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2023 is likely to bring new trends in the way Russian propaganda adapts to the developments on the battlefield in Ukraine and elsewhere, fighting for the minds of its own citizens and spreading its influence outside the territory of Russia.
Before facing the new wave of propaganda narratives, it is high time to recall what shaped Russian society in the course of 2022 and how it reacted to its key events.
This annual report will
There have been many reports evidencing that most Russians support the war their country is waging against Ukraine. But what stands behind the relevant numbers?
According to Levada face-to-face poll, the level of support for the actions of the Russian armed forces during 2022 has not seen any rapid changes: the percentage of respondents who fully or rather support the actions of the Russian army remains high at the level of approximately 70%.
An online survey by Survation also showed that the majority of respondents perceive Russia as a liberator and a peacekeeper, and only a small part of respondents sees it as an aggressor. The same results were reported by WCIOM phone calls survey with 70% answering “yes” to a straightforward question of whether they support the decision to conduct a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Notice, however, that in this case, the response rate (in relation to the relevant phone calls) was around 5%, dropping to 2% after the "partial mobilization" announcement (Russian Field). The suggested numbers confirm that most Russians are in favor of the decision to start the war against Ukraine, with no drastic deviations from this trend documented during the past year.
That said, however, it is evident that Moscow residents have a lower level of support for the war than in Russia on average. According to the "Russian Field" face-to-face survey, only 55% of them considered the “special military operation” necessary, while 30% believe it should not have been launched at all.
Another trend stemming from the mentioned surveys is that the younger the respondents are, the less they support the war. But generally, no survey can represent the real picture as a significant percentage of Russian citizens are likely to be hiding their true views about the conflict, as proved by an LSE's experiment.
Despite the high level of support among Russians towards the war in Ukraine, there are more Russians who would support the peace talks rather than the continuation of the hostilities.
The peace talks divide the respondents into two almost equal camps. Between September and December 2022, the federal survey by Levada shows about 40% support in favor of continuing military action, and about 50% feel that it is high time to proceed with the peace talks.
The same goes for the Moscow street polls. It is important to note that the idea of peace talks became more popular after the announcement of mobilization, as it would affect people directly.
And yet, the latest Russian Field survey found a “conformity" trend. Specifically, if one reframes the question by adding a “potential government’s decision,” people are inconsistent with their prior views. While 45% are totally for the continuation of the war, 70% would accept “Putin's decision to sign a peace agreement” at the same time. The same was documented by one of the OMI’s studies.
The Open Minds Institute also analyzed how often Russians search online using the keywords like “when the war will stop”, “how to stop the bloodshed”, or similar searches.
The overall trend throughout the year has a positive dynamic and has significantly increased during the last quarter of 2022 when successful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations were launched. These keywords do not necessarily mean that people oppose the war. Instead, the suggested trend reconfirms that Russians feel concerned about their own future and want to restore a sense of stability.
In their vast majority, Russians support the decision of their government to wage the war against Ukraine. The level of documented support may vary from 50% to 70%, based on region and age. However, if one reframes questions slightly, then it also becomes clear that Russians would not oppose peace talks (if any), suggesting that their opinion goes where the Russian leadership instructs it to go and that more and more Russians are concerned about the end of the war.
To declare public support for the war against Ukraine is one thing. Another thing is to be ready to fight on the ground. The way Russians show readiness to join their forces in Ukraine as summarized below reveals the extent, to which they in fact believe that the war in Ukraine was and remains necessary.
A nationwide Russian Field telephone poll at the end of September showed that 64% supported “partial” mobilization. A poll by Levada Center showed that in October, more than half of the respondents (56%) fully or rather supported partial mobilization. Similar results (58%) are reported by the IKAR survey.
And even a survey of Muscovites presents an alike situation: 55% of respondents said that mobilization was necessary, while only 29% held a view that there was no need for it.
Yet, supporting mobilization and readiness to be mobilized are not the same. According to Extremescan, only 30% would be ready to participate in the war if they are mobilized. Following the relevant announcement, there has also been a great increase in dissatisfaction with the government among Russians in their social media discussions.
Another trend is that half of the respondents do not believe in the fairness of mobilization process on a regional basis. There is also a negative opinion regarding the way the mobilized troops are supplied, especially among young people. As clearly seen, young respondents are less likely to support the decisions of the political and military leadership of the Russian Federation than other age groups.
Despite the overall support for the war against Ukraine among Russians, Russian society is not willing to participate directly in the hostilities. One of the reasons is a lack of trust towards the way mobilization is conducted in terms of its overall fairness, particularly regarding the regions most affected by it.
Looking at the graphs showing the level of support for Vladimir Putin might be one of the most useless ways to understand the state of affairs in Russia. The relevant rate has only increased from 64% in the days prior to the war to 79% by the end of 2022, according to FOM.
The rare, yet slight drops in the level of approval of Putin's actions, along with assessments of his performance as bad, were only seen in late September and October once the “partial mobilization” was announced.
A little more informative are the indicators of approval of the actions of the Russian authorities in general. 35% of Russians claim they recently heard others criticizing the Russian authorities in December 2022. Again, it is important to mention that 26% of respondents are afraid to express their opinions about the state of affairs in Russia in their conversations with pollsters, 23% - in conversations with their colleagues, and 17% - with their relatives and friends, according to the Levada poll.
The majority of respondents, specifically 56%, explain the cautious attitude of Russians to the study of public opinion mentioning their fear of negative consequences for themselves. Therefore, even the slightest change in the results of surveys about the government and the war might be perceived as significant.
The attitude towards the Russian government varied throughout the year. In the chart below, one may see the dynamics of the keywords people used to search for certain information. The suggested chart represents both negative and positive attitudes toward the Russian government (e.g., “Government” + “lies,” “Putin” + “lost,” and “Government” + “tells the truth,” “Putin”+ “won,” etc.).
When interpreting the results, one should pay more attention to the dynamics of the trends rather than comparing absolute values.
Two main spikes are seen in March, when the Russian invasion started as well as in September, right after the Ukrainian counteroffensive operation in the Kharkiv region and the announcement of mobilization in Russia. After these events, both trends were consistently decreasing.
Another thing one can notice is that both lines are similar in their dynamics, even though they contradict each other in their meaning. It is likely that the reason for that is an activation of information space. However, looking at the trend lines, Russians tend to think positively about their government less by the end of the year. In comparison, the negative attitude remained stable throughout the year.
According to WCIOM, the war affected the Consumer Confidence Index - an indicator of economic growth calculated based on how much money consumers are ready to spend. It fell in March and April, but by October 2022, the index had already returned to its pre-war level.
The fall in the first months of the war is comparable to the fall at the beginning of the pandemic. The situation is similar to the Credit Confidence Index, which indicates how favorable the situation is for taking loans. Falling at about the level of the pandemic at the beginning of the war and smoothly returning to pre-March levels by the end of 2022.
When it comes to online searches, after a peak in March, Russians were also consistently less concerned about their currency, sanctions, and price growth. On the one hand, it can mean that the Russian government was able to stabilize the economic situation (at least from the point of view of the Russian population). Another possible explanation of this might be that over a long period, people were able to adopt and take the new reality for granted.
The Central Bank of Russia’s Report showed a drop in the Consumer Sentiment Index in October, which was strongly associated with a drop in the Expectations Index: worse expectations for the personal and general financial situation. There was also an increase in the propensity to save money among the population - the desire to make savings in the face of uncertainty.
In the pre-war days of February 2022, 28% of Russians thought their financial situation got worse compared to the previous months, according to FOM.
In March, after the first introduction of the new sanctions, the percentage grew to 37%. Although it decreased again to 25% in November, OMI found that the dynamic of the financial situation, not the wealth level itself, is negatively associated with the war support. Therefore, every person whose wealth decreases is a potential new war opponent.
For many Russians, migration has become a form of protest against the government and, later, a solution for those who do not want to be mobilized. Officially, the Russian Federation does not recognize the seriousness of the emigration issue. According to Rosstat (Federal State Statistics Service), in the first six months of 2022, the migration outflow was only 96,700 people. (less than before the pandemic).
Yet, according to some border services of other countries, in September, at the time of the announcement of mobilization, the mark in nine days was 200,000 people (about 98,000 migrated to Kazakhstan, 53,000 - to Georgia, and about 66,000 - to the European Union).
90% of those who left in the first wave are interested in politics, 50% plan to stay in their former organization (some businesses relocated out from the Russian Federation with their employees), and 90% of those who left speak English. It is evident that the first wave of migration was a political protest of educated people with a good financial situation.
All the attitudes described above are based on the information sources respondents use to form their opinion.
Levada Center reports that fewer people rely on TV as the main source of information, dropping from 73% to 64% during the last 2 years. Mikhail Mamonov, the head of the practice of political analysis and consulting of WCIOM, reports that the tendency of "Internet consumption" to exceed "TV consumption" that emerged in 2020 is being maintained, saying that 29% of respondents prefer the Internet, 16% remain loyal to television, and 52% use both.
TV is also the least popular source of information among the youngest respondents (37%). For respondents aged 18-24, it is more typical to learn news from social networks (60%) and online publications (39%).
Telegram is among the most popular source of information for this group. Although television is not as popular among young people, one should not place too much hope on the objectivity of the online content they consume. It can be just as pro-Kremlin, but these channels of information, for example, Telegram, give the opportunity to access a young audience to anyone who wants it.
In the IKAR survey, more than half of the respondents indicated that they watch how the "special military operation" unfolds several times a day or at least every day.
An interesting trend, though, occurs, according to Mediascope: the propaganda shows of Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeeva on Rossiya-1 were one of the most viewed TV programs during the first months of the war. However, both of them fell out of the top 10 at the beginning of November.
The outflow of audiences from some Kremlin programs is probably due to the fact that Russians got exhausted with news about the progress of the war, which did not correspond to the actual state of affairs. The Russian Field study confirms: 57% of Moscow residents feel tired of news about the progress of the “special military operation.”
Historically, in Russia, sociologists are considered agents of power, so direct questions about whether the Russians approve of the government or the "special military operation" in Ukraine may not provide the real picture. In this regard, indirect indicators acquire importance, particularly the emotions that people tend to experience in connection with hostilities.
The mental well-being of Russians has significantly decreased as a result of the war against Ukraine. It is confirmed by data from media analysis, telephone quantitative surveys, and qualitative studies, as well as behavioral indicators, such as the number of drugs sold in Russia for mental disorders treatment.
According to the Russian National Index of Anxieties in 2022, anxiety has more than doubled compared to 2021, from 9790.27 to 21394.68. In 2021, The increase in anxiety among Russians was 119% compared to last year and 273% by 2020. This year, COVID-19 did not even enter the top three most significant fears of Russians.
According to Russian Field, almost half of the respondents (48%) admitted that the events around Ukraine had a negative impact on their mental well-being. 42% were unaffected by the situation.
According to the FOM, a certain increase in anxiety occurred after the start of the “special operation” on February 24, then in April-May, the stabilization of the mental state of the Russians began, interrupted by the “partial mobilization” on September 21. Then the level of anxiety in society almost doubled - from 35% to 59%. After that, anxiety gradually receded, but it never returned to the state before the start of mobilization. Most Russians still feel anxious.
FOM claims that, according to 57% of respondents, 2022 was worse than the previous year. 45% of Russians, however, believe that 2023 will be better for them than 2022. What is interesting is that those positive expectations are associated primarily with the hopes for the end of the war, as well as for an increase in income.
According to Russia’s Center for the Development of Advanced Technologies (TsRPT), since the beginning of the year, the amount spent by Russian residents on antidepressants in 2022 turned out to be 70% more than last year and reached 5 billion rubles (€81 million). Also, in the nine months of 2022, there is an increase in consumption in the segment of sedatives — by 44% compared to the same period last year.
By the end of the year, the level of anxiety stabilized. However, such stabilization is temporary and dependent on the actions of the Russian authorities. For this reason, the potential for a further increase in anxiety has not been exhausted.
In general, the Russians are adapting to the troubles that they have become accustomed to over the past three years. The ability to adapt to increasingly unfavorable conditions is now the basis of stability in Russian society.
So far, new difficulties do not cause rejection and protest moods among the broad masses. However, it does not mean that anxiety will not suddenly turn into protest. The protest can arise at once, uniting different social groups, because anxiety affects almost the entire Russian society.
So the question arises: what can actually explain all the relevant numbers, particularly the stable support for the ongoing war in Ukraine among Russians?
While public opinion polls might provide some useful information about the general trends or demographic factors of Russian support for the current war, the OMI team considered it necessary to dig deeper and supplement it with the results of its own socio-psychological studies.
First of all, we expected military aggression to be more justified in the eyes of people with higher rates of Machiavellianism (personality trait centered on cold and manipulative behavior), Narcissism (self-centered personality style, an unreasonably high sense of one's own importance), and Psychopathy (untruthfulness, manipulativeness, callousness, lack of remorse or shame, as well as impulsive and antisocial tendencies), as they are generally more sympathetic to violence, and sometimes participate directly in it.
Nevertheless, none of it was confirmed by our research.
We then hypothesized that people who believe Russia is under a threat of attack from NATO and Ukraine and who believe in highly popular Russia conspiracy theories must have been a large part of the war supporters’ groups.
However, it turned out to be mainly unrelated. Apparently, the role of perceptions of the so-called "world government" and its desire to harm Russia and the Russian people do not play a role as significant as it may seem.
One of the key social-psychological factors the OMI has eventually found to be a significant predictor of support for the regime and the war against Ukraine is obedient submission: Putin supporters’ key belief is that the government is always right simply because “it is the government.”
A bit less surprising is the national identification with Russians. Those who support the war identify themselves with fellow nationals especially strongly.
To a somewhat lesser extent, collective Narcissism - the tendency to exaggerate the positive image and importance of a group to which one belongs - is also a predictor of the regime and war support. That means that Russians who support the war believe in the greatness of their nation and that the world does not recognize it enough.
Russians who spoke in favor of the war are more optimistic and psychologically well-off: they have higher rates of positive emotions, happiness, belief in personal and collective ability to reach political goals (self-efficacy), less stress, and fewer emotional burnout symptoms. Anti-war Russians are less psychologically well-off and experience more stress and burnout.
The reason for the lower psychological well-being of Russians who oppose the war is likely to be their marginalization in Russia – the feeling that they are in the minority and that their point of view can be the basis for persecution by the state and the rest of society. Supporters of the war, in turn, feel themselves in the majority.
As a result, war supporters strongly identify themselves with the Russian nation, obey the orders of their authorities without reservations, and are driven by the feeling of belonging to the majority of Russian society, whose beliefs and ideas are to be respected elsewhere in the world.
How do the Russians really perceive the war in Ukraine?
Some of the unpublished focus groups from the end of December 2022 report that for the majority of the respondents, the war is perceived as the new norm and a simple yet unpleasant part of their ordinary life.
At the same time, they are trying to distance themselves from the news about the “special military operation.” Respondents are more and more losing interest in the war, in parallel changing their habits in the area of traditional media consumption.
Internal problems, such as financial instability, corruption, lack of ammunition for the army, and general anxiety about the future, are vividly discussed. Some even mention that one of the priorities for the government should be ending the war as soon as possible and paying attention to internal issues.
The direct criticism includes local authorities mostly, rather than Putin or other figures representing the Russian political or military leadership.
Regardless of that, Russians still answer that their country is “moving in the right direction.” They do not want the war to affect them personally but are mentally prepared for a long conflict since they do not believe that they are in a position to anyhow change the state of affairs in Russia. Furthermore, in a case of a new wave of mobilization, most Russians are not ready to protest.
Lastly, Russians feel confused and do not have a clear vision in terms of the future of the Russian Federation.
This year has shown that Russians, at least in their majority, are likely to obey any orders of their political leadership.
Following this trend, Russian society positively perceives its decisions, particularly in relation to the ongoing war in Ukraine, with the level of support towards the Russian aggression against Ukraine remaining high. No significant changes in this trend have been reported even despite the failures of the Russian army on the battlefield and the issues arising during the “partial” mobilization process.
In parallel, Russians are not ready to participate directly in the war their country is waging, specifically after the successful counteroffensive operations of the Ukrainian army and the start of mobilization. Furthermore, they would accept peace talks and the relevant treaty should the latter be initiated or signed, providing some grounds to argue that Russians do not believe that the war in Ukraine is in their interests.
Still, as the Russians do not have any clear vision of the future of their own country and are also confident that they cannot affect the state of affairs in Russia, they would not try to interfere with the decisions of their government, in particular, to end the war, and are ready to wait for any relevant decision - to continue or stop the war - as long as necessary.
Amid the above, the relevant narrative the OMI team needs to further focus on should include the interplay between the war and the personal welfare of Russian society, particularly the potential direct impact the war can make on ordinary Russians in short- and long-term, also showing the lack of prospects for Russia and its citizens if they decide to continue the “special military operation”.
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