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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 on April 17, 2022. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by 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.

Transcript :


What do Russians think of President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine? We called a man who's been asking that question. He runs an independent polling firm in Moscow. Doing anything independently in Russia is tricky, and Russia has branded the Levada Center a foreign agent. Conducting polls is also tricky since dissenters are arrested, and the government forbade calling Russia's invasion of Ukraine a war. The Levada Center stays within those guidelines and asks if people support the actions of the military. Talking to us by Skype, the center director, Denis Volkov, told us he is aware of the pitfalls but says if you listen carefully, you can learn.

Are you conducting the kind of public opinion surveys that Americans will be familiar with here, where it's a telephone survey or an online survey of some kind? What's your method?

DENIS VOLKOV: Well, actually, the figures that we publish and that you can find on our website, it is face-to-face household survey - so very traditional. And in this sense, we believe that, speaking on political issues, it is better to speak with people face to face that - than over telephone.

INSKEEP: And I suppose you also may learn something just from being in someone's house or wherever it is that you find them. Do you assure people of anonymity?

VOLKOV: Yes, of course, we assure people of anonymity, but of course, we must understand that polls show us not what people really think or really believe but say what they want to share.

INSKEEP: So when we talk about a survey of public opinion, in your case, what that means is a survey of what people are willing to say in public.

VOLKOV: We think that it is so, and thus we are measuring public attitudes that more or less coincide with how people will behave in public.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the results here. When you ask about this military operation in Ukraine, what percentage of Russians say they support it?

VOLKOV: Well, the community of support is about 80%, but it is not monolithic, and it is about 50% who have definite support, who has no qualms about what is happening, who trust Putin in every way. So this 50% is definite support. And then there is 30% support, which people are saying that they - rather support, they have more doubts about what's going on. They also show high level of anxiety. Maybe they don't support everything that Russian military is doing, but at the same time, they say it will be not patriotic not to support.

INSKEEP: You said anxiety. How is that expressed?

VOLKOV: We ask about feelings that people have. And we see that in both groups, those who support and who does not support, the high levels of anxiety, of shock. People are afraid. So it's not about joy, as we saw in 2014 when Crimea was taken - and rather peacefully - from Ukraine. At that time, there were a lot of positive feelings, euphoria even. But this time, we do not see this euphoria. 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.

INSKEEP: When the United States goes to war, it would be easy to find Americans who say, I don't understand this, or it makes no sense to me; it's even a dumb idea, but I support the troops. Is that the kind of thing that you hear from a percentage of Russians?

VOLKOV: Yes. I think it's exactly the words that many people from this 30% of weak support are saying. They see that, well, people suffering, but at the same time, they say, right or wrong, my country.

INSKEEP: How are Russians feeling about their economy?

VOLKOV: Well, economic problems certainly accumulate. And already one-quarter of our respondents say that they feel the effect of sanctions, that the sanctions bite. We see that, I think, more people who are from disadvantaged groups, they, I think, suffering most because they do not have resources to adapt to the situation. But at the same time, there are groups in the big cities who are well-off, who were connected very well to the West, and I think they also suffer but rather morally. But at the same time, they have more resources to adjust to this situation.

INSKEEP: Did I hear you say that some people suffer morally? Did you say that?

VOLKOV: Yeah. Well, I mean that there are certain groups in the Russian society who were more connected to the open world. These are the groups who were less inclined to support this military operation. But at the same time, they find themselves cut from the West. So in this sense, they find themselves between conflicting sides. But at the same time, they suffer because they were so well-connected to the outer world, and they now experience Russia being cut off from the open world most of all.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the views of ordinary Russians matter in some way to a Russian government trying to stay in charge?

VOLKOV: Well, of course, public opinion matters. It's not that the Russian government consult public opinion just to understand what they want to do next, but of course, they're monitoring it to be sure that the situation is under control and is calm. So they're monitoring quite closely.

INSKEEP: Denis Volkov of the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Russia. Thank you so much.

VOLKOV: Welcome. Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.