Will Russian public opinion turn against Putin?

Russian protester holding up opinion sign as being against war

It is now a month since Russia invaded Ukraine.  Despite the terrible suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian people, Russia has failed to win the overwhelming victory that many anticipated. 

At present, due to a combination of genuine nationalism and rigidly controlled state misinformation, opposition to Putin’s war in Russia is limited to a minority.  However, as Russian casualties mount and Putin’s failure becomes increasingly hard to cover up, this may change. 

The big question now is, will Russian public opinion turn against Putin? And, if so, how fast?

A failing military campaign

Initially, the Russian army made some significant gains, as a combination of surprise and numerical superiority played in their favour.  However, Russian military failings coupled with stiff Ukrainian resistance led to the Russian advance slowing to a crawl within a few short days. 

Russian casualties are significant.  Precise numbers are difficult to ascertain but some sources place their losses as high as 10%.  And somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 Russian soldiers have probably died.  These losses are higher than those suffered by the US at the height of the Vietnam war in 1967/8.  Yet, despite the sacrifice, the Russians have only managed to capture a single Ukrainian city to date.

Nevertheless, Russia still commands a massive advantage in terms of material and manpower.  If Putin remains determined to push ahead with his plan, even in the face of such losses, the Russians theoretically have the resources to continue to wage war.

However, the one thing that could stop Putin’s war in its tracks are the Russian people themselves.  Sanctions are now starting to bite and as time goes by it will become increasingly obvious that things are not going well.  It is also the case that, the longer the war goes on, the harder it will be to disguise the truth from ordinary Russians.  But gauging this is difficult because assessing true Russian public opinion is very challenging.

Censorship and disinformation

It is important to recognise that the Russian media has been heavily censored and subjected to state interference for a very long time.

State propaganda has been pumping out misinformation to paint Ukraine and the west in the most negative possible light for months during the lead up to the invasion.  And let’s not forget that this has all been happening in a country that is highly intolerant of any criticism of Putin.

To any objective outside observer, the claims of genocide and nazification made by Russian state media appear patently ludicrous.  However, for the Russian public, who have been bombarded with this propaganda for months, it is a different story.  This is especially the case for a large section of the public that only obtains their news via official state sources.

Measuring Russian public opinion

Bearing this in mind, it is nevertheless critical to understand the mood of Russian public opinion.  The fog of state disinformation and the rapidly changing situation on the ground clearly makes this difficult.

In a democracy, with a free press, people have access to multiple news sources and (for the most part) do not face such overt state coercion to adhere to an official ‘state line’.  Here we might rely more on opinion polls, reasonably safe in the knowledge that survey respondents feel free to express an honest opinion.

This is clearly not the case in Russia, especially now.  It is criminal to speak out against the state.  Those who even express doubts about state policy could find themselves branded as a traitor and ostracised.  Hence, when people come to answer an opinion poll, even where their anonymity is promised, they have good reason to be guarded in their replies. 

On the other hand, it may be that the culture of fear is such that many people resist participating in such surveys at all.  If this happens, the opposite effect might be true, i.e. you end up with a poll based only on the opinions of the bravest / most liberal thinkers.

Whilst a few polls of Russian opinion have been taken, what we have at present is often based on polls that were taken pre-war, or which have skirted around the issue of war to avoid provoking the state.

Despite the limitations of these measures, they often represent the only measure we have of Russian opinion that is not state fabricated.

So, what can we learn from them?

Russian public opinion in 2022

The Levada Centre is one polling organisation that sits independent of the Russian state.  They have a long history of producing measures of Russian public opinion and, as such, it is possible to use their information to pick up on any trends.

The Levada Centre data shows that Putin has enjoyed considerable popularity with the Russian people for years.  However, this admiration is by no means universal.  Also, the trend over time reveals some interesting facts about Putin’s personal appeal:

  • Putin’s popularity received a huge boost in 2014 when he annexed the Crimea.  His personal approval rating shot up from around 60% (which it had been through 2012 and 2013) to approaching 90%.
  • This boost did not last, however.  Nevertheless, Putin remained incredibly popular (80%+ approval) until around the middle of 2018. 
  • After the middle of 2018 Putin’s approval rating dropped back to around 60%-65%.
  • This drop occurred after his election win of 2018 following accusations of election rigging and the banning of Alexei Navalny’s participation .  Later that summer Putin’s decision to hike up the pension age fuelled a further slump in his popularity.
  • Since then, Putin’s rating has remained at around the 60%-65% until the recent jingoism over Ukraine.  This nationalist ‘boost’ nudged his ratings up to 71% by February (pre-invasion).

Ukraine is different

What this shows is that events can influence (and influence negatively) approval of Putin.  It also shows that his bullish support for Russian ethnic minorities in countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states can serve to deliver him a popularity boost (however temporary that may transpire to be).

It could be that the big boost in his ratings that he received from annexing the Crimea has encouraged him to believe that annexing the whole of Ukraine would similarly bolster his position.  However, the annexation of the Crimea was bloodless and rapidly achieved.  His Ukrainian war is a very different story.

Russian attitudes to Ukraine

Again, opinion measured prior to the war is the only way to judge in detail attitudes to Ukraine. Levada Centre data here, as measured in February, just before the war shows:

  • 45% of Russians, by this time, thought war was likely.
  • But 47% said the prospect of war scared them.
  • 60% of Russians supported the state line that NATO and the US were to blame for the recent escalations.  Very few saw Russia as an aggressor at this time.
  • Interestingly, only 25% of Russians thought the solution to the crisis was for the Donbas region to become part of Russia.  (33% thought a better solution was for the Donbas to form separate republics that were independent of both Ukraine and Russia).
  • The idea that a greater Russian federation should somehow absorb Ukraine as a whole, does not seem to have occurred to people (except of course, to Putin).

Russian support for the war

One Russian polling group has been brave enough to conduct an opinion poll of attitudes to the war since military operations began (between 28th February and 1st March).  The Washington Post published the results anonymously to avoid state reprisals.  It showed that:

  • 58% of Russians support the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
  • 23% opposed it.
  • 19% expressed no opinion, didn’t know or refused to answer (or were too scared to answer).

First, it should be noted that support for the ‘special military operation’ in these figures rates lower than that recorded in ‘official’ state run polls (perhaps unsurprisingly).  Nevertheless, it does confirm a clear majority in support of the conflict.

However, the survey shows there is a huge generational gap in Russian public opinion.  Younger Russians (18-24), who are most likely to get their information online, are most opposed to the war (39% opposed as against 29% supportive).  Older Russians, who often rely exclusively on the state-run news media, were most supportive (75% of the over 65s support the war).

The majority of Russians therefore back Putin.  However, that sentiment is far from universal, and it would seem than many Russians have their reservations about what’s happening.  Putin has no doubt been able to bolster support for his actions by playing the flag waving card.  The question is, how long can Putin maintain this level of support as the war drags on?

The fact that Putin’s government has acted to heavily censor Russian media and introduce strict legal penalties for anti-war protestors proves that Putin does not take support for granted.  Indeed, such measures can only indicate that he fears public opinion might turn against him.

Uncharted territory

We are now in uncharted territory.  Putin has remained personally popular (despite ups and downs in his approval ratings) throughout his tenure.

It is undeniably true that his annexation of the Crimea boosted his popularity.  And it is also clear that wars in Chechnya and Georgia have not adversely affected his position. 

However, the main phase of the Georgian conflict lasted only a few days and saw few casualties.  The Chechen war was a different story, however.  This conflict and the ensuing insurgency lasted much longer.  It also saw more significant casualties as it is estimated that the Russian army lost some 3,600 killed. 

On the one hand this shows that fighting a war over a long period of time, even with significant casualties, has not significantly dented Putin’s hold on power.

But on the other, Russian losses in Chechnya over several years were significantly less than the Russian army has already lost in a single month in Ukraine.  It is also the case that Chechen Islamic terrorism probably served to greatly bolster support for that conflict.  In addition, Russians hold a much stronger affinity for Ukrainians, as many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language.

Ukraine therefore represents a very different situation to anything Putin has presented the Russian people with before.

Will the Russians turn against Putin?

Putin’s political fate is now largely dependent on the outcome of the war with Ukraine.  If he can deliver an outcome that he can present as a reasonably successful victory of some kind, it will no doubt shore up his position for years to come.  If, however, the Russian public come to regard the intervention in Ukraine as a disaster, Putin’s position becomes very insecure.

At present our most up-to-date information tells us that only 23% of Russians oppose the war.  That might seem like an encouraging figure for Putin.  However, here are a couple of figures from old Gallup surveys that might be less encouraging for Putin:

  • In 1965 only 24% of Americans opposed American military involvement in Vietnam.  By 1968 over 50% opposed it.
  • When American troops first invaded Iraq in 2003, only 23% of Americans opposed it. One year later, over 50% opposed it.

Public opinion can and does change when things go badly.

However, America has a free press and Americans were not living under the same draconian state restrictions as are now in place in Russia.

That said, the longer the war goes on, the more destructive its consequences and the more Russian casualties mount up, the harder it will be to cover up the truth.  More and more Russians will begin to question the wisdom of Putin’s war.

That means, the longer the war goes on as it is, the weaker Putin’s position becomes.

A lie big enough

Knowing how long it might take for significant numbers of Russians to seriously question the state misinformation with which they are being fed is difficult to say.  The power of propaganda cannot be under-estimated. 

But in understanding how that change might come, it helps to tap into the knowledge of an expert in state propaganda:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Joseph Goebbels

Interestingly, as Goebbels observed, a lie can only be maintained as long as people can be shielded from the consequences of it. 

With sanctions already hitting the Russian economy, the economic consequences are already becoming all too evident.

The Russian state can shield its people from the military realities for only so long.  News of mounting casualties and information concerning the devastation on the ground cannot be kept from the Russian public forever, especially not in the modern information age.

So, the longer the war goes on, the more the clock is running down for Putin.  However, if public opinion does start to turn significantly against him, the risk that Putin will resort to ever more desperate measures grows.  We can only hope that Russian opinion turns against him fast enough and strongly enough to put an end to the conflict before that happens.

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Historic Gallup Polls

Levada Centre

Washington Post

Image: Russian Protestor – by Silar, Wikicommons

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