Why Russian Support for the War in Ukraine Hasn’t Wavered

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Exactly six months have passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and so much has changed. At least 12 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes, half of whom have fled the country as refugees. NATO is on the verge of its most significant expansion in decades—one that will more than double its borders with Russia. While the impact of the war is most acutely felt in Ukraine, which has suffered thousands of civilian and military casualties and billions of dollars in infrastructure damage, reverberations in the form of food and energy crises are being experienced across the globe.
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But one thing that hasn’t seemed to change is Russian public opinion. According to the Levada Center, an independent polling agency in Moscow, more than three-quarters of Russians continue to support what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, with just 18% opposed. Putin’s approval rating is similarly high at 83%, a figure that has only risen since the war began. A slightly smaller, but nonetheless consistent, majority of the public believe that the country is headed in the right direction.

Public sentiment in Russia is difficult to gauge, especially when expressing a position contrary to the state-controlled narrative can lead to arrest or worse. “The perception of any poll coming through your phone to any Russian person would be seen with suspicion, as if it’s coming from the government,” says Olga Khvostunova, a fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. But the Levada Center, which the government declared a “foreign agent” in 2016, is likely an exception here. And while a recent study found that as many as 10% of those who profess to support the war may be doing so out of expediency, that still leaves a decisive majority of Russians who apparently back it.

Read more: With Pride and Dread, Ukraine Marks Its First Independence Day Since Russia’s Invasion

The durability of this support can be explained by a number of factors, not least the repressive nature of Russian authorities, the non-existence of any viable political opposition, and the country’s tightly-controlled media environment. But another important factor is that, for many ordinary Russians in places such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, life hasn’t fundamentally changed since Feb. 24. Yes, the country was hit with unprecedented Western sanctions, but those have yet to have a substantial impact on the availability of everyday goods (although food prices have gone up) or on unemployment (which has fallen as low as 3.9%). And while numerous foreign retailers such as Apple and IKEA have left the country, Levada Center polling shows that only a minority of Russians are particularly bothered by the Western brands’ departures, many of which have since been replaced by Russian copycats such as Starbucks replacement Stars Coffee and McDonalds substitute Vkusno i tochka, which roughly translates to “Tasty, period.”

In some ways, continued Russian support for the war is understandable. The absence of free and independent media in the country, coupled with the restrictive laws prohibiting opposition to the war (or even calling it a “war” at all), makes it difficult for ordinary Russians to get the full scope of what is happening in Ukraine. If the consistency of the polling tells us anything, it’s that most Russians are happy, if not resigned, to accept the Kremlin’s narrative of the war.

Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, says that if anything has changed in the past six months, it’s that Russians appear to be disengaging from what is happening in Ukraine, with fewer following the news as attentively as they did when the war began. “More and more people are losing interest,” he says. That could help Russia’s ability to sustain the war, without major public opposition.

If, however, the realities creep ever closer to ordinary Russians—from vacation goers fleeing blasts on the beaches of Russian-occupied Crimea to elites such Darya Dugina, the daughter of a far-right ideologue, who was killed in a car bombing on Saturday in Moscow—perhaps interest in the war will grow and public sentiment will change. But if it does, it’s unlikely to be communicated through the public opposition seen in the early days of the war or during last year’s months-long anti-government protests in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, both of which resulted in thousands of arrests.

“If people are going to come out and take that risk, they need to know that there are going to be others out there with them,” says Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London. “Taking that risk because it’s the moral thing to do is a really high bar to expect people to clear.”

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