May 16, 2023

Russia As We Know It

Soviet-style decorations were installed at Red Square in Moscow in advance of the May 9 celebrations.
Soviet-style decorations were installed at Red Square in Moscow in advance of the May 9 celebrations.

For Russians and Europeans alike, the historic event of our time is the war on Ukrainian soil. Yet both Europeans and Americans see these developments through the eyes of Ukrainians. In Russia’s behaviour and of its army, they see multiple violations of legal and moral norms. Not many Russians dare to express solidarity with those views since in today’s Russia, to publicly express such opinions is to commit administrative or even criminal offenses.

In March 2023, a nationwide opinion poll revealed that 23% of respondents, nonetheless, disagreed with the political course of their country. 20% did not support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, and 15% disapproved of Vladimir Putin’s performance in the presidential office.

However, the overwhelming majority of Russians (83%) still approved of President Putin. What they see in Ukraine is a re-enactment of war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea – the two events that they believe to have been military and political victories for their country and the highest merits of the national leader, whose approval was then fixed at a staggering 88%.

Know Your Enemy

It is important to emphasise that the Russian public always proceeds from the assumption that the real enemy – whom they either have defeated or are yet to defeat – is not Georgia or Ukraine. Russia’s historical rival has always been the “collective West” led by the United States. Russians willingly consume propaganda aims to convince them that “fascists and Nazis” have taken over Ukraine. Therefore, it explains that Russia is not at war with the “fraternal people” of Ukraine but with the hostile regime and its masters – that is the US.

Know Your Audience

The political myth of the West as a “source of evil” is, indeed, a common trend in many societies throughout the world. What the Russian propaganda has achieved is helping people shape their attitude towards what is happening across the Ukrainian lands as elements of this mythology, rather than the bloody reality of war. Only mass mobilisation has made some Russian families feel the drama unfolding.

The largest category of the Russian population and, most importantly, of Putin’s electorate, is the elderly. They are the ones who form the base of support for Putin and his policies. Left behind by the Soviet and post-Soviet history, they are also one of the most deprived strata, possessing minimal social, cultural, and financial capital. As pensioners (represented largely by single women), these people are fully dependent on the state.

Their main – or only – source of information is the state-controlled television. Russian TV is, indeed, very powerful, but it is not the one responsible for the creation of the mythological version of Russian history. The national culture is. The TV industry itself – its ideologists and content creators – lives inside this bubble, which is also true for those whom ordinary Russians only see on TV – that is, their government.

Know Your Weaknesses

While 37% of Russia’s entire adult population is aged 55 and older, only 8% of Russian adults belong to the 18-24 age group. These young people are usually university students living in large cities. They are also the most active Internet users. The male part of this group has the most compelling reason to fear being conscripted and sent to a war zone. When surveyed, they were the ones most likely to disapprove of the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine – 34%, with an average of 20% in other age groups.

The so-called “older youths” – i.e., people aged 25-39 – make up nearly 30% of the country’s adult population. At this age, people normally start a family, buy a house, and progress in their professional careers. Russian men of this age, however, can also expect to be drafted into military service and sent to the trenches. They tend to show a slightly higher than average level of criticism towards the authorities and their policies.

Both groups chose emigration to avoid mobilisation.

Know Your Strengths

Finally, approximately a quarter of Russia’s adult population is between the ages of 40 and 54. In this stage, Russians move from the relatively liberal political views – more typical of the “young” – to the conservative views, which is characteristic of the “elderly.”

With regards to the “special military operation,” three-fourths of people of this age support it. When asked about the motivation behind it, they have recently taken the so-called non-ideological position: “We (meaning Russians) have started it, so we should bring it to an end.”

Know Your Limits

On the question of how the military confrontation in Ukraine should and could end, the Russian society has several positions. The version that the war will end in Russia’s defeat – with Russian troops retreating to the 1991 or 2013 borders – is implausible even to those who might have wished for such scenario. Likewise, the version speculating that Russian boots will “reach Lisbon” is not treated seriously either.

In early 2022, some Russians were hoping that Ukraine would cease to exist as a state, with the Russian army taking over its territory. Now, no one cherishes such hopes. People have moved on to another version, in which Russia will annex most of Ukraine, while Poland and Hungary will divide the remaining land among themselves.

What Do We Know?

While three-quarters of adults personally support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, only 42% are in favour of continuing military action. 48% would like to see a transition to some peace negotiations. Among the youngest respondents, almost two-thirds would endorse this move. As many as 55% of women would approve of such a solution.

For some, this is an abstract position: “I don’t want people to kill each other”. For others, a significant number of whom favour negotiations, a truce or a cease-fire that would formalise the current situation along the line of contact seems most preferable. The third relatively common position envisages some kind of peace settlement, in which Moscow retains the four oblasts it has already declared Russian. The idea of disavowing the occupied territories – especially the so-called DPR and LPR, let alone Crimea – has very little support. Moreover, Russians do not care about the attitude of the Ukrainians to any and all of these options.

And yet, should President Putin declare the goals of the “special military operation” accomplished and propose to end it somehow, the Russian public would support him – irrespective of the geopolitical solutions offered.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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