In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
The words in the news: Speaking about the war in Ukraine to Russian lawmakers on April 27, President Vladimir Putin again raised the specter of nuclear war, warning that, “if anyone decides to interfere … and creates risks of a strategic nature for Russia that are unacceptable to us, they must know that our retaliatory-offensive strikes will be lightning fast.” Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also sent ominous signals this week, saying the risk of nuclear war is “very substantial” and that “the danger is … real” and “must not be underestimated.”

Putin’s Plan A has failed: Despite deploying up to 150,000 troops to attack Ukraine at once from north, east and south on Feb. 24, the Kremlin has failed to topple the government in Kyiv, capture the capital or take over left-bank Ukraine. This has prompted President Vladimir Putin to reorganize the command of his “special military operation” and narrow its focus to a potential pincer maneuver from the east and south. A key goal of this Plan B, as described by some Russian commanders and political insiders, is to maximize land grabs in Ukraine’s southeast. As of April 28, however, Russian forces remained far from achieving this, recent advances in eastern Ukraine notwithstanding.
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Moskva cruiser
The sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship this month has been hailed as a symbolic victory for Ukrainian forces deeply in need of a morale boost, but commentators diverge on whether the loss has practical implications that could alter the course of the war. Some, such as Ukraine’s Arkady Babchenko, claim that the sinking of the Moskva leaves warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which are involved in the blockade of Ukraine, without most of their air defense and makes a renewed assault on the city of Odesa problematic. Others, such as Russia’s Alexander Khramchikhin (perhaps predictably) downplay the military significance of the loss, arguing that it will have no effect on the course of war. Below, find these and other informed views on whether the sinking of the Moskva matters and why.  
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Anti-tank hedgehogs on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kyiv
In a recorded event hosted by IISS, the Harvard professor explores the relationship between the current war in Ukraine, the emerging alignment between Russia and China and the rivalry between Beijing and Washington. 
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Russian crowd
The latest survey results from Russia’s premier independent pollster show a Russian public largely supportive of the war in Ukraine, more worried about Western sanctions than before and split on why some Russians might be protesting the Kremlin’s “special operation” against Kyiv. The Levada Center’s most recent polling data also show that the share of Russians wanting to emigrate has dropped by half since just before the war, perhaps because so many have already left.

As usual with polls in Russia, at least two mitigating factors are important to note: the power of state-run propaganda and respondents’ wariness about speaking with pollsters, both heightened by increasingly harsh laws restricting freedom of speech and punishing dissent. In 2016, for example, the Levada Center found that 26% of respondents do not want to answer pollsters’ questions about the country’s state of affairs for fear of negative consequences. Last month, when a group of researchers commissioned a poll on Russians’ attitudes toward the war in Ukraine, 29,400 of the 31,000 people they called “ended the conversation as soon as they heard the topic,” one of the organizers told The New Yorker.  
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Government meeting
As Russia’s new laws on freedom of expression become increasingly draconian, analysts have questioned how reliable any polling on Russians’ attitudes can possibly be. Denis Volkov, director of Russia’s go-to independent pollster, the Levada Center, told The New Yorker recently that “surveys don’t show what people think, but what they are ready to say … in public,” and that matters even more, according to Volkov's predecessor, Lev Gudkov. Russians are also “looking to confirm an us-versus-them worldview that was locked in place a long time ago,” Volkov told the magazine: “Russia is on the side of good and the West is against it.”
These caveats are helpful to keep in mind as we review the results of Levada’s latest government approval ratings, which have risen sharply in the month since Moscow launched its brutal war in Ukraine.

Key takeaways from the poll, conducted March 24-30 among a representative nationwide sample of 1,632 people:
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Russia’s war in Ukraine and its fallout have driven up energy prices worldwide, making countries from Europe to Asia scramble to adapt. Fresh data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show which nations import the most Russian oil, gas and coal.

Among individual countries, China was the top destination for Russian crude oil and condensate exports in 2021, receiving nearly 30% of the total. Second and third place went to the Netherlands and Germany, accounting for 13% and 10%, respectively. Together, the two received nearly half of Russian crude oil and condensate exported to Europe last year. Just over 4% of Russia’s oil exports went to the United States. Earlier this month, however, Washington banned imports of Russian oil and gas into the U.S, trying to deprive Moscow of revenue after its invasion of Ukraine; the move was matched by a U.K. phase-out of Russian oil imports, but the EU did not follow suit.
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Anti-war protest
Putin’s Russia, among other things, is held together by tamed and loyal journalists who are often aware of its faults but keep working for money, fame and/or love of the regime. The audacious recent anti-war protest by a producer on state-run Channel One television during a live news broadcast is a sign that this part of the regime’s toolbox may be getting the worse for wear. (Though this does not mean that years of Kremlin spin can easily be undone.)

What could happen from here?
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America map
Polling by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center shows that Russians had soured on Western countries by mid-February, prior to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Over the preceding three months, as Russian officials’ denunciations of the West continued apace, the share of respondents believing “the U.S. and other NATO countries” to be responsible for heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine had risen to 60%. Anti-Western attitudes track with age: the older the respondents, the more widespread the negative attitudes toward the U.S., EU, Great Britain and Germany; conversely, the highest share of positive attitudes were found among respondents aged 18-24.

The spike in anti-U.S. feelings among Russians came after a gradual improvement in the second half of 2021, according to the Feb. 17-21 Levada poll. In the week before the war, only 31% of respondents held positive views of the U.S., compared to 45% in November; negative views had climbed by 13 percentage points from 42% in November to 55% last month.
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wheat field at sunset
New, drastic sanctions have been slapped on Russia and will hurt, especially in the long run. Plenty has been said about the effects on energy markets, so I’m going to skip that sector and say a few things about other, less discussed yet very important domains where these sanctions could reverberate, if they haven’t already.
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Anti-war protest
This week, two Russian pollsters—VTsIOM and FOM—published surveys showing that approximately two-thirds of the Russian public support the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. The independent Levada Center, which Western experts often cite as more reliable, has not yet released its data on the topic. However, its earlier research suggests that a large share of Russians may indeed be supportive of the “military operation,” as Moscow calls it—likely at least in part because of the state’s portrayal of the tensions leading up to the conflict.

For example, negative attitudes toward Ukraine and blame toward the U.S./NATO for the crisis there rose by about 10 percentage points in the week before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion as compared to mid-November—and President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating followed suit. According to a Feb. 17-21 Levada poll, 52% of Russians hold a negative view of Ukraine and only 35% hold a positive view, versus 43% and 45%, respectively, three months earlier. The portion of respondents holding “the U.S. and other NATO countries” responsible for heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine rose from 50% in November to 60% in the third week of February. Meanwhile, Putin’s approval rating grew by 8 percentage points, from 63% in November to 71% in the Feb. 17-21 survey.
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