One Russian-born pollster argues that widespread, deep-seated backing for Russia’s imperialist ambitions make the people ‘100-per-cent responsible’

Tom Blackwell

Jun 04, 2022

National Post

When a reporter for the CurrentTime TV channel asked Russians in March about the war in Ukraine, she tried to show them pictures of the destruction wrought by their troops. They weren’t having it. “I won’t look at those photos,” said one woman before striding off. “I support Putin in all respects.”  An elderly man was equally dismissive: “No one is bombing Kyiv. I don’t believe it.”

A second woman acknowledged the invasion would probably bring sanctions and hardship but said, “I think Putin is a smart man and he knows what he’s doing. This is what has to be done.” When Western leaders clash with misbehaving nations, they’re often careful to declare that their grievance is with the country’s authoritarian government, not its downtrodden people. But as Russia prosecutes a brutal war of aggression against its neighbour, it seems less than clear if that equation applies.

Polls suggest there’s broad Russian support for what is officially termed a “special military operation.” President Vladimir Putin himself surged in popularity as his tanks rumbled across the border in February, much as occurred when he first attacked Ukraine eight years ago, when he invaded Georgia, and during brutal wars in Chechnya. Meanwhile, low-ranking Russian soldiers have perpetrated random acts of cruelty against civilians, while shipping Ukrainians’ personal possessions back to grateful wives in Russia.

It all raises the question: in this particular conflict are the Russian people — not just their mercurial leader, his close aides and military commanders — also culpable for the death and destruction? The answer invokes debate about the reliability of those polls and the impact of a repressive regime with almost total information control, but some analysts say ordinary Russians can’t be let off the hook. The West shouldn’t go overboard in vilifying private citizens, but the people’s longstanding support for their president did, in fact, lay the groundwork for this war, argues Eastern-Europe specialist Robert Austin. “What always disappointed me about Russia and Russians is how easily they slipped into his dictatorship,” said the professor with the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. “They really bought the Putin program early on. They do have to bear some responsibility for this. The easy embrace of Putin and Putinism leads directly to where we are now.”

In what has become essentially a totalitarian regime, it’s difficult to know how important popular backing is to Putin’s decision-making process. But it appears the president is acutely interested in his people’s opinions.

Elena Koneva, who used to be a leading Russian pollster before moving to Cyprus in 2016, said in an interview that insiders have told her that Russia’s state-run polling organization has recently been conducting daily surveys of 1,600 people each, and that Putin demands to see a report on the findings every day.

Many Russians are opposed to the invasion of Ukraine so it would be wrong to say the whole population “has blood on its hands,” says Maria Popova, an Eastern-Europe specialist and professor at McGill University. But the evidence suggests those dissenters account for less than a majority, while Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine were widely backed, she said.  “It’s definitely not only Putin’s war, it’s wider than this,” said Popova. “Russian society as a whole is responsible, not just Putin.” Even so, censuring private Russians, as well as the Kremlin and its hangers-on, has proven at times controversial.

When visiting classical musicians were barred from performing with some Western ensembles, like pianist Alexander Malofeev at the Montreal symphony orchestra, critics said they were being arbitrarily “cancelled.”

When the All England Lawn Tennis Club turned away Russian players from this year’s Wimbledon championship, the professional tours cried discrimination and retaliated by saying no one could earn all-important ranking points in the tournament this year.

Regular Russian people are no more culpable for the bloodshed in Ukraine than Americans were for the Iraq war or ordinary Canadians for the residential school system, says Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto political science professor. To hold them accountable would be to adopt the thinking of terrorists, who consider it acceptable to attack civilians because of the actions of their governments, he said.  “This is really slippery terrain from a moral perspective,” said Gunitsky by email. “I do hope people don’t associate the Russian people with the regime. Collective guilt is a terrible place to go.”

The level of repression imposed by Putin recently should also not be underestimated, he said, suggesting the country went from “middle-income hybrid autocracy” to something like North Korean despotism in a matter of days.

Political scientist Lisa Sundstrom said she’s also loathe to blame ordinary Russians. It’s exceedingly difficult for them to express dissident views, a challenge that’s prompted thousands to abandon the country in recent weeks, the University of British Columbia professor noted.

But Sundstrom said her opinions are evolving after hearing from Russian opposition activists convinced that their fellow citizens are, in fact, partly to blame. They cite a widespread persistence in believing and backing the regime when alternative information sources are available, she said by email.

Indeed, opinion surveys arguably blur the division between state and population when it comes to the Ukraine war.

In a fairly typical recent poll from the Levada Center, one of Russia’s few independent pollsters, 74 per cent of respondents said they supported the actions of their armed forces in Ukraine.

Putin’s approval rating, just 62 per cent last November, had risen to 82 by April, its highest since 2017, according to Levada polling.  The president’s popularity similarly soared from the low 60s to 90 per cent in the months after Russian troops occupied Crimea in 2014 and backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.  That said, academics argue that fear of retaliation — partly stemming from a new law that punishes criticism of the military by up to 15 years in prison — can affect people’s poll responses, something called “preference falsification.”

To try to filter out that effect, European social scientists Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub set up what’s called a list experiment. They asked respondents a direct question about support for the war, and also to indicate how many of a selection of statements — including one about backing the invasion — they endorsed, without having to reveal specifically which ones they chose. By statistical analysis of the responses, they came up with what they say is a more accurate reflection of Russians’ opinions.

The result?  Even when they didn’t have to expose their true sentiments, just over half — 53 per cent — of people still voiced backing for the attack on Ukraine, a result the researchers described as “extremely concerning.”

Koneva, the Russian-born pollster, started non-profit ExtremeScan after the war started and has been surveying her former compatriots (as well as people in Belarus and Ukraine), offering them the option of not answering a question about support for the war as a way to identify those afraid to reveal their true feelings. ExtremeScan concludes as a result that 64 per cent of Russians back the military incursion.

More specifically, the research suggests that about 30 per cent are hard-core enthusiasts who understand what’s really happening, while another 30 are “light” supporters who’ve been swayed by Kremlin propaganda and vague beliefs that a Russian victory will improve their lives. About 25 per cent actually oppose the war, said Koneva.

She argues more generally that widespread, deep-seated backing for Russia’s imperialist ambitions make the people “100-per-cent responsible.”  But if the polls are accurate and many Russians do have Putin’s back and may even have given him a mandate to invade Ukraine, it raises another question: Why, exactly? Why approve of an unprovoked military offensive that was designed to topple a democratically elected government — and has been marked by evidence of extensive war crimes?  The Kremlin’s tight control on news about the conflict and misleading rhetoric about its motivations and aims are undoubtedly a factor.

Austin points to a longer-term phenomenon. Putin, he says, has been skilled at exploiting the chaotic 1990s — when post-Soviet Russia fell into economic collapse and disarray — and blaming those ills on the West, while intimating the country is still threatened from outside as Europe and NATO spread eastward.  “He was able to portray Russia as a country that was under siege and surrounded by enemies,” said the U of T professor. “The notion of revival and undoing humiliation is very important.”

Popova cites the fact that after the Soviet Union fell, Russia never properly confronted its Communist past and the subjugation of Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations, the way Germany came to terms with its actions in the Second World War.

Nor did Russia properly dissect its own war history. Just like the Soviets, she said, today’s Russian authorities continue to glorify the “great patriotic war,” while obscuring facts like Moscow’s initial pact with Hitler, the Katyn massacre of Polish military officers and intelligentsia, and atrocities the Red Army committed in its sweep toward Berlin.

Putin has extended that popular war narrative with his unfounded claims that he’s battling another “Nazi” government in Kyiv, said Popova. But if Russia had openly debated such issues after the Soviet Union’s demise, it “might be on a different path,” she said.

There remains, of course, a hope that the people of Russia will eventually turn on Putin, whether because of distaste for the war or the bite of sanctions.

Given that support appears somewhat lower than the polls show, regime change “may not be completely implausible,” say Chapkovski and Schaub of the list experiment.

On the other hand, the result could be the opposite, providing Putin even more popular encouragement for his military adventures, said Popova. “If unity in the West cracks and Ukraine doesn’t get enough support and enough weapons, this war may end with victory for Putin and for Russia,” said the McGill professor. “And then his regime would be strengthened.”