The Ukraine conflict is not “Putin’s war” but rather the political will of Russian society, which is convinced that it is protecting both itself and the people of Ukraine from an external enemy. After all, Russians are not ignorant of the situation in Ukraine, and consider the actions of their authorities to be fair and justified.
The Carnegie Endowment published an article in autumn 2022 analysing polls undertaken in Russia. According to these data, the Russian public perceives the Ukrainian conflict as a showdown with NATO and as liberating Ukraine from fascism. US media are having troublefinding citizens in Russia willing to furnish them with “anti-war” commentary.
Here are some statistics. In February 2023, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre conducted a poll on the attitude of Russians to the military operation in Ukraine. It found that 68% of citizens supported it (in February 2022, the figure was 65%), while 20% did not support it (down from 25% in February 2022). 75% of Russians supported the incorporation of the Donbass, Kherson and Zaporozhye, formerly part of Ukraine, into Russia.
President Putin was trusted by 78% of Russians (65% a year earlier) and not trusted by 11% (31% a year previously). Protest sentiment recorded by pollsters had fallen from 18% to 12% by the end of 2022. Thus, during the first year of war in Ukraine, the popularity of Putin and of the authorities has increased; hence, the Russian public approves of their actions in Ukraine.
The same assessments of public opinion in Russia are given by opposition-aligned researchers. The Levada Center (registered as a foreign agent in Russia) conducted a poll in January 2023. According to its findings, 75% of Russians supported the operation in Ukraine (up from 68% in February 2022) and 71% were convinced that a Russian victory was inevitable.
Another opposition centre, Russian Field, which conducted a poll in late 2022, reported that 68% of Russian citizens supported the operation in Ukraine, 74% supported the annexation of former Ukrainian regions by Russia, and 62% supported the call-up of reservists for military service to liberate Ukraine.
The author’s personal experience also shows that even those who believe that the decision to launch a military operation was initially wrong, and that the war could have been avoided, resolutely believe that it must now be seen through until victory is assured. This is not the result of the “Discrediting the Armed Forces” Acts, about which much has been written in the West. Neither ordinary citizens nor most journalists in Russia pay heed to those new legal offences; they freely share their views on military topics.
At individual level, those who support Ukraine or dodge the draft have cut themselves off from their compatriots. Russians contemptuously call them “traitors”, “cowards” and “bicycle troops”.
Such people can be found, especially among Russian émigrés, for instance. But their views do not reflect the position of Russian society any more than do the British collaborator with Hitler, John Amery, or the American general Benedict Arnold, who defected to the Crown during the War of Independence.
Why do Russians support the war?
It would be a mistake to attribute Russian beliefs to stupidity, propaganda or lack of access to information.
Studies of the pre-war job market show that over 34% of working adults in Russia have a university degree, typically at the level equivalent to a Master’s. This is even higher than the proportion in the United States, for example.
50% of Russians over the age of 18 can read foreign languages (mostly English and German). More than 80% of Russians are Internet users, so they have wide access to alternative sources of information, including Western media.
What distinguishes Russians from residents of NATO countries is their knowledge of the Russian language, providing them with direct access to information about what is happening in Ukraine and the former Ukrainian territories. (Even the Ukrainian authorities, who are negative about the use of Russian, admit that at least 40% of their citizens “speak and think” in Russian, and in fact the majority of the Ukrainian population speaks it.)
In addition, many Russians have direct experience of receiving information from natives of Ukraine. According to statistics from the Russian Interior Ministry, more than one million Ukrainian citizens registered for temporary residence in Russia during 2022, and more than 360,000 people obtained Russian residence permits or citizenship. In total, this represents just shy of 1% of Russia’s permanent population. Many of these Ukrainians are refugees who witnessed the start of the conflict and are willing to share information about what happened with the Russians they met.
Information does not flow only in person. Yuri Podolyaka, a native of the Sumy region of Ukraine, tells Russians about the war in Ukraine and gives many interviews in the media. His Telegram channel has more than two million subscribers. Anna Dolgareva from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, is a popular war correspondent and poet in Russia and travels around the country to meet readers.
Thus, the average Russian knows—or can learn—more, and better, about events in Ukraine than Western supporters of Ukraine can. And yet Russians support the liberation of Ukraine and do not consider it “Russian aggression”.
Russia not the aggressor
Russia could be said to have committed aggression against the Confederate States of America in 1861. Russia aided the Abraham Lincoln régime by sending its navy to American waters to hamper the South’s import of goods from Europe. One of the North’s commanders was the Russian general, John Basil Turchin (whose native name was Ivan Turchaninov).
Most Americans, however, would take such an assertion as an offhand joke, because they know the context surrounding the Civil War and US history. Similarly, it is strange to Russian ears to seek to “prove” that the war in Ukraine is a consequence of “Russian aggression” in 2022, because he knows that it started eight years earlier and without any Russian involvement.
After the 2014 coup in Kiev, Ukraine split into several chunks, as its population was dividedover language, religion and image.
Long before the coup, the US scholar Samuel Huntington wrote of a possible split of Ukraine into several parts:
Ukraine could split along its fault line into two separate entities, the eastern of which would merge with Russia. The issue of secession first came up with respect to Crimea.
(The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 167)
This prediction began to materialise in 2014, when four governments emerged after the coup, governing from Kiev, the Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The contradictions had emerged long before Russian troops entered the region, and even before the 22 February 2014 coup in Kiev.
For example, the parliament of the Crimean Autonomous Republic issued a statement as far back as 6 February 2013 against the nationalists who would take power in Kiev a year later. On 11 December, when protests, dubbed “Euromaidan”, were taking place in Kiev, the Crimean Parliament called on citizens to unite against its supporters. On 22 January 2014, the Crimean Parliament declared that the region would secede from Ukraine in the event of a coup in Kiev. At this point, Russian troops were not being used in Crimea—and President Yanukovych, who was still in office, advocated the development of cooperation with Moscow.
On 22 February, on the very day of the coup in Kiev, opponents of the new régime held a congress of legislators from the eastern regions of Ukraine in Kharkiv, who refused to recognise the new “fascist” régime in the capital and called on fellow citizens to prepare for a violent confrontation with it. In fact, this was the start of a civil war in Ukraine.
The people of Crimea declined to take part in this confrontation. They decided to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia in a referendum on 16 March 2014. A UN poll conducted back in 2011 showed that a majority of the peninsula’s population did want to return to Russia. A Ukrainian poll in 2012 indicated the same sentiments among Crimeans. The decision, then, was predictable.
The decision by Crimean residents generated great enthusiasm among the people of Russia in 2014. 74% of Russians, according to a Levada Center poll, supported Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. About 60% said they were willing to bear the economic and political costs of reunification. The ratings of the Russian president and government rose sharply in 2014, an effect dubbed the “Crimean consensus” by sociologists.
However, the Kiev régime passed laws declaring Crimea to be Russian-occupied territory and giving the Ukrainian president the right to use the armed forces to take it back without a declaration of war or a parliamentary vote. The opinion of the population of the region was not taken into account. Ukraine’s territorial claims against Russia, now enshrined in law, made conflict a foregone conclusion.
These facts are not easy to find in the Western chambers of the internet and have received little coverage in Western media; but Russians are well aware of them.
Russia against Nazism
There are plenty of other details which make Russians and Ukrainians loyal to Russia consider themselves the victims of aggression rather than as its initiators, but which are unknown to Western audiences.
For example, Ukrainian nationalists began massacring Russian-speaking supporters of the former president even before the coup. On the night of 21 February 2014, several dozenpeople who were returning from Kiev after attending rallies were killed by nationalists near the town of Korsun-Shevchenkivskyi. A documentary about this tragedy featuring survivors’ testimonies, The Korsun Pogrom, was removed from Western video hosting sites (although it was back up on YouTube at the time of editing); it is a documentary familiar to many in Russia.
A similar mass murder of 48 opponents of Kiev was committed in Odessa. The victims were burned alive in the building of the House of Trade Unions, but the head of the pro-Kiev administration in Odessa described the bloodbath as “legitimate actions by Odessa residents aimed at neutralising terrorists”. A UN mission later said Kiev was unwilling to investigate the crime.
In Polovinkino and Mariupol, the new Ukrainian authorities set up concentration camps, where they practiced the torture and execution of disloyal citizens. In Dnipro (a city with a population of a million), local nationalist leaders bragged about “taking local political activists into the woods” to intimidate and torture them (these interviews were later removed from Ukrainian platforms).
According to the UN, more than 51,000 people have been injured during the conflict in the Donbass, over 32,000 of whom are residents of the east of the country. The UN states in its report that almost all civilian deaths since the signing of the Minsk Accords in 2015 have been caused by artillery and drone strikes on the territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics.
This may constitute a deliberate expulsion of the population to Russia, as the new régime in Kiev has seen them as hostile and inferior. Minister of Culture Yevhen Nyshchuk publicly stated in 2016 that the population of the south and east of the country is genetically inferior, as their forebears came from other places, and that they cannot integrate into Ukrainian culture. Vadym Chernysh, minister for the “occupied territories”, called the population of the Donbass “three million people who do not take any notice of us”.
These facts are well known to Russians, who regard what is happening in Ukraine as genocide against a fraternal people. Naturally, Russian public opinion was prepared to support a military operation to stop an extermination.
Jens Stoltenberg has publicly admitted that for NATO, the war began in 2014 and that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been supported and prepared for war all the while. Angela Merkel and François Hollande have stated that the Minsk Accords were a diplomatic ploy to allow Kiev better preparation for war.
Naturally, in light of such admissions, Russians as a society consider NATO and Western countries the accomplices of ethnic cleansing in the Donbass and as enemies of the Russian nation, and are even more radical on the matter than President Putin is personally.
Russians support the war because they know things that Western societies do not recall. Hence, they believe in the justness of their cause, in their armed forces and in their victory.