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What Russians think of the war in Ukraine, according to an independent pollster

A couple walk in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower and St Basil's cathedral in downtown Moscow. While 80% of poll respondents say they support Russia's military, some have mixed feelings.
Kirill Kudryavtsev
/
AFP via Getty Images
A couple walk in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower and St Basil's cathedral in downtown Moscow. While 80% of poll respondents say they support Russia's military, some have mixed feelings.

Updated April 18, 2022 at 1:06 PM ET

What do ordinary Russians think about President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, and how much are they feeling the effect of Western sanctions?

Denis Volkov has been working to find out. He's the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling firm in Russia.

As Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep notes, doing anything independently in Russia is tricky (the government has branded the firm a foreign agent), as is conducting polls on this topic — since the government prohibits calling the invasion a war, and dissenters are arrested.

The Levada Center stays within those parameters by asking whether people support the actions of the Russian military.

Volkov found that some 80% of respondents do support the military, but that group is by no means a monolith. He says about 50% have "definite support" without any qualms, but the other 30% have support with reservations. And he sees shock and anxiety across the entire group.

Volkov told Inskeep that he's aware of the pitfalls with these polls, but they may still have valuable information to teach us.

"We must understand that polls show us not what people really think or really believe, but what they want to share," he says.

Volkov says these polls are conducted face-to-face, and people are assured of anonymity. Still, he notes, the survey results reveal at least as much about what people are willing to say in public than about how they truly feel.

"We are measuring public attitudes that, more or less, coincide with how people will behave in public," he adds.

He says the firm asks about peoples' feelings, and is seeing that both groups — those who support and oppose the military's actions — are anxious and afraid. He contrasts this to public opinion surrounding the annexation of Crimea in 2014, recalling that there were positive feelings and even "euphoria" at the time.

"This time, you do not see this euphoria," Volkov says. "It's rather that people understand that this is serious, that there is fighting. But at the same time, many say that they're supporting and some people even say that they should support, because it's international conflict and they have to support their government."

Volkov adds that public opinion matters, even though the Russian government isn't taking the public's pulse in order to plan its next moves. He says officials are instead monitoring the situation to make sure that it's "under control."

And as Russia's war in Ukraine continues, the U.S. and other Western allies are hitting it with more economic sanctions.

One-quarter of respondents say they already feel the effect of those sanctions, according to Volkov. People who are from disadvantaged groups are suffering the most, he adds, because they don't have the resources to adapt.

On the other hand, Volkov says that people in big cities who are well-off and well-connected do have the resources, but are suffering "morally."

By that, he means that those who were most connected to the outside world might have been less inclined to support Putin's military operation, but now find themselves cut off from the West. That means they're on conflicting sides — and feel the shunning of Russia most of all.


The digital version of this story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

This interview was produced by David West and Sean Saldana, and edited by Taylor Haney.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.