Through the Russian Gaze: Perceptions of Ukraine and Ukrainians
[This article is part of our research initiative “Russia’s Project ‘Anti-Ukraine’”]
This chapter examines the attitudes of Russian residents towards Ukraine and Ukrainians as reflected in public opinion polls and focus groups conducted in Russia by the Levada Centre, an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organisation.1 We focus on the attitudes towards Ukraine on the part of residents of Russia, not of Russia as a state. Moreover, all the opinions quoted in this essay come only from the “rear” population of Russia: those on the frontline were not covered by the surveys. Those who live in the near-front zone make up a very small part of the sample, and their opinions cannot influence the average results for the sample as a whole.
Since the essay discusses attitudes towards Ukraine, it should be noted that in all these cases Ukraine is addressed only as a symbolic object, a phenomenon of Russian consciousness. This image unlikely coincides with either the way other observers imagine Ukraine or with how residents of Ukraine see their own country. In particular, opinion polls in Russia show that the Russian mass consciousness does not reflect the scale of tragedy and sacrifice known to Ukraine and the world. We will try to explain why this is so at the end of this essay.
On the causes of the war
For an adequate understanding of the situation in the mass consciousness of Russians, it is necessary to explain, at least in brief, the acute divergence of the historical paths of Russia and Ukraine. (We will take for granted the geographical, linguistic, cultural and other proximities of these countries and peoples).
The historical destiny of the Slavic ethnic groups that Ukrainians and Russians inherit today is to a large extent determined by their location in the contact zone between the cultures designated as the West and those generalised as the East. In this borderline zone, the ancestors of Ukrainians and modern Ukrainians belong to its western side, while the ancestors of Russians and modern Russians belong to its eastern side.
From the East, the ancestors of the Russians – more than those of the Ukrainians – were influenced by the imposed and borrowed values and norms of the settled nomadic Turkish and Mongol monarchies. Christianity came from the West, but that was “Eastern” Christianity. Russia inherited its version of Christianity from Byzantium, which, on the one hand, loaded its culture with ideas about the right to dominate the whole world or, at least, half of it; and, on the other hand, condemned it to eternal – sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker – conflict with all of its neighbours, near and far, who were in the zone of influence of Catholicism and Protestantism.
The historical destinies of Ukraine and Russia have been very different. Russians living in Russia over the last centuries knew only the power of “their” tsars. Ukrainians on the territories of contemporary Ukraine (and Russians living near them) had been ruled by different empires during that time. In Russia, the overwhelming majority of practising Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, while in Ukraine, there are several churches. In Russia, all those who consider themselves ethnic Russian (about 80 per cent of the adult population) speak the same language, while in Ukraine, people in different parts of the country consider different languages to be their mother tongue. The result has been a desire for uniformity in Russia and a greater willingness to be pluralistic in Ukraine. As a result, two different parts of the same Slavic socio-cultural space gave different responses to the same impulses.
These impulses are, too, related to the intermediate position on the West-East scale described above. On this scale, there is a considerable number of countries and peoples that have been more or less influenced by Western Europe as a cultural centre, as a cultural generator. The values and norms developed in this environment, which were given the status of “universal” in the second half of the 20th century, were simultaneously highly valued in the eyes of some elites and negatively evaluated in the eyes of other (usually dominant) elites in those countries.
In Russia, the successor to the USSR, there were elites oriented towards the pro-Western path. However, other elites in Russia – those who risked losing their dominant position in the transition to a “Western” social order – managed to slow down and then reverse this movement by various means. In Ukraine, too, there was a struggle to choose a particular course, but the pro-Western course had broader social support compared to Russia. The pro-Western “Orange Revolution” put the pro-Eastern political regime in Ukraine at risk, and Russian authorities saw in it the prospect of a Ukraine moving along a different path of development – the one associated with the West. It was clear that Western countries would provide Ukraine with substantial aid, and the country would move rapidly towards prosperity. Residents of Russia would realise that they had to follow the same path, implying that they needed, first, to get rid of those authorities and elites that would hinder movement towards the West. That was a very serious threat to the Russian authorities, and they retaliated in two different ways. Within Russia, they launched a powerful campaign to discredit “colour revolutions” in general and the “Orange Revolution” in particular. On the international level, they took all possible measures to prevent the “Orange”, i.e., pro-Western, Ukrainian elites from achieving their goals.
Until recently, this approach had taken the form of passive protective measures and actions that made it difficult or impossible for Ukraine to institutionalise its “Western” choice (in particular, membership in the EU and NATO). Such actions were the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass.
By the end of 2021, Russian leadership found itself in the following situation. Within Russia, the ratings of the president and those of the main institutions of power were close to their historical lows.2 The “green revolution” in Europe and the rest of the world promised Russia the loss of its role as a global/regional oil and gas hegemon. At the same time, Russia’s leaders saw Europe as weakened and fragmented by contradictions over the influx of migrants from Asia and Africa. They saw the US administration as weak (this was their assessment of US President Joe Biden), distracted from European affairs (conflict with China) and, in the long run, friendly to Russia (hopes for Donald Trump’s return).
Russia’s leaders, above all the president himself, probably saw that moment as the last chance for Russia and for themselves to make a historic turnaround, to restore Russia to the place of importance that the Soviet Union had as a result of its victory in the Second World War. To do this, it was necessary to force “the West” to withdraw NATO troops from Russia’s borders and to recognise Russia’s special interests in Eastern Europe. This was articulated in the so-called “Putin ultimatum” announced at the end of 2021.3
Having been rebuffed, and realising that the threatening troop build-up on the Russian western border did not force the West to meet these demands either, the ruling group or the president himself decided to change the government in Ukraine to a pro-Russian one in an intendedly spectacular military lightning manoeuvre similar to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Had the Russian operation succeeded, the Russian bloc would have become the biggest geopolitical player in Europe. Russia would have cemented its undisputed role as the world’s greatest global power for the foreseeable future. The historic mission that Russia’s leader saw for himself would have been fulfilled. That would have crowned his reign and made him one of Russia’s most outstanding rulers.
“Brotherly nations” or “one nation”?
Russian public opinion has undergone a significant evolution during the period of our observation. In the first years after the collapse of the USSR, there was a pronounced positive attitude in Russia towards the Slavic countries of Belarus and Ukraine and towards their peoples – Belarusians and Ukrainians. In 1991, the primacy of Slavs and Orthodox people over representatives of other nations and religious dominations of the empire was taken for granted (at least by Slavs and Orthodox themselves).4 The special position of Belarus and Ukraine in the USSR was approved by Joseph Stalin, who obtained for them the status of UN members – the same as for independent states. Other republics of the USSR did not have that status.
The special status of the three Slavic nations in the USSR was manifested, in particular, by the fact that the Belovezha Accords, which put an end to the Soviet Union in 1991, were adopted by the leaders of three of the four founding republics of the USSR in 1922, namely the Slavic republics – Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – the republics that were part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, which was also a founding member of the USSR in 1922 – did not participate in ending the Union as a “subject of international law and geopolitical reality”.5
Within this Slavic triumvirate of “Great”, “Little” and “White” Russias, ethnic Russians, who would be defined as a “state-forming people” in 2020, felt themselves to be the most important in terms of family relations – the “elder brother” – which allowed them to treat “younger brothers” positively. Russian citizens understood their position among other nations (including the Chinese) that were considered friendly the same way. The expression “brotherly friendship” was one of the most popular in the Russian political vocabulary. The advantage of the expression was that it could mean both equal relations and, if necessary, an attitude of dominance by the “elder” over the “younger”, to which the “younger” agreed in an ostensibly voluntary manner.
Within the Slavic triumvirate, Russians did not separate the concept of the state from that of the people. The attitude towards Belarus and Belarusians, and towards Ukraine and Ukrainians was good.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the formula “Russians and Ukrainians are one people” was prevalent in Russia (see Table 1).
Table 1. In your opinion, are Russians and Ukrainians one people or two different peoples? (%)
|Two different peoples
|Difficult to answer
As seen in Table 1, opinions on the above-mentioned issue were not stable and did not belong to the category of unquestioned opinions, as is usually the case with opinions on one’s own or another’s ethnicity. The expression “one people” is a rhetorical political formula that depends on the political situation. The way Vladimir Putin uses this formula clearly demonstrates this: if necessary, it can mean very close (even closer than brotherly) ties of friendship between Russians and Ukrainians, or it can mean that there is no separate Ukrainian nation – there is only a part of the Russian nation. In this case, the power and jurisdiction of the Russian government, as the government of Russians, can and should extend to Ukrainians.
At the same time, in 2016, for example, results of public opinion polls suggested that both Russians and Ukrainians valued state autonomy and independence much higher than state unification of the two peoples (see Table 2).
Table 2. Which of the following opinions about Russia’s relations with Ukraine would you most likely agree with? (%) (Russians’ opinion – data from the Levada Centre, Ukrainians’ opinion – data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology [KMIS])
|Russia’s relations with Ukraine should be the same as with other states – with closed borders, visas, customs
|Russia and Ukraine should be independent but friendly states – with open borders, without visas or customs
|Russia and Ukraine should join into one state
|Difficult to answer
|Russia (Levada Centre)
The history of these surveys shows that, in 2009, the share of supporters for “one state” reached 23% in Ukraine. At that time, in Russia, the share of supporters for such an idea was twice as low. It reached a maximum of 28% in May 2014, immediately after the annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile in Ukraine, it fell from 8% to 3% by the end of 2014. But then Russians also lost interest in the idea, and by September 2014 support fell to 7%, while in Ukraine it fell to a negligible 2% by 2015.
Later, however, support for the unification of the two nations into a single state had risen in Russia to 17% by 2021, but it still remained a minority. In the first weeks of the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2022, some Russians decided that something similar to the annexation of Crimea was about to happen, and so the level of desire for the unification of the two countries into one state rose to 26%. Yet the main response to the question of the survey, which prevailed in all polls, remained the same: “Russia and Ukraine should be independent but friendly states – with open borders, no visas and no customs”.
Attitudes towards Ukrainians
As we will see below, “people” and “state” are not at all the same thing in the eyes of Russian citizens. In August 2022, two-thirds of Russians had – as they said – a bad attitude towards the Ukrainian state. By contrast, two-thirds of Russians had a professedly good attitude towards Ukrainians.
Since the early 1990s, Russians have been asked about their attitudes towards various nations, especially Ukraine. There have been several responses to choose from. Some of them have spoken of strong amities or antipathies. But there is one option that respondents have always chosen more often than others in relation to Ukrainians: “I treat them with no special feelings/calmly/neutrally, as I treat all/any other (nations)”. In 1992, 52% of the respondents preferred this option; in 1994 – 67%; in 2007 – 82%; in March 2014, at the time of the annexation of Crimea, – 56%; and in 2020 – 71%. And almost a year after the beginning of the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russians preferred to talk about “indifference” more often than about positive or negative feelings towards Ukrainian people.
It is possible that, for some respondents, the choice of a neutral answer was the safest in a psychological sense, while others saw this option as a way of rising “above” the feelings of love or hate.
As for the other responses to the question, the balance was mostly in favour of the positive ones. In January 2023, however, the balance tipped towards negative feelings. The level of “hate” was higher than that of “love”, although both feelings were expressed by small proportions of the respondents. The level of “mistrust” was slightly higher than that of “amity”.
In 1997, 88% of Russians said they had a “positive” attitude (“with love” + “with amity”) towards Ukrainians, while in 2006-2009 between 75% and 80% said they had a “good” attitude towards Ukrainian people. Even in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, more than 80% said they had a “good” attitude towards Ukrainians. (In focus groups at the time, some euphoric people expressed the view that Ukrainians should share with them the joy of Crimea’s transition to Russia’s rule). By September 2014, emotions had subsided and around two-thirds of the Russian population consistently expressed a “positive” attitude towards the Ukrainians. Six months after the war escalated, the picture was the same (see Table 3).
Table 3: What, in your opinion, characterises the attitudes of Russians towards Ukrainians? (%) (January 2023)
|Difficult to answer
In August 2023, almost half of Russian residents claimed to have a “positive” attitude towards Ukrainians. For the opposition to Putin, these answers are of a political rather than social nature: among the majority of those who approve of Putin’s actions, 45% declared a “good” attitude towards Ukrainians, while among the minority of those who do disapprove of his actions, the corresponding share is 63%.
One can ask a legitimate question: how can it be that more than half of Russians have a favourable or indifferent attitude towards the people with whom they are at war? The response is that in the public consciousness of Russian citizens the picture is different. Their army, they believe, is at war not with Ukrainians, but with “Nazis”, “fascists”, “Banderites” – these were the ideas of the first stage of the escalation, or with NATO, the “collective West” and its mercenaries, as the respondents started to think later. The above-mentioned verbal formulas, such as that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” or “brotherly nations”, have of course dramatically lost their positive meaning since the beginning of the full-blown invasion, but they have not been officially rejected and are present in a weak form in the minds of Russians, allowing them not to consider Ukrainians as “enemies”. Coupled with the persistent interpretation of their opponents as “Nazis”, this allows Russians to absolve their army, their country and themselves of responsibility for the killing of people in Ukraine. (The Levada Centre reported in June 2023: “Just as a year ago, the majority [56%] of respondents believe that the US and NATO are responsible for the deaths and destruction in Ukraine, 16% believe that Ukraine is responsible, 8% believe that responsibility lies with Russia, and 8% assume that no-one in particular is responsible”).
This strategy was also evident in the focus groups: to evade the recognition of the Russian army being at war with Ukrainians as a people.6
Attitudes towards Ukraine
In the eyes of Russians, Belarus and Ukraine are the two countries closest to Russia. The reasons for this opinion are many and varied. For some, it is the ethnic (Slavic) community or the religious affinity of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians that matters; for others, it is many mixed marriages and, consequently, dual identities, etc.
Against the background of these commonalities, and given that, in a political sense, the starting conditions for independent development in 1991 were more or less the same, the similarities and differences in the political situations in the three countries assume great importance.
The history of Russia is a history of steps, dashes, impulses towards and away from the West, of changing political orientations and courses within this binary system. The current government in Russia has made a defiant turn from a “pro-Western” and modernising line in the early 2000s to an emphatically “Eastern” and conservative line in the 2020s.
Public opinion itself is partly a bearer and generator of these value orientations, partly the result of impulses sent to it by the authorities (through propaganda channels), and partly the result of the Russian people’s perceptions and interpretations of their living conditions.
Similar processes took place in Belarus and Ukraine, but with different results for historical reasons.
In the three decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the head of state changed once in Belarus, twice in Russia and seven times in Ukraine. Accordingly, for Russians who value “stability” (and they are the majority), Belarus is a positive example, while Ukraine is a negative one.
– The Belarusians live with [Aleksandr] Lukashenko, and they keep going somehow. They don’t bustle and hustle as in Ukraine.
The situation is the opposite for the minority of Russians who regard the change of power as a norm of the democratic structure of the state.
– I agree with you on Ukraine that it is about civic consciousness and the path of Europeanisation.
The peaceful protest movements in Belarus that challenged Lukashenko’s power 2020-21, as well as the very harsh measures taken to suppress them, did not provoke any significant reactions in Russia. At the time, no more than 3% of respondents were prepared to support the protesters in Belarus (and not even in action, but just in their responses to interviewers’ questions!). Almost 40% supported (also verbally) Lukashenko. But the prevailing opinion was that Russia should not interfere in Belarusian affairs (50%). In another poll, the share of Russians who “personally” supported the protesters in Belarus reached 13%, those who supported Lukashenko – 48%, those who refused to support either side – 32%. In general, about two-thirds of respondents had a favourable opinion of Lukashenko, while less than one-third had an unfavourable opinion.
At that time, peaceful protest demonstrations in Russia (much smaller than in Belarus) had almost ceased under the pressure of repressions. The protest movements in Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” in 2004 and Euromaidan in 2013-2014) were discredited in the eyes of the Russian public, and the latter ignored the protest movement in Belarus.
During conflicts between nations, widespread ethnic stereotypes and prejudices often receive a boost. In the current situation, their role is limited, but they deserve our attention.
In the Russian context, there is an image of khokhly (derogatory ethnic slur against Ukrainians) imbued with negative (in the eyes of Russians) characteristics.
– There is a difference: there are Ukrainians and there are khokhly. With the khokhly, yes [we are at war]. The Ukrainians are our brotherly people. We have been hand in hand with them since the times of the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet Union came from the Ancient Rus. And the khokhly are the part of the population that looks to the West. For them, Russia is “eew!”, we want to go to the West! And it’s with them that we have to…
Together with the images of other nations who are either present in Russians’ environment or are imagined by them, the image of khokhly “relieved”, as Lev Gudkov showed, the Russians’ self-image of the traits that are seen as negative in Russian culture.7 In relation to Ukrainians, for example, it was the quality of “cunning” as opposed to the quality of “simple” that Russians ascribed to themselves.
There is nothing original in the fact that Russians have ethnic prejudices against Ukrainians. Ukrainians have similar derogatory ethnic slurs against Russians (for example, “katsapy”, “moskali”). For ethnic groups in contact with each other, the presence of such lexical elements protecting one’s own identity is normal from an ethnologist’s point of view, though reprehensible from the point of view of Russian and European intellectual culture.
For the purposes of this essay, it is important to stress that these particular prejudices of the Russians did not and do not play a significant role in the formation of hostile attitudes towards Ukraine. In conditions of war between two countries, it is common and therefore expected that various forms of mutual hostility escalate. One of the elements of this phenomenon is the escalation of ethnic negativism, ethnic prejudices, and phobias. In the context of the current conflict, one could expect the activation of this very layer of mass consciousness among Russians, of these manifestations of mass psychology. However, as we have already noted, at the very beginning of the so-called “special military operation” (SMO), the Kremlin propaganda put forward a narrative that offered a political, rather than ethnic, definition of the enemy: the Russian army was fighting Nazis and fascists. At a later stage, the main enemy was identified as the USA and/or NATO and/or the “collective West”. Each of these narratives allowed the Russian mass consciousness to avoid interpreting the “special operation” as an action against the Ukrainian people. Accordingly, there was no need to mobilise such a resource as ethnophobia.8
However, the widespread negative persuasions of Russians regarding Ukrainians, albeit of a different nature, did play a certain role in the conflict. These are elements of the attitude of ethnic Russians (“Great Russians”) towards the majority of other peoples and nationalities of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
– The sphere of our territorial interests includes first of all Ukraine, then the Baltic States, and then the rest of Europe.
In its positive modality, this attitude was patronising and condescending; in its negative modality, it was irritating and contemptuous – but in both modalities, it manifested the dominant position of Russians, of all things Russian, over others, including Ukrainians and all things Ukrainian. Thus, in Soviet-Russian urban culture, the Ukrainian language had a lower standing than the Russian language. It was often perceived as a ridiculous distortion of Russian. It was considered inferior: to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent was seen as demonstrating one’s lack of refinement.
These elements of traditional folk culture and modern mass culture co-existed in the Soviet period with widely disseminated narratives about the “fraternal friendship of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples”, their “unbreakable unity”. The idea of civil equality in this propaganda was linked to the narrative of Ukraine’s voluntary accession to Russia (the Pereyaslav Agreement of 1654) as the accession of the lesser to the greater, the younger (in status) to the elder.
The above is by no means an explanation of the reasons for the attempts to subjugate Ukraine to Russia in the 20th and 21st centuries, because these actions were carried out – even if in the name of the Russian people – not at their request or initiative, but by specialised agents and agencies who advanced their own political and other interests. Mass perceptions of Russians about Ukrainians, mass attitudes of Russians towards Ukrainians have never been the cause of Russia’s political and, especially, military actions against Ukraine. They could, to some extent, facilitate Russian propaganda in forming hostile attitudes towards Ukraine, but unlikely more than that.
A much more important role in the formation of these attitudes was played by mass perceptions of anti-Soviet forces, the anti-Soviet underground and the partisan movement in Ukraine, known in Russia as the “Banderite” movement, i.e., the movement formed by Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera (1909-59). History lessons in Soviet schools described this anti-Soviet resistance in purely negative terms. The word “banderovtsy” (Banderites) implies, in the official Russian discourse, “brutal bandits”, “fighting against Russia, against Russians”. At the same time, the term “banderovshchina” means partisan warfare, but is devoid of the positive connotations that were attached to the partisans fighting Napoleon’s or Hitler’s troops. During the conflict with Ukraine, Russian propaganda actively uses this term to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). The point here is that the term “Banderite” preserves the idea of irregularity, self-determination and voluntary participation inherent in partisans and members of the armed resistance underground. “Banderovtsy” – in contrast to “AFU soldiers and officers”, who can be regarded as mere executors of their commanders’ orders – are, thus, presented by Russian propaganda as consciously and willingly fighting against Russia, i.e., as “real” enemies of Russia.
Let us consider the dynamics of Russian attitudes towards Ukraine. In the first years after the dissolution of the USSR, the prevailing idea among Russians was that the former Soviet republics would maintain friendly relations with each other and with Russia. When Putin came to power in 2000, he inherited this social attitude.
The measurements began at the end of the Yeltsin era, at the end of the twentieth century. For Russians, Ukraine was “friendly”: about 80% claimed to have a good attitude towards the country. Attitudes towards Ukraine and Ukrainians as former “ours” were very positive in the period in the period of 2001-08: between 52% and 72% said they had a good attitude towards Ukraine. The year 2004 was the last time when three-quarters of Russians responded positively on the Ukraine-related question. The Putin era has shown that Russians couldn’t help but react (sometimes with a delay) to the turbulent political life in Ukraine. The indicators began to fluctuate wildly.
In 2008, Russia intervened in Georgia’s conflict with some of its provinces, and a short-lived war with Georgia began. Attitudes towards Ukraine, which sided with Georgia in the conflict, deteriorated. In 2009, the majority of Russians said they had an unfavourable opinion of Ukraine.9 The next turning point came in 2014. The Russian leadership’s decision to annex Crimea was backed by an active propaganda campaign that blamed Ukraine in various ways for Russia’s actions. This further undermined the positive attitudes of Russians towards Ukraine. By May 2023, we saw a complete reversal in attitudes towards Ukraine over a quarter of a century: at the beginning of the period, three-quarters of Russians had a good attitude towards Ukraine; at the end, three-quarters said they had a bad attitude.10
The objectives of the so-called “special military operation” (SMO) proclaimed by the Russian leadership changed many times. At a certain stage, they started saying that there was no Ukraine, and, therefore, there should be no Ukraine. The Russian public consciousness embraced this idea not least because there would be no responsibility towards Ukraine if it did not exist.
– It seems to me that they will partition the poor territory of this Ukraine, and that is how everything will end.
– Well, yes, with the partition of Ukraine.
– There will be a peace agreement, and there will be a partition of Ukraine between the Russian Federation and Poland.
– I think it will take a long time, and Ukraine will be defeated.
– I also think that Ukraine will be partitioned. You see, the Poles are already there, [President Volodymyr] Zelensky promised them part of the territory, part will go to Russia. I heard that part of it will go to Moldova. In other words, it seems to me that Ukraine as a country will no longer exist.
Ukraine and the US as Russia’s enemies
In 1996, 29% of Russians named Ukraine as a possible ally (Belarus came first with 53%, Ukraine second, Kazakhstan third with 17%), and less than 2% named Ukraine among “the most likely opponents of Russia in possible future military conflicts” (19% of the respondents named the US). In 2021, among the hostile states, the USA was in first place (66%) and Ukraine in second (40%).
Such an indicator of public sentiment in Russia as the level of approval of Putin’s performance as Russian president reached its highest peaks in 2008 and in 2014-15. In both cases, the increase of Putin’s popularity to 88% and 89% was associated with the military operations conducted by Russia. In both cases, their results were considered a “victory” in Russia. The most important question is which enemy was considered to have been defeated. Polls conducted by the Levada Centre in the respective periods showed that in 2008, the Russian public celebrated victory not so much over Georgia as over the US, which was seen as “standing behind” Georgia, arming and training its army. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was in itself an attractive result for many Russians, but the main fact for Russians was that their country had acted against the will and the rules of the so-called world community, i.e., “the West”, implying the US.
In the eyes of Russians, the US has the unquestionable authority of a great power. The national goal for the Russian public is equality, parity with this power. And any evidence that Russia succeeds in symbolically gaining the upper hand over the US in any international dispute is perceived as Russia’s supreme triumph. It was in this particular way that the Russian public consciousness interpreted the impunity of the action to seize Crimea from Ukraine. Therefore, in the excitement around “Crimea is ours!”, this action was put on par with the USSR’s victory over the Third Reich in 1945.
Because of the same circumstances, Ukraine was not seen by the Russian public in 2014-15 as a “real” military opponent. It was the “West”, i.e., the US. This is how Russian citizens saw the situation on the eve of the Russian-Ukrainian war (see Table 4).
Table 4: Who, in your opinion, caused the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine? (December 2021)
|USA, NATO countries
|Unrecognised “republics” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”, “Lugansk People’s Republic”)
|Nobody in particular
|Difficult to answer
At the same time, the subsequent experience of the Russian military campaign, which was far from triumphant, has forced part of the Russian population to change their attitudes towards Ukraine as a “younger brother”.
– Ukraine is strong now because the whole world supports it.
– No, Ukraine is actually a weak country, but the people are strong.
– I wouldn’t call Ukraine weak, at least at the beginning of the SMO. Nobody helped them in the first months of the SMO, and they stood their ground.
The propaganda campaign that accompanied the SMO initially offered Russians various explanations for its necessity, attributing various negative attributes (“fascist”, “Nazi”, “Banderite”) to the Ukrainian authorities. These interpretations had a limited impact on Russian public opinion. The ideas of the “Russian world” as the objective of the SMO appeared to have more impact.
– I am in favour of it, because I would like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to unite within the so-called Russian world, and move together along the path of European aesthetics and development.
– At first, it [SMO] was presented to us as protection of the population. It was probably first about carving up the territory of Ukraine, probably between the countries, and they still can’t come to an agreement.
But then, as we have already noted, another narrative was found. Russia’s real enemy was declared to be the “collective West”, i.e., NATO, and ultimately the US. The Russian public enthusiastically accepted this interpretation.
– Because it is in the US national interest to conquer the whole of Russia through Ukraine.
– A battlefield between the US and Russia.
– Initially, I would say, Russia was engaged in hostilities with the people of Ukraine; now, most likely, it is engaged in hostilities with NATO countries.
This gave the SMO the status of a “real war”, as Putin said in his speech on the Red Square on 9 May 2023: “A real war has once again been unleashed against our Motherland”.11 Russia is thus in a confrontation with its historical rival, the West, and what is happening in the fields of Ukraine is just an episode of this historical confrontation. For the public consciousness, it is presented as a manifestation of the eternal struggle between good (Russia) and evil (represented by the West).
Confrontation between East and West does date back to ancient times, for example to the times of the struggle between Rome and Constantinople, and the subsequent split of Christianity into Western and Eastern. But Russia has experienced alternating waves of enmity and friendship with its Western neighbours.
Russian public opinion reflected these conditions. There was a Gorbachev-Yeltsin period in Russian history when the West was seen not as a place of evil but, on the contrary, as the model and goal of Russia’s development. Since 1991, for seven years, three-quarters or more of the Russian population had a “good” attitude towards the US. In 1991, 80% had a good opinion of the US. Ten years later – 68%, another 10 years later – 54%.
Today, the course of events in Russia led to the restoration of the Cold War scenarios. But the essential difference is that there is no “protective belt” of satellite republics around Russia; in its stead, there emerged (intentionally or unintentionally) a belt of unfriendly regimes, which were perceived in Russia as satellites of the US, as servants of the West, or as the West itself. And Ukraine stands out prominently among them.
This was shown, for example, by our research in spring 2019. At that time, the share of Russians who viewed the US positively was 34%, while the same share of the population viewed Ukraine in a positive light. 56% said that they had negative attitudes towards the US, and it was the same for Ukraine. Nevertheless, attitudes towards the US and Ukraine had very different points of departure. We were friends with the US for a short time, now we are not, it is a former and current enemy. And Ukraine used to be “ours”. But for Russian residents, Ukraine is no longer “ours”, it is “also the West” or a stepping stone to it.
– Ukraine is a zone of Russian interests as an in-between country between Russia and Europe.
– It turns out that Ukraine is in fact the border between Russia and the US.
But in this interpretation, Ukraine is once again given a passive and secondary role as a puppet of the West. This is a very comfortable position for the Russian population. It allows them not to feel either hatred or guilt towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, as it both deprives Ukraine of its subjectivity and de-actualises it.
– These, pardon me, bastards must be crushed, and this village [khutor] called “Ukraine”, this pseudo-state [nedogosudarstvo] – it must be dissolved. And we should arrange what was there under Father the Tsar – Novorossiya, Tavrida. Because who is a Ukrainian anyway?
This interpretation, as we have shown in the previous section, allows Russian residents to believe that the Russian army is at war not with Ukrainians, but with “the West”.
“SMO is not a war”
From the very beginning of the “special military operation”, and, at least, until autumn 2023,12 the mass consciousness of Russians did not attribute to the ongoing processes in Russian-Ukrainian relations the importance that they are attributed in Ukraine and in many other countries of the world.
This fact is of a complex nature and has deep roots. Without pretending to explain it exhaustively, let us make a few remarks.
At the outset of the full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities determined the only term that could be used to refer to it: a “special military operation”. The public was instructed to see these events in formats familiar to the services that had been “masters” of the word “special” since Soviet times, namely special services. The word “special” (as well as the Russian word “chrezvychayny” (emergency or extraordinary) means something taken out of the sphere of ordinary rules and laws, something with its own exclusive rights.
Moreover, the immediate purpose of the demand to call these events a “special operation” was to forbid referring to them with the word “war”, i.e. to consider them a national disaster (a disaster for one’s own country, not to mention Ukraine). As noted above, on 9 May 2023, only fifteen months after the beginning of the military escalation, the Russian president used the word “war” for the first time in the context of current events, and, even then, rather in relation to the reaction of Western countries to Russia’s actions: “A real war has once again been unleashed against our Motherland”.
Furthermore, along with the word “war”, its antonym “peace” was also banned. Authorities started persecuting those who wrote slogans against war or for peace. Persecutions began as early as the beginning of March 2022, when the Russian authorities criminalised everything that, in their opinion, “discredited” the Russian army or could be seen as “dissemination of knowingly false information” about it.13 The population was also instructed not to “exaggerate” in any way the scale of the SMO, which was in fact originally planned as a limited operation, albeit carried out by a large military contingent.
Given that the fighting did not, in the very beginning, take place on Russian territory and was (initially) carried out by contract servicemen,14 the Russian public readily accepted the suggestion that what was happening should not be considered a “war”. For the first six months, what was going on had a status similar to that of the Olympic Games – an exciting event, but one to be watched on TV. This implied, albeit not necessarily, “cheering for one’s own”, and most importantly it did not imply participation.
The need to rotate and replace the retired personnel of the army at war forced the authorities to resort to the so-called “partial mobilisation” of September 2022. The public suddenly became aware of the reality of the war. But two months later the shock subsided, the war became a routine topic, and the stability of the emotional life of society settled on a new level.
Russians, who remembered the long wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, quickly realised that the SMO would drag on for more than a year. They also gradually began to realise that, unlike those wars, the aggression against Ukraine was not a local war. There is now a great fear that it will develop into a nuclear world war. Fewer and fewer people dream of further escalation in Europe, and there are more and more of those who fear it.
– It seems to me that this is only the beginning. This will not end even with Ukraine, but with some other countries too.
One way or another, the Russian public begins to realise, or rather feel, the impasse into which the actions that began on 24 February 2022 have led to. Since the beginning of the escalation, the actions of the Russian army enjoyed very strong support. It is relatively easy to understand why this support is the lowest among people of conscription age, especially among the youngest. But the general paradoxical state of mass consciousness in this situation is best illustrated by the fact that the highest support for the war is among the older generation, which is almost completely excluded from active social life, let alone participation in combat operations.
No one asked Russians for their consent when the country’s leadership launched the SMO. Russians supported it in the first phase because the president, whose activities they were used to approving of, decided to do so. Then they were mobilised by the image of the enemy represented by the West. In autumn 2023, the arguments in favour of continuing the “special operation” are no longer dictated by ideological considerations or considerations of loyalty to the president; rather, they are underpinned by the so-called logic of war:
– Once started, you have to go all the way, too much has been invested, you cannot stop halfway, there is no going back.
At the same time, our research shows that the majority of Russians would readily agree to end the operation if the leadership decided to do so. Even now, support for the war and the desire for peace coexist in the same consciousness. In July and August 2023, among young people, where two-thirds supported the army’s actions, the same two-thirds favoured a move to peace talks. (In general, in August 2023, 50% of the respondents were in favour of moving to peace talks, and 38% were in favour of continuing the military operations).
Such terms of a peace agreement as an exchange of prisoners of war or a ceasefire would be supported by 82% and 55% of Russians respectively. However, the peace terms that the Ukrainian side would presumably accept are still accepted only by a minority of the Russian population. For example, in August 2023, only 22% considered the return of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to Ukraine as a preferred or acceptable condition for a peace agreement, and the share was 16% in relation to the question on the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic”. Such measures were seen as unacceptable under any conditions by 68% and 76% respectively. Moreover, the majority of those who disapprove of Putin’s work as president in general adhere to the same positions. Before the annexation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to the Russian Federation, the majority of the Russian population did not consider them to be Russian lands (except for those who believed that the whole of Ukraine was “Russia too”). But the idea that “what is conquered is ours”, as well as the idea that “to give what is ours to the enemy is a national humiliation”, are deeply rooted in the layers of mass consciousness to which Putin’s regime has found access.15 Indeed, this is what he was counting on when he hastily took formal steps to incorporate these territories into the Russian Federation. As history shows, these steps should not be seen as entirely irreversible. But to the extent that public sentiments can influence the political decisions of authorities, they can make it difficult to move towards peace on terms acceptable to both sides.
With this in mind, and with regard to all the positions of Russian public opinion described in this essay, one important general remark should be made in conclusion.
From the beginning of the “special military operation” and up to the time of writing, Russian society finds itself in an unusual state of immobility, in a stupor. Russians have not yet realised that the war is a national disaster and a catastrophe of two peoples. However, the experience of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya shows that it is quite possible and, indeed, probable that this realisation will come and that public consciousness will expect and demand an end to the war.
Translated from Russian into English by the Centre for Democratic Integrity.
- The surveys were conducted on a nationally representative sample of the population of the Russian Federation, aged 18 and over, by face-to-face interviews at the respondents’ place of residence. Information on responses is given as a percentage of those interviewed. Focus groups were conducted throughout the Russian Federation. Verbatim quotes from respondents are shown in italics.
- It was around 61-63%, which is very high by the standards of other societies, but in Russia Putin’s rating has almost always been at least 60% – that is his relative zero.
- See “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees”, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 17 December (2021), https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790818/.
- The law of the Russian Empire, issued in 1832, enshrined the dominance of Orthodoxy: “the Eastern Greek Orthodox Faith is the first and dominant [religion] in the Russian Empire”, and Russian emperors could not “profess any other Faith than the Greek Orthodox”. See Svod zakonov Rossiyskoy Imperii. Chast’ I (Saint Petersburg: Tipografiya II Otdeleniya Sobstvennoy Ego Imperatorskogo Velichestva Kantselyarii, 1832), p. XVI.
- “Soglashenie o sozdanii Sodruzhestva Nezavisimykh Gosudarstv”, University of Minnesota, http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/russian/cis/Rcisagr.html.
- Particular surveys in the autumn of 2023 suggest that if the war continues, the emergence of anti-Ukrainian sentiment among the Russian population cannot be ruled out.
- Lev Gudkov, “Dinamika etnicheskikh stereotipov (sravnenie zamerov 1989 I 1994 gg.)”, Monitoring obshchestvennogo mneniya, No. 2 (1995), pp. 22-26.
- There is no guarantee that this situation will be maintained. As we indicated, some surveys of autumn 2023 suggest that this resource could still be introduced.
- Responses to the question “How do you generally feel about Ukraine now?” for the period 1998-2023 show a steady downward trend: from 79% to 15% saying “good” and from 14% to 74% saying “bad”.
- The positive picture does not disappear completely. Almost 30% of young people in August 2023 said they had a good attitude towards Ukraine and almost 50% said they had a good attitude towards Ukrainians. This is despite the fact that 83% of these respondents are aware that Ukrainians now treat Russians “badly and very badly”.
- “Parad Pobedy na Krasnoy ploshchadi”, Prezident Rossii, 9 May (2023), http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71104.
- The final draft of this essay was submitted to the Centre for Democratic Integrity in autumn 2023.
- “Sovfed odobril zakon o nakazanii za voennye feyki I diskreditatsiyu VS RF”, Interfax, 4 March (2022), https://www.interfax.ru/russia/826310.
- The experience of the Chechen war has shown that the Russian public has a radically different attitude to the participation in combat operations of “conscripts” (those called up for full-time military service) and “contractors” (those who have served full-time and have a contract with the military). For the former, the risk of death or injury was perceived as a tragedy; for the latter, the risk of death or injury was perceived as an occupational hazard that they voluntarily accepted and for which they were paid. – It is a job, like any other job.
- These attitudes go deeper than the political orientations that can be revealed through questions about approval or disapproval of Putin’s activities as president of the Russian Federation.