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Why aren't more Russians opposing the Ukraine war?

Sergei Guscha
November 2, 2023

Opponents of Russia's war in Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin have not gained any noticeable support since the conflict began. A Russian sociologist explains why that is the case.

A "No War" sign hangs from a telephone wire over the Nevsky prospect, the central avenue of St. Petersburg, Russia.
A "No War" sign is seen in central St Petersburg, RussiaImage: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/picture alliance

One and a half years into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, support for the war, as well as President Vladimir Putin, has remained consistent among people in Russia.

That's according to Lev Gudkov, a Russian sociologist who heads the analytical Leveda Center. Dubbed a "foreign agent" by the Kremlin in 2016, the Leveda Center is considered the only opinion research institute independent from the Russian state or state funding.

Gudkov says that the number of Russians who reject the Ukraine war has remained stable at 18-22%. That number consists of many young Russians and slightly more women than men. Speaking at a Berlin panel discussion — jointly hosted by the German Sakharov Society, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the German Association of Eastern European Studies — Gudkov explained why Russia has not seen a growing anti-war movement.

Strict censorship and state propaganda

One reason is Russia's "extremely strict censorship" that cuts off most people from independent news sources. The majority of Russians are influenced by state propaganda and do not go online to get the news, Gudkov said.

Though the percentage of those able to get around censored and blocked social networks and consume news online rose from about 6% to 22% within the first few months of the war, it has not risen further.

As publishing "any news about Russian losses is absolutely forbidden," not even death toll figures can change Russian public opinion, Gudkov said. In an April 2022 interview with DW, Gudkov said he expected the attitude of Russians towards the war would drastically change if the country is defeated or if fighting drags on and fatality figures rise.

Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov slightly smiling while speaking in Berlin.
Lev Gudkov has been head of the Levada Center since 2006Image: Horst Galuschka/dpa/picture alliance

Until October this year, journalists were able to identify the names of 34,857 Russian military personnel who were killed fighting in Ukraine. These figures were published by the BBC's Russian-language service, which tracks Russian fatalities with the independent Russian media project Mediazona and a team of volunteers using publicly available sources. Russian authorities designated Mediazona as a "foreign agent" in 2021 and blocked its website in 2022 due to its coverage of the war against Ukraine.

Russia only twice reported casualty figures since the outbreak of the war, numbers, according to Gudkov, that have "nothing to do with reality." The Russian Defense Ministry first acknowledged casualties in September 2022, saying that some 5,937 Russians had died so far fighting in the war. The ministry also confirmed the deaths of 89 military personnel after a Ukrainian missile struck a Russian military site in Makiyivka in the Donetsk region on New Year's Eve 2022.

Higher wages and inflation

Not all forecasts regarding the detrimental impact of the war on Russia's economy had proven accurate, Gudkov said. Oil prices rose in the first year of the conflict, generating more revenue for the Russian state and certain segments of the Russian population. Sectors of the economy necessary for war efforts are working at maximum capacity, and wages in these sectors have doubled.

Russian soldiers carry several bangs while walking next to a red and gray train
Russian soldiers head towards a train station in Volgograd OblastImage: dpa/AP/picture alliance

In addition, drafted Russian soldiers, as well as contracted ones, now receive much more pay. Compensation paid to wounded soldiers and the families of killed soldiers, many of whom live in the countryside, has also increased significantly. These payments are not comparable to the ones made before the war, Gudkov said. These are sums that citizens in these rural areas of Russia have never seen before, which also explains why Russia is seeing no anti-war protests.

However, Gudkov also noted that Russia is struggling with high inflation due to the mounting cost of war. He said recent surveys show that Russians consider rising prices, especially for food and medicine, as their biggest problem. To them, inflation is a more pressing issue than the war, even though most Russians do not see a link between military spending and its impact on everyday life. Only 10-12% of people surveyed by the Levada Center, many of them civil servants and members of the middle class, were aware of this connection.

While there is growing concern among these people that Russian politics will cause a catastrophe, they nevertheless remain loyal to the regime.

This article was originally written in German.