Main Image Credit Keeping watch: the Kremlin routinely commissions surveys of the Russian population. Image: Andrey Korzun / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Although Russian elites are highly pessimistic about the war, polling of the Russian population likely gives the Kremlin confidence that it can sustain losses in Ukraine.
Polling and assessments of public sentiment constitute a major part of Russian political decision-making. Before its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) conducted extensive polling of the Ukrainian population. It also routinely commissions Russian ‘political technologists’ to survey its own population. Examining these academic polls can provide insight into how the Kremlin perceives its own people and the risks they pose to regime stability.
RUSI has had access to a range of academic polling conducted on behalf of the Kremlin relating to the war in Ukraine. This article will refer to trends across a number of such polls, though details from specific polls are withheld to protect sources. The polling has tended to divide the Russian population into five broad categories: Cosmopolitans, Nihilists, Loyalists, Globalist Patriots and ‘Ura (Hoorah)-Patriots’. The Cosmopolitans, constituting around 12–15% of the population, are viewed as forming the core of the active opposition, with just under half of this group assessed as having personal connections to Ukraine. The nihilists – comprising just over 10% of the population – are viewed as critical of the government but largely disengaged and passive. This group is viewed as unlikely to be supportive of the cosmopolitan opposition.
The remaining groups are all seen as supportive of the government, albeit to varying levels of intensity. If anything, it is the Ura-Patriots – at around 20–25% of the population – that raise the greatest policy concern, as they are the most invested in the conflict and therefore the most likely to be critical of failures. The greatest variation in categorisation is among loyalists and globalist patriots, largely reflecting the level of engagement with politics.
The Kremlin pays careful attention to the media that these groups engage with. Private polling obtained by RUSI of the Russian population conducted in August and October 2022 demonstrates that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of the Russian population who claim to value independent media. However, when asked what they mean by ‘independent’, most respondents answered that this meant media that validated their own views, and listed Kremlin-controlled television stations and other state media as the most independent and reliable.
The greatest concern registered in surveys is nuclear war, with respondents supportive of measures framed as a means of reducing the likelihood of nuclear conflict
Whereas academic polling conducted for the Kremlin in May and August showcased a high level of support for the war in Ukraine combined with very limited concern or engagement with it, this changed after the declaration of mobilisation. Private polling since mobilisation has demonstrated that the war is being more widely discussed and that a broader cross-section of the population are pessimistic both about their own prospects and about the economic impact on Russia. Perhaps most contentious is the closure of the border, a measure that is seen in an extremely negative light across population segments.
This growing pessimism has not yet manifested as a threat to the government, however. Many of those who are pessimistic are supportive of measures aimed at bringing about a successful outcome in the war. Others are pessimistic but see this as an imposition by NATO rather than a consequence of Russia’s mistakes. Still others are deeply fearful about the outcome. The greatest concern registered in surveys is nuclear war, with respondents supportive of measures framed as a means of reducing the likelihood of nuclear conflict.
For the Kremlin, the current information landscape appears to be one over which it believes it retains a great deal of influence. Western leaders should note that Russian posturing over nuclear use is as much about raising domestic fears and therefore bolstering support for the government in diffusing these self-generated threats as it is about coercing Russia’s adversaries.
For now, Russia’s Ura-Patriots are vocally criticising the conduct of the war, but their criticism is largely directed at certain commanders, local administrators’ handling of mobilisation, or even the attitudes of wider society. They have not yet turned their ire on President Vladimir Putin. This is the Rubicon that the Kremlin will be anxious to deter them from crossing. Once they do, then it becomes possible for those parts of Russia’s elite who are most dissatisfied to begin exploring a world beyond Putin, and to communicate other explanations for the disaster to the Russian public.
So long as regime safety remains the organising logic of Russian politics, it is likely that popular apathy will be preserved
The Kremlin appears comfortable for the time being that casualties on the battlefield will not force the Ura-Patriots to begin narrowing their accusations of blame. At the same time, as a greater proportion of the Russian public becomes more concerned about the war, and interest in it expands beyond local politics and the economy, the Russian population is likely to become more fragmented – even if few are looking to act. During peacetime, the Kremlin has used fragmentation to isolate its opponents and then polarise them in order to suppress and undermine political mobilisation. The result is an apathetic populace.
While encouraging the passivity of the population may ensure regime security, the Kremlin must now square the circle of wishing to mobilise its people to fight while simultaneously preventing them from coalescing into a sufficiently large constituency to be able to have sway over the Kremlin. So long as regime safety remains the organising logic of Russian politics, it is likely that popular apathy will be preserved.
The picture painted through polling is one in which the Kremlin can sustain losses, but attempting to generate the national unity required to bring about a more favourable position on the battlefield – and a more coherent drive to bring industry onto a war footing – would significantly increase the risks for Putin if setbacks continued. For now, however, the Kremlin appears to be comfortable with the domestic ramifications of protracting the war. Given that the Kremlin’s picture of Ukrainian society proved so inaccurate, however, it is worth asking whether polls of the Russian population are producing a similarly distorted view.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare