From, Aug. 10, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – In the early days and months of the war, many Ukrainians expected the Russian people to rise up against the Kremlin and stop the disaster by staging massive antiwar protests. But this did not happen, and all the attempts by some Russian activists to organize antiwar movements were brutally suppressed. Suddenly, the Ukrainians realized they didn’t know their neighbors to the east as well as they thought. This meant that, to prevent any future aggression, they had to figure out what motivates people in Russia. In this interview with Republic, Aleksandr Shulga, director of the Kiev-based Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia, explains why Ukrainian social scientists study Russian society, what they have learned about Russians since the outbreak of the war, and what they expect from Russians – now and after the war is over.

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It’s as if Russians are saying, ‘Enough already, let’s wrap it up.’

Question.– Why do you conduct polls in Russia? The goal is not just to observe and record public sentiment in Russia, right? You’re trying to figure something out, aren’t you?

Answer.– We study public sentiment in Russia not only in the context of the current situation. We also follow midterm and long-term trends, which will define what happens tomorrow and the day after. That’s our goal as we see it. Certain traits are very deeply rooted in the Russian people, and they will influence both the situation inside Russia and Russia’s actions toward its neighbors and other countries around the world for many years to come. This is what we focus on in our analysis and the research we’ve been conducting for the last nine months, since last November.

Primarily, we rely on traditional social science methodology, but we also monitor Russian media. Every week, we prepare an overview of Russia’s social media, nationwide media outlets and other media organizations. We look at what subjects they focus on, what kind of terminology they use and what communicative practices they employ.

Q.– So, what has your research revealed about the Russian people?

A.– The important point is that people in Russia are treating this war against Ukraine more and more like [the] COVID‑19 [pandemic]. On the one hand, this war is meaningless and unprovoked; on the other hand, it is the largest conflict since World War II in terms of the number of troops and weapons involved, as well as the length of the front line. So many people have been killed, and so many will die before it ends. This war has been going on for over a year, but the Russian people, it seems, have learned to live with it. And it is not just the war hawks, the so-called Z-patriots [the Roman letter Z symbolizes support for the Ukraine war – Trans.] that I’m talking about. It’s the passive majority that I have in mind.

People see that it is possible to continue living their lives, as long as they keep their heads down and maintain a low profile, telling themselves and others that they are “not interested in politics.”

To them, it’s like COVID. It wasn’t their fault; it just happened. It paralyzed their regular lives. It posed a threat to their own lives and health, and the lives and health of their families and friends. But then, at some point, COVID just up and went away, without them having to do anything about it. Yes, there were some restrictions. But I wasn’t the one who started COVID, people say, and I wasn’t the one who invented the vaccine. So, similarly, all I have to do now is somehow make it through the next couple of years, while this thing lasts. The war should go away at some point, just like COVID.

So, let’s say at some point the Kremlin decides to invade Kazakhstan and comes up with some phony pretext like the mistreatment of ethnic Russians. Should that happen, Russian people will know how to react – all you have to do is hunker down and somehow make it through. If worse comes to worst, you can leave Russia and come back later. Again, I’m not talking here about people on the two extremes – those who fully support the war and those categorically against it. Long term, of course, it’s a very bad trend. But if you ask me about the situation right now, I’d say the Russian people are in the bargaining stage at the moment. It’s as if they are saying, “Enough already, let’s wrap it up.”

Q.– I understand that people try to adapt somehow. But still, would you say most people want the war to end?

A.– When we do our polling, we always break the numbers down by gender, education and income level, and by urban areas versus rural. Naturally, gender and age are the two biggest factors.

For example, the answers we get from younger men who may be called up for military service are markedly different from how older people respond, because the latter don’t face the prospect of being sent to the trenches. Potential conscripts are more interested in seeing the war end sooner rather than later.

In fact, most people in Russia want the war to end. The thing is, the costs of war – the chance of getting killed in the trenches, or the chance of losing a family member – far outweigh the war’s abstract goals. Besides, nobody really knows what those goals are, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russian propaganda keep changing them depending on the current situation on the battlefield.

For example, we asked Russian people: Let’s say the Kremlin announces tomorrow that the so-called “special military operation” is over. How would you react? Up to 74% said, “That would be great. I’d love it.” At the same time, most people think that Russia has only partially achieved its goals in this war. The war is so artificial, so unjustifiable and so meaningless, that the official narrative falls apart in people’s minds, and Russian people don’t really know what they are fighting for. Of course, there is a category of people who are already on the front line, and their primary motivation is vengeance for their fallen comrades. For example, you might remember that Gen. Ivan Popov, who goes by the call sign “Spartak,” talked about this in his infamous voice message [see Vol. 75, No. 28, pp. 12‑13], after which the Kremlin shipped him out to Syria. But these people rarely ask themselves what their comrades gave their lives for. As for the passive majority, they don’t have any goals at all in this war. So, if Russian people are told tomorrow that the war is over, they would be very happy, because this would mean that there won’t be another round of mobilization. But this is only relevant if we talk about the short or medium term.

Long term, however, we see some very negative trends. Part of the problem is that even those who are not Z‑patriots have no realization that they, too, are responsible for this war. We see this, for example, when we ask people about reparations.

Russian people think that Russia should only fund reconstruction in the territories it occupies.

In other words, people haven’t learned the lessons of this war, and they are mentally ready to put up with potential future wars. They think they should just hunker down and ride out the storm. Short term, though, you’re right: Most people would be very happy to see this war end, and they abhor the prospect of another round of mobilization. If you look at the population in general, 60% to 62% of the people are against further mobilization. For younger people eligible for conscription, the number is even higher – 74%.

You can’t stay away from politics, because war doesn’t care whether you’re interested in politics or not.

Q. – For the past 20-plus years, Vladimir Putin has been doing everything to eradicate from people’s minds the very idea of being involved in the decision-making process. And if people are not involved in making decisions, they don’t feel responsible for what happens in their country. So, is it fair to expect people to feel responsible if they have no say in what their government does?

A.– Those are things you have to ask Russians about. Of course, Russians are atomized as a nation, and Putin is doing his best to stop civil society from emerging in Russia. He is seeking to replace it with sham civil society, i.e. government-funded organizations, movements, etc. We know, of course, that opposition leaders in Russia are often sent to prison or killed. But all of that started with baby steps. So, that’s something you have to ask Russians about: Why did they allow that to happen? All we do in our reporting is state the facts.

I don’t think it would be fair to expect Ukrainians to be understanding of the fact that Russians cannot influence the government.

“If you don’t have a say, you should do something about it,” Ukrainians would tell Russians.

There are no people in Russia with enough political – or at least moral – authority to challenge the current regime. All such people have either fled Russia or are behind bars. But again, none of this happened overnight, and it didn’t happen in a year, either. Russians decided they would just stay away from politics. But politics doesn’t stay away from you. To Ukrainians, the war is much more real. In Ukraine, there is not one single family that hasn’t been affected by the war. But in Russia, too, there are hundreds of thousands of families where someone is in the military, or has been killed, or has been conscripted. You can’t stay away from politics, because war doesn’t care whether you’re interested in politics or not. Just consider what the Kremlin has been doing lately. They have raised the maximum conscription age and introduced tougher penalties for dodgers [see Vol. 75, No. 29‑30, pp. 11‑13]. Pretty soon, they might make it a criminal offense. You can’t just declare that you’re not interested in politics. War has shown that such an approach doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Z-patriot, a fan of [jailed oppositionist] Aleksei Navalny’s, or a pacifist. As long as you meet the mobilization criteria, they will send you to the front.

Q.– So no matter how much people in Russia would love to hide away from politics, it seems like they have no choice but to get involved. How do you think this will change society in Russia?

A.– If we do see some changes in Russian society, I don’t think they will include an improved ability to self-organize, unfortunately. We saw this happen in Ukraine when the war broke out in 2014, with Russia annexing the Crimea [see Vol. 66, No. 12, pp. 3‑11] and then invading the Donetsk Basin. How did Ukrainian society respond? People became much more attached to the Internet and social media, because they were always searching for updates, trying to figure out what was going on. Even older Ukrainians – who, like older Russians, didn’t know much about the Internet – started to use it. Similarly, one would expect Russian society to self-organize somehow after the war started. But all we saw were some feeble attempts to set up some antiwar committees or some associations of conscripts’ mothers, but the authorities quickly quashed any such initiatives. So, not much has happened, even though the full-scale war has been going on for a year and a half, not to mention the eight years of war since 2014.

Now, as far as long-term prospects are concerned, we should be objective when we discuss the current attributes of society in Russia. Our predictions shouldn’t be based on emotions. For instance, if we expect that one day Putin will die and things will immediately go back to normal, this means we are viewing the situation through rose-colored glasses. We shouldn’t agree with those who say it is “Putin’s war,” because Putin is not waging it alone. In fact, he isn’t even fighting. Instead, he is sending other people to fight for him, and people are obeying.

Q.– Can you name some other attributes of the Russian people, apart from passivity?

A.– We already mentioned the first one. It is their reluctance to take responsibility. They say, “Why are you bothering us? We aren’t part of this thing. We didn’t send anybody there, and so you can’t expect us to pay for it.” Second, Russians tend to view the law as something secondary. For example, we paraphrased the famous quote from Brother [2][Brat 2, a 2000 Russian thriller – Trans.] and asked people to choose between two statements: One, “Law is power – always follow the law,” and two, “Being right is power – always do the right thing, even if it’s against the law.” So, 61% of Russians responded that it is knowing that you are right that gives you power. We had an entire section in our questionnaire on perception of the law, and it’s very important that Russians tend to view the law as something secondary.

Many people said, “Even if doing the right thing means we have to break the law, we should still do what we believe is right. It is our belief, our state, our reputation that is at stake, and we will never allow anybody to trample on it. We may be wrong, but we can’t possibly go against our own state.”

We also asked people how they would respond if Russia launches another “special military operation” – say, against Kazakhstan, the Baltic nations or Georgia, and only 14% to 17% said they would never support that. All the rest said they would accept the same justifications for future wars as those used by Russian propaganda for the current one: that the other country is run by a Nazi regime; or that Kazakhstan (or Lithuania, or Poland, or Georgia) were going to attack us anyway; or that it was necessary to help Russian speakers who were being mistreated there.

Another key attribute of the Russian people is how they feel about their neighbors, especially Ukraine. Instead of coexistence and cooperation, they have this concept of annexation and domination. To many Russians, there is no question that our two nations are related, that they share a common mentality, and because of that, many Russians genuinely don’t get why Ukrainians refuse to become part of Russia. “Aren’t we the same people, after all?” they ask.

Prior to the Feb. 24 invasion [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13], I took part in a nonpublic opinion poll, where we asked Russians what they thought about the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, and 54% said they were the same people. Then we had 18 months of war, with hundreds of thousands getting killed and massive destruction across Ukraine. And still, the same 54% said again that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. Also, 65% of the Russian people said their attitude toward Ukrainians had not changed. In other words, most Russians don’t realize that Russia is physically destroying Ukraine. They think Russia is only fighting some Nazis in Ukraine and that this has nothing to do with the general Ukrainian population. It is a very important observation that should be taken into account when making predictions about future wars. . . .

‘If Ukraine makes territorial concessions, that will result in a huge number of lives lost and the high risk of another invasion.

Q.– Do you agree with those who say that war can’t end as long as Putin remains in power and that Putin will remain in power as long as the war continues? After all, Putin can continue taking advantage of Russian people’s passivity and patience for a very long time.

A.– [Wagner private military company leader Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9] has clearly demonstrated that this helplessness ingrained in Russian people cuts both ways. People are unable to challenge the regime, but, at the same time, the regime cannot rely on the people to back it up in a difficult situation. Personally, I think Prigozhin’s mutiny severely undermined Putin’s chances of staying in power indefinitely. . . .

If there is a ceasefire, and the occupied territories remain under Russia’s control, there is a 95% chance that hostilities will resume once the aggressor gets enough time to regroup.

And we don’t know for sure whether we will be able to withstand an attack next time without losing another chunk of our territory and many more lives. Ukraine has learned the lesson that it can’t stop halfway through. If Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine, they will simply return to their territory; but if Ukraine makes territorial concessions, that will result in a huge number of lives lost, territories being occupied and the high risk of another invasion. Obviously, Putin has nothing he can offer the Russian people apart from war, such as industrialization, innovation or economic growth.

However, I don’t see any viable option for restoring peace without Russian troops leaving Ukraine. . . .

Q.– Don’t you think that whoever comes after Putin will be interested in turning around Russia’s foreign and domestic policies? Surely, they will be eager to regain Russia’s standing in the world, rebuild its economy and have sanctions lifted.

A. – Let me ask you something straight away. What kind of politician can come to power in Russia today? To put it simply, there are some liberal, democratic opposition leaders in Russia, but they have either fled the country or they are in prison. Then there are technocrats – those who are part of the government system but are only doing their job and don’t share the ideological concept of Russia as a great empire. In addition, let’s not forget about the Z‑patriots, who may also vie for power. I don’t think we can realistically expect that liberal democrats like [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky or [Aleksei] Navalny will come to power in Russia. That leaves us with technocrats, but they can only come to power if they win the support of a broad coalition of various groups in the ruling class, among the elites. But we don’t know whether these groups want the war to end. At least, right now they’re not doing anything to stop it. . . .

Q.– Do you think Russian people can get behind the idea of returning all the occupied territories to Ukraine?

A.– We have already established that Russians are very passive, that they are accustomed to being this way, and that this passivity cuts both ways. Soon after Ukraine liberated Kherson, we conducted a poll asking Russian people, “What do you think about Russian troops retreating from Kherson?” Three-quarters of Russians said it was a good thing because it helped save soldiers’ lives. But this was after the fact. I think that if we asked people how they would feel about Russia abandoning the land bridge to the Crimea today, their reactions will be negative. But if Ukraine manages to deoccupy that territory, Russian propaganda will spin it by saying that this helped the Russian forces achieve something else in a different place, that this allowed Russian forces to regroup or something like that, and people’s response will change to positive.

In one of our polls, we asked an even broader question: “Do you think that what happened on Feb. 24, 2022 could have been a trap set up by the US in order to lure Russia into this war?” Three-quarters of Russians responded by saying that yes, this was a trap set up by the US.

Then we asked them, “What can Russia do in order to thwart this American ploy?” Forty-five percent said Russia could pull back its troops to where they were before Feb. 24, 2022. In other words, if Russia has to explain its retreat, it will be very easy to do so by playing the conspiracy card. Russia has even made films about such traps. They premiered right when Russian forces began struggling on the battlefield.

All of this, plus the Russian people’s reluctance to get personally involved in military action, will make it easier for them to accept the deoccupation of Ukrainian territories. By the way, I don’t expect the Russian regime to face any problems with that. I totally disagree with those who predict that Russia’s military defeat – which means, actually, that Russia simply withdraws its troops from Ukraine – will inevitably result in massive public outrage and create problems for the ruling elite. All the recent events support my view on this issue.

For instance, many thought that Z-patriots were extremely influential. But what happened when [Igor] Girkin [also known by the nom de guerre Strelkov] was arrested [see Vol. 75, No. 29‑30, pp. 7‑10]? The authorities sent him to jail, and all we saw was some harmless single-person pickets and some pictures on Telegram. And that’s their leader we’re talking about! So, if Russian troops have to retreat, and the Russian people have the same tepid response, how does that pose a threat to the regime? I don’t agree with those who say that Russia’s retreat from Ukraine will automatically cause the current regime to collapse. . . .