Putin and the People
Russia's President has relied on popular support to build his power base, can he keep it through this war?
A woman is arrested during a protest in St Petersburg on 13th March (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
The Russo-Ukraine War is the first in Europe to be fought in part on social media. We are confronted constantly by the horrors of Putin’s violence via the feeds of Ukrainians - from MPs and journalists to ordinary citizens. But it is much harder to assess what Russians think. International social media has been shut down, along with independent news outlets. This restricts the flow of information to ordinary Russians, and makes it even harder than before to assess their views.
We do have some polling from the early days of the war, before the new repressive measures came fully into force. This shows broad support for Russia’s invasion. One private pollster, Russian Field, found 59% supported military action on the 26th-28th February with 34% opposed. Another poll by an anonymous group, a few days later, found 58% in support and 23% opposed. State run pollsters found stronger support for the war by 10 points or so.
These findings must, of course, be considered in context. Pollsters used the phrase “military operation” due to the ban on the word “war” in Russia. As the war has progressed people have probably become increasingly unprepared to answer honestly for fear of who might be listening. As with all polling there are questions of representativeness of respondents and exact question wording.
There are reasons, nonetheless, to suppose these numbers, at least from the first week of the war, are broadly accurate. For such an authoritarian country independent polling has been surprisingly commonplace and is considered by Western academics to be genuinely representative of opinion. Just before the war a prestigious international pollster found half of Russians saying that it would be right for Russia to use military force to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. And you’d naturally expect support to rise somewhat once a conflict began.
So it seems reasonable to say that a majority of Russians were initially supportive of some form of conflict. But since then sanctions have hit them directly in the pocket. Western goods are no longer available, and a large number of Russians have died (while this isn’t being covered on national news programmes, people will likely have a sense via local newspapers and will see high-profile funerals of officers).
You may be thinking, so what? Putin was already a dictator and has taken significant additional coercive powers in the past few weeks. Does it make any difference what ordinary people think? But throughout his time in power he has been obsessed with popular opinion, commissioning numerous polls from state pollsters, and reacting swiftly to drops in support. This is for good reason. As Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson wrote in their excellent study of Russian popular opinion “Putin vs The People”, the Russian President has “co-constructed” his rule:
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