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The Russian Leadership Is Scarier Than NATO: Which War-Related Topics Disturb Russians The Most?

[
Narratives Impact
]
Mar 7, 2023
10 min

Executive Summary

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This Report covers the results of a traditional OMI psychological experiment aimed at understanding how Russians react to certain anti-war narratives and messages.

  • All messages about war consistently trigger negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. Narratives focusing on commanders' negligence and the dire state of the army's supply system provoke an especially strong negative response.

  • The narrative that Russia cannot confront NATO effectively evokes intense negative emotions as it contradicts propaganda that instills national pride.

  • Surprisingly, 78.6% of Hawks and 57.8% of Loyalists are convinced or rather convinced that the “SMO” has achieved its goal and can be terminated.

  • A fact-checked list of Putin's false claims about the economy appears to have little impact on Hawks, Loyalists, and the Uncertain clusters. Poor Liberals, however, react with extreme anger.

  • The narrative highlighting military commanders' negligence and lack of accountability elicits stronger anger among Loyalists (37.2%) than Hawks (11.1%), although roughly a third of respondents find it convincing in both groups. This message may prove influential in shaping the opinions of Loyalists.

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Methodology

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Sample

Respondents were recruited online.

The sample was stratified by sex and age (equal age and sex groups 18-30, 31-44, 45-60 years). The data was cleaned, the analysis excluded people who did not answer all the questions. The final sample consisted of 971 respondents, 479 men, 492 women. The mean age of the respondents is 37.48, the standard deviation is 11.46.

To determine which cluster of Russian society, based on their war attitudes, respondents belong to, they read three generalized descriptions of different clusters. They then chose the one that suited them best.

Cluster 1. Hawks (15.3%). Firmly believe that Russia is moving in the right direction, support the war against Ukraine, strongly identify themselves with Russia and Russians, believe in themselves and their group, have low stress levels, and are psychologically well.

Cluster 2. Loyalists (42.6%). Hold the same beliefs as the Hawks but express them much less vividly than the latter. They have an average level of stress and a high level of authoritarian obedience.

Cluster 3. Poor liberals (14.9%). In their opinion, Russia is moving in a catastrophic direction. They oppose the war and do not identify themselves with Russia and the Russians. They do not believe in their own strength and the strength of their group to change the course of events. They have the highest stress level among all clusters, and the indicators of psychological, emotional, and even social well-being are the lowest.

Cluster 4. Uncertain (11.2%). Have average rates of support for the war and are not sure if Russia is moving in the right direction, but their level of psychological suffering is the same as that of Poor Liberals.

Cluster 5. Moderate Liberals (15.9%). Oppose the war against Ukraine, but not as clearly and pronounced as the Poor Liberals. They’re also more prosperous and older than the latter.

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Experimental design

An intergroup design was chosen for the study.

Respondents answered a series of socio-demographic questions and then read one of the texts that were assigned to them randomly:

  1. “SMO” objectives are met - Russia stopped a potential attack on its soil and demonstrated its power to the West. Thus, the operation can be terminated (War can be finished).
  2. Russia currently has no means to confront NATO adequately (Russia cannot confront NATO).
  3. The U.S. and NATO did not intend to attack Russia (NATO is peaceful).
  4. Military commanders' negligence systematically goes unpunished (Commanders' negligence).
  5. A fact-checked list of Putin's false claims about economic growth - it’s actually a recession (Putin lies about the economy).
  6. The control group read a neutral, non-political text about the psychological traits associated with procrastination (Control).

Then, respondents answered a series of questions regarding text persuasiveness, emotions they felt after reading it, their war attitudes, feelings about the country's direction, readiness to withdraw from Ukrainian territories, etc. A 5-item Likert scale, from 1 to 5, was used.

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Key Findings

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All the narratives evoked some kind of negative emotions after reading them. A particularly strong negative response was triggered by the text about negligent commanders who caused the senseless deaths of Russian soldiers without leading to military success. This specific message elicits the highest levels of anger, sadness, fear, and disgust among all the messages tested in our research.

Our analysis reveals that there are significant differences between the reactions of Loyalists who were exposed to various narratives, as indicated in the graph below (p < 0.001***). The message that SMO has accomplished its goals and ought to be terminated has garnered unexpected support from them.

Surprisingly, 78.6% of Hawks are convinced or rather convinced that the “SMO” has achieved its goal and can be finished either. It is, however, important to mention that the message was written in a tone highlighting the greatness of Russia and its ability to inspire respect from the West and Ukraine.

The message about negligent military commanders avoiding punishment elicits significantly stronger anger among Loyalists (37.2%) than among Hawks (11.1%). Yet, around a third of respondents from both groups find the narrative convincing. These findings suggest that this narrative may have the potential to sway the opinion of Loyalists.

Unlike narratives about corruption in the military, the list of Putin's lies about the economy does not trigger any negative response among pro-war groups and uncertain ones. Only 14.3% of Hawks, 6.3% of Loyalists, and 5.3% of Uncertain are angered after reading it. This can be due to the fact that it is perceived as a liberal discourse: 50% of Poor Liberals are “extremely angry” due to the lies.

Nevertheless, this lack of anger does not suggest that Russians disregard Putin or think there are better candidates. It simply indicates that their president’s dishonesty about the state of the economy is either not surprising or doesn’t bother them at all.

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Conclusion

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Narratives concerning war have a potent emotional impact on Russians, eliciting negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. Specifically, narratives that expose corruption and deficient leadership within the army are especially impactful, eroding Russians' sense of security and conveying a sense of a feeble state and president.

Furthermore, messages that suggest Russia is incapable of challenging NATO also have a considerable impact, challenging the image of Russia's military might that propaganda has fostered and undermining national pride.

Surprisingly, despite efforts to persuade them otherwise, a majority of Hawks and Loyalists are convinced by the message that the "SMO" has achieved its goals and can be terminated. This result is likely due to the narrative's emphasis on Russia's strength and its potential to gain respect from the West and Ukraine.

The narrative about Putin's falsehoods regarding the economy does not provoke significant anger among most groups and is often perceived as a liberal discourse.

Lastly, the narrative that depicts military commanders neglecting their duties and escaping punishment is more effective at influencing Loyalists than Hawks, making it a valuable tool for those who wish to influence their views.

In conclusion, our findings demonstrate that well-crafted narratives can profoundly impact public opinion in Russia on war and related issues and that certain topics are more effective than others at swaying particular groups.

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[
Narratives Impact
]
Mar 7, 2023
10 min
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