11th Dec 2023


How much can we trust Russian opinion polls on the war?

  • There is an assumption that Russian public opinion can be measured meaningfully. But can it? (Photo: Arnaud Jaegers)
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The lack of Russian opposition to the Russo-Ukrainian War is puzzling. The war is obviously going nowhere, Russian casualties are staggering, the economy is in trouble, and living standards are declining, and yet polls indicate that most Russians support the war and its architect, Vladimir Putin.

Thus, 70-80 percent of Russians consistently say 'yes' in response to these two questions, the first asked by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), the second by the Levada Center: "Do you or do you not support the decision to conduct the 'special military operation' in Ukraine?" and "Do you support the activities of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia?"

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  • For the time being, Russians are too fearful to answer questions truthfully and to take their protests to the streets (Photo: Unsplash)

Independent Russian experts affiliated with the "Chronicles" sociological research project question these results. Realising that Russian authorities could use polls to create the illusion of mass support for the war in Ukraine, sociologists Anna Biriukova of Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and Elena Koneva of ExtremeScan, Cyprus, conducted research that shows that, while most Russians do support the actions of the Russian authorities, they are considerably fewer than 70-80 percent.

Their research also shows that, while 35 percent of Russians did not support Putin's military operation in Ukraine in the summer of 2022, the number increased to 47 percent by February 2023.

Possible explanations of such high levels of Russian support range from the population having been zombified by years of relentless propaganda to the continued influence of centuries of a slavish political culture. In contrast, many Russian anti-regime commentators argue that about 15 percent of the people are ardent supporters, another 15 percent are ardent opponents, and the rest just go with the flow.

All these explanations rest on the assumption that Russian public opinion can be measured meaningfully. But can it?

One doesn't have to be a public opinion expert to suspect that polling in dictatorships is always going to be complicated: will people tell the truth if they know or suspect that going against the regime could get them in trouble? Things get even more complicated at times of war, when critical views could easily be viewed as being treasonous.

Five-percent response rate

Critics of Russian opinion polls, (such as Cornell University's Bryn Rosenfeld), point out, that, since only five percent of respondents contacted are willing to participate in interviews, the polls are a worthless barometer of what people actually think. To which Russian pollsters at the Levada Center and VCIOM respond that a five percent response rate is not unusual and out of line with polling in the United States.

True, but this explanation ignores the differences in polling conditions between the United States and Russia. Americans usually refuse to participate in surveys because there are too many of them or because they don't have the time. In Russia, according to informed observers, the dominant factor is fear.

Russians know that verbal opposition to the war is criminalised and that expressing political opinions is dangerous. Even calling the "special military operation" a "war" is forbidden, and any attempt to do so results in fines or even detention.

Many Russians also know that scores of top politicians, oligarchs, and military men have committed suicide, were poisoned, or mysteriously died in the last year. The risks of answering polls honestly are too high because no one can guarantee anonymity. Far safer to refuse to participate at all.

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, claims that there is no way of knowing the level of fear because "the surveys are not conducted in the presence of a polygraph." He adds that reducing everything to fear is a serious oversimplification. But Volkov misses the point.

Because fear is a factor, we have no way of knowing just how accurate public opinion surveys are. And that in turn means that the degree of support for Putin and his policies may, as the independent sociologists claim, be significantly lower than VCIOM and Levada suggest. After all, the five percent willing to respond to pollsters presumably have nothing to fear because they genuinely support the regime.

The implications of these conclusions are severalfold.

First, and most obviously, public opinion surveys in Russia need to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Second, if the real level of opposition to Putin and his policies is as high as 50 percent, then Putin and his comrades are walking on very thin ice. They may or may not know it, but if, as is likely given Putin's isolation from the real world, they do not, then their policies toward Ukraine and the war are likely leading to a progressive erosion of popular support and, more important perhaps, of regime legitimacy.

Third, growing disaffection can easily translate into full-scale opposition to the regime and its leader, Putin.

For the time being, Russians are too fearful to answer questions truthfully and to take their protests to the streets. But if and when the coercive capacity of the regime declines — as it will if the war continues to go badly for Russia — their fear will diminish and their readiness to protest will increase. Putin would do well to recall how Russians mobilised after Mikhail Gorbachev reined in the KGB in order to promote glasnost and perestroika.

Ironically, a close look at public opinion surveys in Russia shows the exact opposite of what the polling purports to show: popular support is far smaller than what Putin hopes it is and popular discontent is far more likely than what Putin fears it may be.

Author bio

Jaroslaw Martyniuk is a retired researcher with 25 years of experience in managing surveys for Radio Liberty and InterMedia. He is the author of Monte Rosa: Memoir of an Accidental Spy.

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919-1929 and Ukraine vs Russia: Revolution, Democracy, and War.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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