5 Polls That Contextualize the Russia-Ukraine Crisis
Despite claims this week from Russia that it has withdrawn some forces from along its border with Ukraine, a buildup of around 150,000 troops remains around the former Soviet republic and multiple rounds of talks between Russia and the West have failed to produce mutually agreeable off-ramps. The crisis has generated no shortage of speculation on the reasons behind the buildup and what may come next. Is this a ploy born out of Putin’s domestic political considerations? Could additional sanctions spark turmoil and public unrest? A look into the hearts and minds of the Russian population offers valuable context to better understand the ongoing crisis. While polls are not a perfect indicator of public opinion, recent surveys by the Levada Center help uncover a more nuanced, more complete range of Russian viewpoints than those widely known in the West. Taken together, these polls shed light on complex tensions that have persisted since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Who Is the Aggressor?
While much of the West views the current security crisis as a result of Russia’s military deployments and failure to engage meaningfully in recent diplomatic efforts, Russians perceive the course of events differently. According to a Levada Center poll published Dec. 14, 2021, half (50%) of those surveyed believe that the United States and other NATO countries initiated the aggravation of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Another 16% think that Ukraine was the initiator. Meanwhile, only 4% named Russia, and 3% said it was the unrecognized republics of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in eastern Ukraine, which are occupied by pro-Russian forces. There are likely a number of contributing factors that help explain this poll; it may speak to our vastly different cultural and historical perspectives, or to the success of Russian propagandistic tools to control the narrative at home. It also highlights classic aspects of the security dilemma familiar in NATO-Russian relations: one side’s efforts to bolster its security may not universally be perceived as defensive in nature.
The Status of the Donbass
An interesting Levada Center poll from March 2021 asked Russian citizens how they felt about the level of autonomy the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics presently have. The largest proportion (28%) of respondents said they thought the republics should become independent states, while 25% said they thought the republics should become part of Russia. Another 16% said that autonomy within Ukraine was enough, and 10% said the republics should be returned to Ukraine. Another 25% said it was hard to say. While it is true that 69% of respondents effectively support some degree of autonomy for the Donbass region, there is no clear frontrunner for a desired outcome. Instead, there are a range of results with very different political consequences. This nuance in opinion seems not fully appreciated by the West, which often oversimplifies Russian public sentiment or assumes the Russian populace is fully in line with its president.
A similar Levada Center poll from April 2021 asked Russian citizens if they would support the inclusion of the DPR and LPR into Russia if the republics were to request unification. The majority of those polled (65%) reported that they would at least somewhat support this (33% said definitely yes and 32% said somewhat). Meanwhile, only 15% said not really, and only 11% said definitely not.
Threshold for Violent Conflict
Interestingly, while many Russians would support the unification of the Donbass region with Russia, far fewer seem to support military actions to achieve that goal. The same April 2021 poll also asked respondents “In the event of an outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, should Russia engage in armed conflict on side of the DPR/LPR?” The results were much more evenly split. Only 43% of respondents reported that they believe Russia should intervene in a conflict (18% said definitely yes, 25% were somewhat supportive) and another 43% reported that Russia should not intervene (25% were not very supportive and 18% said definitely not). This perhaps implies that while many Russians would support the Donbass being united with Russia, they have a lower threshold for the deleterious effects associated with engaging in an armed conflict including casualties among the armed forces, potential escalation with Ukraine, NATO or the U.S. or the possible political and financial costs of the war.
According to the poll, age was also a factor. The support for hypothetical intervention was significantly stronger among the 55 and older age group; 54% said definitely yes or were somewhat supportive and only 34% said definitely not or were not very supportive. In younger populations aged 18-24, the idea of intervention in an armed conflict was much less popular: only 34% said definitely yes or were somewhat supportive, and more than half (53%) said definitely not or were not very supportive. Whatever the myriad potential causes for this difference may be--whether younger generations of Russians are generally more averse to war or because they are of military service age–further examination is warranted.
The poll also asked respondents, “How do you think Russians’ attitudes towards Vladimir Putin will change in the event of a full-scale war with Ukraine?” The largest proportion of respondents (42%) believe that attitudes will not change. A third of respondents (31%) reported that it would cause Russians to be dissatisfied with Putin. Only 16% of respondents reported it would increase Putin’s favorability. These findings may be particularly useful to Western audiences under the impression that Putin enjoys unconditional domestic support regardless of his actions, or that Putin is fomenting this crisis to boost his ratings at home. (In 2014, Putin’s approval rating rose from 69% in February to 80% in March.) These findings should also be contrasted with the overwhelming Russian support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has consistently remained around 86% according to Levada data. Evidence suggests that Russians view the issues of Crimea and eastern Ukraine quite differently.
A March 2020 Levada Center poll showed that the overwhelming majority of Russians (87%) believe that existing Western sanctions against Russia did not create any serious problems for them personally or for their families. Only 10% of respondents reported the existence of serious problems due to sanctions. This may speak to the surprising resilience of the Russian economy against sanctions, born from tremendous sanctions-proofing efforts since 2014. And it may raise some doubt regarding the frequent postulation that further sanctions will cause public unrest. On one hand, if the West were to respond with various proposed unprecedented sanctions, this could change, and would likely play into Moscow’s fear that the West will foment a color revolution within its borders. However, a Jan. 26 Levada Center poll showed that 66% of respondents are not very worried about possible Western political and economic sanctions against Russia due to the Ukraine crisis; the largest proportion of respondents (35%) said not at all and 31% said not very. Nineteen percent said they were quite worried and 13% responded that they were very worried.
How to Treat the West
Despite anti-Russian sanctions and a tenuous history, polls report that 79% of respondents think that Russia should improve relations with the United States and other Western countries. According to a 2020 Levada Center poll, when asked how Russia should treat the West, 67% of respondents said “as a partner,” 16% said as an opponent, 11% said as a friend and only 3% said as an enemy. These figures have been generally consistent since 2016. Both of these polls suggest a persistent popular sentiment among Russians that the country should cooperate with the West despite effusive anti-West propaganda and fallout since 2014-2015. While each of the polls highlighted in this article warrants further examination, this may be a welcome reminder that Moscow’s harsh, anti-Western rhetoric is not always indicative of how its people feel.
The West has a tendency to oversimplify Russian viewpoints by veering toward either extreme of the spectrum, such as “this is all to boost ratings at home” or “brainwashed Russians will support anything Putin does.” While relatively homogeneous Russian public opinion polls are often used as evidence to further support an existing argument, there are a variety of underappreciated nuances among Russian public opinion that merit further analysis. For example, while Russians generally support some degree of autonomy for the Donbass, they are far more split when it comes to supporting such a military campaign. Each of these polls sheds light on Russian perceptions of key aspects of the developing crisis and enhances our understanding of dynamics presently at play.
Mary Chesnut is an associate research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses’ (CNA) Russia Studies Program.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by putnik shared under a Creative Commons license.