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Low salaries and pensions more important for Russians than the invasion on Ukraine

przeczytanie zajmie 8 min
Low salaries and pensions more important for Russians than the invasion on Ukraine źródło: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rKigbrcGNg

Opposition to the 2nd wave of mass mobilization in Russia has increased from 60% in December 2022 to approximately three-quarters. While historical narratives may resonate, the majority of Russians are now more concerned about their quality of life and economic stability – the problem of low salaries and pensions were chosen in our research as the main issue twice as often as „Special military operation”. The conclusion from our data is that three-quarters of Russians would support the end of this war even tomorrow. Oleksandr Shulga talks to Michal Wojtylo about IKAR new special report.

We’re marking the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian aggression on Ukraine. Over these two years you have conducted continuous CATI research on Russian society. Have you noticed any shifts in Russian society’s stance on continuing the war against Ukraine? Do you see more pressure to end it?

Oleksandr Shulga: The answer is not straightforward. On one hand, Russian society lacks clear moral objections against what’s happening. The current situation seems somewhat inevitable to them. They’ve had experiences like counter-terrorist operations in the past, so this feels for them more of the same. In Russian society, there is a considerable formal support and acceptance of the invasion of Ukraine.

In your newest report, you state that about 37% of respondents “definitely support” strikes on energy infrastructure, something on moral grounds unacceptable.

Absolutely. That is what I am talking about.

However, going back to the question of support of the war, the more crucial aspect in the long term, is what I’d call real involvement. This means individuals taking direct action, like actively and voluntarily participating in the war or providing aid to the cause, as we can see being done in Ukraine. We don’t observe this on a big scale among the majority of Russian citizens.

According to our survey conducted around the first anniversary of the war, only 18% of Russians claimed to be involved in volunteer activities and donations, such as purchasing drones and equipment or visiting wounded soldiers. In Ukraine, this rate is around 70%.

This is crucial in the long run – attrition among those ideologically involved and the reluctance of others who support but won’t actively participate are significant indicators of the long-term trends.

Comparing December 2022 to February 2024 we see a particularly striking difference between generations in supporting the continuation of the war between young people aged 18 to 30 and those aged 55 and above, who were socialized during the Soviet era. Their attitudes towards the war and support for wider involvement of the Russian population vary considerably. The readiness for personal involvement or endorsement of such involvement is becoming increasingly unpopular, especially among those who could be conscripted.

A possible second wave of mobilization targeting younger people doesn’t help.

That’s true. Support for a second wave of mass mobilization has drastically decreased. When asked if they support another wave of mobilization, around 60% said “no” in December 2022. Since then, this number has steadily risen, with approximately three-quarters of Russians now opposing it, including 84% of young Russians who won’t support this step.

One reason could be that if we compare the responses of Russians regarding whether they know someone conscripted or killed in action, there’s a significant increase (about twofold) in the frequency of answers indicating one or few of their friends were killed in action.

These attitudes also significantly differ between generations, indicating shifting societal perspectives on the war. It’s not just about young Russians not watching TV propaganda often or being disengaged from politics. It’s because of their everyday life experiences, and their social circles, that they see the direct consequences of this war.

But let’s be clear, we’re not talking about Russian youth opposing new mass mobilization or the continuation of this war because of moral reasons. They simply don’t want to go to the trenches, experience loss like their friends. This is crucial for the long-term, as we’re talking about a generation that will shape Russia’s future in the next decade. And the lack of empathy or understanding of the war’s impact won’t change easily.

Another aspect you touched upon in your new report is the perception of the goals of the “Special military operation”. What are the current goals perceived by Russian society after two years of war?

It’s unavoidable to discuss Putin’s personal perspective in this context. His goals that could mean the end of this war include total occupation of Ukraine, and annihilating Ukrainian culture and language – a total and complete victory.

Putin’s emphasis in the narrative on history serves as a justification for his actions, but it doesn’t address the concerns of everyday Russians about their economic well-being and the worsening financial situation. While historical narratives may resonate, the majority of Russians are more concerned about their current quality of life and economic stability – the problem of low salaries and pensions sounded in our research as the main issue twice as often as „Special military Operation”. Also, business elites with ties to Europe oppose perpetual war, highlighting a growing divide between Putin’s agenda and the aspirations of the Russian people.

From Putin’s perspective, the path should be an indefinite war that ensures his lifetime presidency. He can only sustain it indefinitely. This reveals a growing disconnect between Putin and Russian citizens, not due to moral objections but diverging strategies and interests and the lack of a clear plan.

Russian citizens are more adaptable. What our research indicates, over the long term, is a willingness to accept even the current state of territories under control. If the war stopped tomorrow, they’d be okay with it. There’s a Russian proverb: „It’s not hard to fool me! I’m happy to be fooled!” They’d accept it because their support for the war lacks strong ideological roots. It’s not an existential threat to them like for Ukrainians.

The conclusion from our data is that Russians would support the end of this war even tomorrow. To be precise about three-quarters of them. And this number is quite constant in our research. More than 50% state that Russia has partially achieved the goals of the special military operation and 5% that the goals achieved completely.

You mentioned the lack of a clear plan.

Yes, it is another critical issue. Russian society has its limits, in terms of readiness to endure hardships, ideological support, and isolation. The majority of Russians want to see time frames and endpoints to the war, which is reflected in our research. Only a small percentage are ready to support an indefinite war. And they see no tangible plan or program to address societal challenges.

The gap between Kremlin narratives and personal experiences is evident. Russian propaganda constantly evolves to justify the war based on changing circumstances, but this affects Russians’ readiness to tolerate it. Even supporters of the war are frustrated by the shifting narratives.

Let’s compare the understanding of goals between the first anniversary and the second anniversary. Denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine have the same, first two places in mentions by the respondents. But the third place now is different – it is about not letting Ukraine access NATO. That is something new that was invented by Russian propaganda this year.

There’s a significant concern about the impact of war on everyday life. Russian citizens experience hardships such as decreased purchasing power, rising prices, and financial instability, leading to dissatisfaction with the government’s priorities. Despite Putin’s attempts to justify the conflict through historical narratives, many Russians are more concerned about their economic well-being and the tangible consequences of the ongoing war.

The failure of Kremlin political strategies was evident in the case of Boris Nadezhdin. He’s not a revolutionary. He’s the man of the system. Despite his fall, he offered a formula acceptable to Russians: stop the war, and maintain occupied territories.

Is this disconnect due to a lack of viable solutions to economic challenges? Or are the ideological reasons so important for the majority of Russian people?

History and ideology are really important for Putin personally. I think he was sincere in talking for 50 minutes about history during the Tucker Carlson interview. Russian citizens understand it. We asked them in September 2023, what is more important internationally recognized borders or historical justice? And 45% answered that historical justice.

But in the long term, people need a success history. According to our latest data the number of those who think that “special military operation” is going according to the plan decreased since the first anniversary – from 56% to 46%. Also, the number of those who answered that Russia shouldn’t have started this war increased – from 22% to 34%.

People need something that will lead them to victory, and by that, they mean the end of the war and their personal financial situation getting better. The widening gap between government rhetoric and public sentiment underscores the need for more responsive and accountable leadership that addresses the pressing concerns of the population. The number of those who were mobilized and killed is increasing and their capacity to buy goods and services is decreasing.

When you have this gap and this two justification of historical justice and financial stability is there another justification of being under attack from the West? In your research, you asked under what circumstances would they support “special military operation” against Finland, Sweden and Baltic states. The most important reason is in case of attack threat (55% when asked about Finland).

Exactly, let’s underline – “the threat of attack”. However, only 5% because of the actual attack. It is really important because it is very similar to what they are talking about Ukraine and Putin in his interview was talking about it – it was a threat of an attack, not an attack.

Do you recall what he was talking about when Tucker Carlson asked him the direct question, would you invade Poland and the Baltic states? He said, we have no interests in Poland and in the Baltic states, only threats. If they attack us, we will respond accordingly.

It is a reflection of Russian propaganda justification for invading another sovereign country without even bothering themselves with provocations. A threat of an attack is enough, there are no red lines needed to be crossed. With no real attack from Ukraine, with no real oppression of Russian speakers, they started the war. It is a blueprint for all other possible attacks on other countries, including NATO members. There are no obstacles anymore.

If we would like to influence the Russian population and their attitudes towards the future of war, what would you recommend? For example, some say it is important to attack through missile strikes the Russian territory so that Russians feel the cost of war. And if they feel the cost of war, then they’re more likely to withdraw.

Russian society is an atomized society and what is going on in Bashkiria or in Tuva isn’t bothering Krasnodarski Krai or Yakutia. Border areas like Belgorod and other border oblasts with Ukraine deal with the war in a more direct way. They don’t have the full support and empathy from other regions.

The tactic of Ukraine isn’t to strike civilian homes on Russian territory as Russia does. It’s not our way, not only because of the moral grounds. Russia constantly tries to portray this conflict as the conflict between two nations that are similar. It’s not our way. We attack the infrastructure involved for example in the production of gasoline. Not only because it is used by their tanks, but also because it’s the source of their income with dollars with which they buy more goods (such as microchips) to attack Ukraine. I agree we should attack Russian territory, but only infrastructure like military factories, warships or military bases.

What could affect Russians? The recipe is still the same since the beginning and it is really a conclusion of everything we were talking about – obvious and dramatic operational failures of the Russian army. Also, loss of significant territories occupied from the very beginning, loss of vehicles and soldiers. All of this would be the most efficient way to affect Russian public attitudes.

First, it will affect their faith in their army, because they have really very strong feelings towards it. This confidence has been undermined since the beginning of the war, but we still need to clearly demonstrate to Russians that their army can be defeated.

Secondly, what is even more important, it will demonstrate to Russians not only the misery of their army, but that there are no perspectives of winning and that Putin and all the authorities, also military ones, have no plan. So there is nothing they can do – all loses and hardships will be useless.

To end the war, Ukrainians need more weapons. Gaining more precision weapons, missiles, artillery shells, would lead to not needing them in the long term. Defeating them today would spare a lot of costs tomorrow. Coupled with sanctions and economic hardships, it would really enlarge the gap I talked about earlier between Putin and Russian society. It’s something what is shown by our research.

Last question – why do you think Putin mentioned Poland over 40 times in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson?

It was unexpected for me. Putin’s repeated mentions of Poland in the context of historical narratives and potential threats could be his way of framing Ukraine as historically Russian and presenting Poland as a geopolitical rival, influenced by Germany and the US. This attempt to rewrite history and downplay the significance of Ukraine might be a tactic to justify further aggression. However, it should also be somewhat concerning for you, Poles, to hear Poland being mentioned by Putin so frequently.

Link to IKAR’s Sociological survey the „Mirror of Russia” – two years of the full-scale war can be found here.

Oleksandr Shulga – the head of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), the only institution in Ukraine conducting monthly sociological monitoring in Russia. He possesses 16 years of advanced experience in the field of quantitative and qualitative sociological research.

Polish version of the interview is available here.