becomes a problem rather than a lack of it.

“We all understand that, one way or another, we are victims of various propaganda,” one student from Tyumen told us.

An analyst, 34, said: “I have a set of pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian [Telegram] channels. I try to differentiate between their agendas. I can’t say that the Ukrainian [channels] are particularly objective. I don’t really see a difference between what pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian channels show me.”

People who use Russian television as their main source of information, polls show, tend to trust this information, to support the “special operation” and to be older than those who actively use the internet. But this does not mean that all supporters of the war are consumers of state propaganda. Active users of YouTube and Telegram in Russia may escape the attention of polling campaigns due to their smaller number, but they, to a greater extent than TV viewers, participate in pro-war discussions, including online, where they help set the tone.

Some advocates of war, not surprisingly, refuse to call the war a war. Others, however, criticise the use of the term “special operation” as an unnecessary euphemism. A 46-year-old entrepreneur from Yoshkar-Ola told us: “The conduct of military operations and the use of weapons is definitely war. You can hide anything under the term ‘special operation’. This is war. And there is no need to somehow veil it.”

So what?

Our findings suggest that people can be “against the war” but in support of the “special operation” at the same time, and their answers can change depending on the political context, the media environment, and even the circumstances of the conversation.

But among Russian supporters of the war there are people whose perception of current events stems from long reflections on history and geopolitics, from views and sympathies formed over time. This type of support is much less amenable to change. Thus, we can say that the attitude of Russians towards the regime develops under the influence of state propaganda in general.

Our hypothesis – and one that we plan to test in the future – is that people’s perceptions of the war are changing significantly as the conflict draws on. We have not observed that people’s initial support for the war was replaced by rejecting it – supporters of the war continue to find justifications for Russian military actions. But in recent interviews, we rarely encounter unconditional support for what is happening.

Instead, more often we observe someone’s willingness to admit doubt or complain about a lack of understanding of the causes of the conflict. Whether this may at some point lead to a withdrawal of support is not yet clear.

Russia is in a strange moment. As people who are against the war, we must take people who support it – or who are designated as such – seriously. This does not mean we should share their faith or delusions about the war, but view them as real people, fellow citizens with whom we have to conduct a serious dialogue. Only in this way – and not by marginalising these people as crazy fanatics – can one succeed in communicating a different point of view to them. Dialogue with supporters of the war, which is necessary for campaigning against the war, must account for the diversity of Russian people’s support for the war, their likes and dislikes. After all, they will require an equally diverse set of persuasion strategies.

Interviews were collected by Public Sociology Laboratory, Irina Kozlova and volunteers Irina Antoshchuk, Serafima Butakova, Kira Evseenko, Darya Zykova, Nadezhda Kokoeva, Alexander Makarov, Anna Shabanova.

16 April: This article's headline was changed to correct inaccurate information.

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