In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Russia Victory Day parade 2022

Levada: Nearly 1/3 of Russians Are ‘Not Very Afraid’ Their Country Will Use Nukes

June 10, 2022
RM Staff

A majority of Russians are growing more apprehensive of NATO, according to the results of one of the latest polls conducted by the Levada Center, the most respected of Russia’s independent pollsters. That’s hardly surprising, considering the Kremlin’s efforts to mobilize public opinion against the West as Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine rages on. What does come as a surprise is that a majority of Russians surveyed by Levada in May believe this apprehension should be mutual: Asked whether they “think NATO countries have grounds to be apprehensive of Russia,” 61% of respondents answered in the affirmative—the most since April 1997, when Levada first asked the question. It is possible that this is a function of the Kremlin’s propaganda, which keeps many ordinary Russians uninformed about their military’s flawed performance against Ukraine’s armed forces, which are far less powerful than NATO forces. More ominously, while Levada’s May polls show that almost half of Russians are concerned that the situation in Ukraine may escalate into an armed conflict between Russia and NATO, a third of respondents say they are not particularly afraid of the possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons in such a conflict. That such a high percentage of Russians do not find the notion of a nuclear strike by Russia to be intimidating is alarming, especially given that both Putin and his aides have repeatedly dropped dark hints that Russia may initiate such a strike.

Russians Are More Apprehensive of NATO…

The share of Russians with a negative attitude toward NATO grew by a modest four percentage points this past spring, up to 82% of respondents in May from 78% in March. As with many other recent Levada polls on Russia’s relations with the West, older respondents in May tended to be more hawkish in their attitudes toward the Western alliance. Only 4% of those aged 55 or older had positive views of NATO versus 16% of respondents aged 18-24.

In addition to disliking NATO more, Russians have also become more apprehensive of the alliance, with the share of those who fear it rising from 48% in 2021 to 60% in 2022—just four percentage points below the record high, registered after Western planes bombed Yugoslavia in 1998.

Levada also asked respondents to assess how much of a danger they see in accession to NATO by four countries: Finland, Georgia, Sweden and Ukraine. Some 71% viewed Ukraine’s accession as “seriously” or “somewhat” threatening, in contrast to 53-59% for the other three countries.

… and Think the Apprehension Should Be Mutual

Not only have more Russians come to fear NATO but more are concluding that Western countries have reason to fear Russia. The share of those who believe NATO member states have reason to be apprehensive of Russia has almost doubled since November 2021, reaching a record 61% in May and marking the first time since April 1997 that more than half of Levada’s respondents held that view. (Interestingly, public opinion in at least one NATO country does not reflect this apprehension toward Russia: Some 57% of Bulgarians do not consider Russia to be a security threat to their country, according to a poll carried out for Globsec Trends and released June 3, per bne IntelliNews; moreover, 38% of Bulgarians want their country to exit NATO, according to the poll.)

While Half of Russians Fear War With NATO, Nearly 1/3 ‘Not Very Afraid’ Russia Will Use Nukes

One obvious possible reason why more of Levada’s respondents think Russia and NATO countries should be apprehensive of each other is the latest rhetoric from Moscow in its war in Ukraine: As invading Russian forces have had to contend with an increasing array of Western-supplied weapons in Ukrainian hands, Putin and key members of his team have warned that such supplies are legitimate targets for Russian retaliation and, as noted above, have even dropped dark hints about a nuclear exchange. Broadcast across the entire spectrum of Russia’s state-controlled media, these threats were bound to make an impression on the Russian public. They may explain why 48% of respondents in May said the “situation in Ukraine could escalate into an armed conflict between Russia and NATO,” while 34% think Putin could order first use of nuclear weapons in a war between Russia and the West (10% think it is “highly probable,” 24% think it is “quite probable”—see below). Most notably, perhaps, almost a third of respondents say they are “not very afraid” of the possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons, according to Levada. To be more precise, when asked to rank their fear of use of nuclear weapons by Russia on a scale of 1 (no fear whatsoever) to 5 (very strong fear), 21% chose 1 and 8% chose 2. In contrast, 38% ranked their fear of such use at 5, while 12% ranked it at 4.

Interest in War Wanes, But Support for It Doesn’t

While almost half of Russians are now concerned that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a Russia-NATO conflict, interest in “the situation in Ukraine” has been declining. The share of respondents who told Levada they follow developments in Ukraine dropped from 64% in March to 56% in May. A majority, nonetheless, continue to support the Kremlin’s “special military operation”—up three percentage points from 74% in April to 77% in May. Again, this support was tepid among young Russians: While 57% of those aged 55 or older “definitely” supported the operation, the share among those aged 18-24 was 33%.

It's also worth noting that the share of those who see the Russian operation as successful has also grown since April from 68% to 73%—again, possibly evidence of the sway held by Kremlin propaganda over the opinions of ordinary Russians, despite developments such as Russian troops’ retreat from the Kyiv area. Notably, 58% said “people like them” do not bear responsibility for civilian casualties in the ongoing operation—which, in the view of 26% of respondents, will last between two and six months, while 23% think it will last six to 12 months and 21% believe it will last longer than that, according to Levada. If reflecting reality, this combination of support for the war and self-absolution from responsibility for the death toll among Ukraine’s peaceful population, as reported by Levada, indicates Putin faces no serious pressure from within the country to discontinue hostilities and engage in negotiations.

Caveat: Last but not least, it is important to acknowledge that polls in Russia, even those conducted by a leading independent pollster like the Levada Center, can only partially reflect the real views of the Russian public. As Levada’s own Denis Volkov has observed, “surveys don’t show what people think, but what they are ready to say … in public.” That Russians are increasingly reluctant to speak their mind even in anonymous polls should come as no surprise, given the recent criminalization of free speech in Russia, where calling a war a war can land you in jail for 15 years.

Photo by Mos.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.