Monday, April 15, 2024

Fed up with the war and feeling powerless, Russians want Vladimir Putin to end it

By the end of 2023, Russians who support a troop withdrawal from Ukraine “without achieving the war goals” were for the first time more numerous than those who oppose such a move. Ordinary Russians consider the war to be the most important negative fact in their lives and want it to end quickly.

This is the conclusion reached by independent sociologists working for Khroniky (“Chronicles”) and the Public Sociology Laboratory projects. It is backed up by those who measure public opinion for the Kremlin.

Other analysts – from Z-bloggers [pro-war bloggers] to clinical psychologists – have also noticed a lack of mass support for the war effort. They all observe that Russians are not ready to protest to end the war, but nonetheless expect Vladimir Putin to end it. As the March presidential election approaches, the Kremlin’s political strategists seem to be trying to meet this demand.

“The desire to end the war is at its peak now”

“Perhaps there will be a coup of far-right dissenters.”

“[After the war] we will be worrying that Ukraine will come to us – like Napoleon did to Moscow.”

“It will get worse – because the sanctions are working harder and harder.”

“If the war ends next year, the economic recovery will begin in two years.”

“Just give us peace – that’s all!”

These are not statements by opposition politicians or journalists, but quotes from ordinary Russians. The people were taking part in focus groups conducted last autumn by researchers from Khroniki, the Public Sociology Laboratory, and ExtremeScan in four Russian cities.

Researcher Oleg Zhuravlev explains to Verstka: “We looked at how people expressed their attitudes to the war in real conversation with each other. Already in December, the data from our interviews and focus groups was supplemented with new data from our volunteer ethnographers. They travelled to different regions, villages and towns, including frontline towns. They lived there for several weeks, integrated into the local community and tried to understand how people were experiencing wartime. The conclusion: the desire to end the war as soon as possible is now at its peak since the war began. And the share of people who support escalation is falling.”

In the opinion of this sociologist, this desire is getting stronger despite the fact that “people have got used to the war and are living with it”.

Judging by the reports on focus groups, which have been reviewed by Verstka, the reasons for Russians’ war fatigue are mainly material. The country’s economic situation is deteriorating and inflation is soaring. “Prices are rising, real income is collapsing, and you can no longer afford a lot of things, sometimes even minimally important things”, was a typical assessment of one participant.

‘The moral condemnation of the war in society, although strong, has not yet turned into an anti-war political position’ – Oleg Zhuravlev, sociologist

Another remarked that “due to the increase in prices, although wages have not changed, it feels as if they have”. In addition, participants believed that “sanctions are working and getting stronger”, while they do not see much success in import substitution.

Most importantly, they do not rate their future prospects highly as long as the war drags on. A frequent answer to the question about plans for the future sounds something like this: “Plans depend on the war, so I am not planning far ahead.”

These are not isolated opinions and figures. In October 2023, according to sociologists from Khroniky, the share of Russians who wanted the war to end without achieving its goals surpassed those in favour of its continuation for the first time: 40% of respondents versus 33%. “The share of those who would not support the withdrawal of troops has been consistently falling. In February 2023, they were 47%; in July, they were already 39%,” notes Chronicles.

“Calmer” Kremlin propagandists and “whining” war bloggers

Indeed, in public, the Russian president is trying not to focus directly on the fighting, as he once did. Even on 14 December, during the year-end “Direct Line” [a public Q&A] and press conference, Putin spoke about military operations only in reference to the mobilised soldiers. The president said they were “fighting very well” and that there were 14 Heroes of Russia among them.

But even this caused indignation among the “target audience” – the families of mobilised men – since Putin made no announcements about the soldiers’ return home. The head of state mentioned Ukraine only in connection with its “national hero Stepan Bandera” [a 1940s radical nationalist] and the confrontation with the West.

Meanwhile, Russian television propagandists have “become calmer”, says journalist Maria Borzunova. As she sees it, “the standard line on TV of ‘not a step backwards’ is still there” but feels more confident than a year ago. This has been fuelled by events on the front, the unsuccessful Ukrainian counter-offensive, and the eruption of other world conflicts involving Ukraine’s allies – in particular, the Israeli army’s retaliatory operation in the Gaza Strip following the terrorist attack there.

“The general mood now is confidence that ‘we will finish the job’ and that we will definitely win. No one is talking about peace talks on TV”, notes Borzunova.

She adds that at the end of its second year, the war is no longer dominating news in either the West or Russia: “There have been other developments that are somewhat related to the war, but they are not the war itself. In this sense, it will be interesting to look at what happens in broadcast entertainment. Last year, the war even penetrated that space – there were indirect calls to sign up to volunteer at the front. I wonder if they will return to their usual state of affairs.”

The detachment of ordinary Russians from the war is a source of particular ire for Z-bloggers. These are representatives of the 12% of Russians who favour a war until victory, which tends to mean the capture of at least Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv.

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Ivan Filipov, a writer who studies the work of these hawkish Russian bloggers and runs a Telegram channel called “All quiet on the Zzzzzzzz front” which monitors “only the best and high quality whining from the main pro-war bloggers”, believes that it is precisely the posts of these bloggers that “make clear how much Russians are tired of the war”.

“They have been complaining from the very beginning that there is no money, no support, not enough volunteers”, explains Filipov. “Lately, they have become downright angry about this and they’re saying that the Russian people have let them down – they don’t donate, they don’t die, they don’t go to the front. Every time they realise that the support is marginal at best, that the ‘heroes of the special operation’ are actually being beaten, humiliated, not allowed into hotels, not allowed into bars and restaurants in their homeland – they take it very badfully.”

He says that the specific content of the Z-bloggers has also changed: “Strategic texts have almost disappeared. They write less and less about war plans and goals. This is because they realise that there are no forces for anything more than advancing a few hundred metres. There is no new mobilisation, and it seems that there will be none. Might the writers themselves be getting war fatigue? Maybe, but I’m not ready to say that.”

By the end of the year 2023, the war in Ukraine had definitely ceased to be the central topic for Russian internet users.

‘Powerlessness, apathy, unwillingness to do something about it oneself

Polina Grundmane is creator of the psychological outreach project Without Prejudice. “People who turn to us for psychological support are now in the kind of state where they feel the need to join some group. They are looking for direction. The opposition-minded ones are essentially no different from those they oppose”, details Grundmane.

Without Prejudice supports Russian-speakers in need of personal or group therapy because of the war in Ukraine. In 21 months of work, the project’s psychologists have conducted 4,415 hours of counselling. 1,300 people have sought individual crisis help, all with signs of depression, and more than 2,000 people have sought group psychotherapy.

The project positions itself as an anti-war initiative, so it attracts Russians who are sceptical of the government and do not support the war. But recently, according to Polina Grundmane, these people have finally fallen into apathy. Before the war, most of them did not participate in political life, did not go to protest rallies, and “lived their own lives”.

After the outbreak of the war, the main peak of enquiries was during mobilisation. “Mostly people asked whether they should leave, how to make the decision and weigh the risks, how to know whether they should flee now or calm down.”

“After the mobilisation, people became apathetic,” says Grundmane, describing the emotional fluctuations of the first year of the war. In the second year, the number of requests peaked during the Wagner PMC mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, in August. This was preceded by a sharp decline.

“Things ‘woke up’ when the rebellion started. While it was ongoing, people were preparing to do something and take action. The mutiny was not feared like, say, mobilisation. No one asked for help to reduce their personal anxiety. The mutiny was treated as an opportunity to coordinate with supporters. But now we are back to a state of powerlessness, apathy, and unwillingness to take the initiative.”

The phrase “Victory to Ukraine! Freedom to Russia!” has been heard more than once from people turning to Without Prejudice. The project’s founder believes it can be decoded as “We want Ukraine to win and to liberate us”.

“This is, unfortunately, a shifting of responsibility”, says Grundmane. “Now it has become clear to them that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has not succeeded. Everything seems to be telling them, ‘Ukraine has failed to win. You’ll have to try to do something yourselves’. This doesn’t make people happy. They don’t want to have to do anything themselves. They are in such a state of powerlessness that they are not ready to do anything. Even volunteering has become too much.”

‘Only bread riots might change the situation. But that looks unlikely

War fatigue and disaffection are suddenly helping the authorities more than hurting them. According to a source familiar with poll data collected for the Kremlin in December, 80% of Russians rule out taking part in protests. Only 10% would consider doing so.

According to VTsIOM polling institute data as of 17 December, Putin enjoyed the trust of 79.7% of respondents. This compares to 62% for Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and 40% for Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. Such high approval ratings for the Russian president and his prime minister, who are responsible for the war, do not mean that there is no dissatisfaction with that war.

The sociologist, Oleg Zhuravlev, explains: “The moral condemnation of the war in society, although strong, has not yet turned into an anti-war political position. A possible exception is the relatives of the mobilised, who are actively protesting. This is a new movement. Let’s see if it can influence public sentiment and politics,”.

Judging by the focus groups of the Public Sociology Laboratory, Russians are pinning their hopes on Putin to end the conflict. They see no alternatives to Putin as the head of state. Indeed, they do not consider the March elections to be important. Most of them are either ready to vote for Putin or do not plan to vote at all.

Verstka‘s high-ranking source close to the government believes that “only bread riots might change the situation, and they are not expected”.

“Russians are champions at fearing the future and fearing change”, he says. “If you try to change a school teacher or a school principal, you are likely to encounter opposition. It’s better to keep them, however bad they are, because you don’t know who will replace them. So what might this say about the president? Much experience tells us that change in Russia happens only when things are absolutely unbearable, and in the form of a destructive storm. This is now the fear of both the leadership and society.”

Grigory Yudin, professor and head of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka) political philosophy programme, shares this view of the attitude of Russians towards the war: “Society comes out in political protest not when the cup of patience is overflowing, but when an opportunity presents itself”, he says. “Right now there is no such opportunity. Russians who understand the country’s situation will tell you that there is no alternative to Putin. That is why they expect him to solve the problem, i.e. to end the war, even though he started it.”

The situation will only change when citizens see “that a different life is possible”, believes Yudin.”When will the alternative appear? This is a tough question to answer. But it is clear to me: the potential for political activism in Russian society is very great. And as soon as the slightest opportunity arises, there will be immediate engagement around it. A serious opening may appear, for example, in the event of some internal collapse of the ruling system.”

Or, says Yudin, it may come from “pressure building up to the point where there is interest in an alternative proposal coming from within the system. The problem is that there is no such level of pressure now, and no one has yet formulated any such alternative proposal.”

👉 Original article on Verstka

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