From, June 1, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – Last February, both public opinion research and media polls showed that many Russians supported Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine (although there is much debate about the true extent of this support). At the time, the supporters of the “special operation” were sure that the war would never come to Russian territory, and that the Russian Army “would reach Kiev in three days.” But since then, the war has come to the Russians at home, the authorities were forced to mobilize [men of draft age; see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6 – Trans.], border towns are being shelled more and more intensively, and explosions and sabotage are occurring. Yelena Koneva, founder of and researcher at the ExtremeScan polling agency, told Republic why the escalation of military events in Russia will lead Russian society to reject the war.

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‘Every day, more and more military events are taking place on Russian territory, and this is turning the war from virtual into real and adding to people’s fears.

Question. – The war with Ukraine is steadily moving into Russian territory, and border areas suffer from military operations around the clock.You devoted your last study of the attitude toward the war to just three regions bordering Ukraine – Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk Provinces.You have come to the conclusion that now, based on the situation in the border regions, one can judge the processes that will take place in the rest of the country when the war rolls deeper into it.How did you reach this [conclusion], and what exactly did the study show?

Answer. – I’ll start with how the idea of this study came about in the first place. As a researcher, I was interested in the question that we have been trying to answer throughout the war: What is the reason for supporting this war? Although, according to our indicators, [support] is much less than according to the data of some other projects, we still see that about 40 million people actively support the war. And they are prepared to do something to support it – that is, they are ready to either donate to the Army, or volunteer for the benefit of the Army, or go to war. They are willing to have the state budget redistributed for military rather than social needs. We also tried to understand: What would have to happen for support to start falling? In principle, one can understand the support for the ever-present United Russia and Putin; one can imagine the reasons for it. But it was extremely difficult to imagine the reasons why one could support the war. And when we received the initial numbers, we were of course shocked.

While we initially thought that the reason for supporting the war was the lack of information in society, and that information about what was happening⁠ in Ukraine would break through and cause rejection of the war⁠ because of sympathy for the Ukrainians, we can now say this isn’t really the case.

We have mathematically proven that personal costs lead to reduced support for war.

Sanctions, layoffs, income cuts: It’s all happening, but the economy has adjusted and it’s going slowly. The adaptive capacity of Russian society is quite strong but not infinite, and we see that people who regulate and control this war rely on it. One principle must be remembered. We have two Russias: the Russia that did not support the war, and supports it less and less every day – there is no outflow from this group; and the one that supported it. These are two mutually exclusive groups, and their polarization will increase. But at the same time, we have people from the group of “superficial” support for the war, and as the military events escalate, they will have to move one way or the other. This pool is made up of all those who might not admit it out loud, but they would stop this war.

So far, for all of Russia, apart from mobilization and personal losses and inconveniences, the war has not particularly brought any new personal problems. It is on TV, and it is perceived according to the current propaganda agenda. Every day, more and more military events are taking place on Russian territory, and this is turning the war from virtual into real and adding to people’s fears.

In our research, you can see that Russia as a whole has a very high level of confidence (56%) that Ukrainians will come to our land, and in the border regions this confidence is even higher (72%).

Naturally, it is connected with the fact that the war there is already obvious, and the border has turned out to be defenseless despite billions invested in fortifications. In the border area, three groups of factors are already influencing the attitude toward the war. These are: changes that make everyday life more difficult than elsewhere in Russia, i.e., personal ones; events localized in a specific territory – these could be various restrictions, curfews and so on; and purely military events – shelling, destruction of houses, forced relocations, and civilian injuries and deaths.

Q. – Which of these is most likely to convince the part of society that supports the war that it is the source of their problems?

A. – I had a hypothesis that in places where military events are already taking place – villages, small towns, Belgorod itself, for example –people at some point should be so scared that they would eventually say: “Okay, I support Putin, and it was impossible not to start the war, but let’s finish it already.” The results were contradictory. Now the inhabitants of the shelled territories, as well as all of Russia, are going through the fifth stage of accepting the war, according to my periodization – when the majority has already realized, understood that the war will not end quickly, but they have adapted to it in one form or another. Even the military events have not scared the inhabitants of the border zone enough, and some segment has rallied in the face of the threat. But when the “real war” comes, like the one that the people of Ukraine are experiencing, it will be a new stage, a stage of real fear. . . .

Q. – Many expected that the autumn mobilization, which frightened the public, would cause a decrease in support for the war, but it decreased insignificantly and then returned to its previous levels.

A. – So far, mobilization is only a probabilistic death, and the war’s losses are hidden. For many, being sent to the front does not seem like a direct threat. Many went to fight on mobilization orders not only out of fear of resisting the authorities, but also because they obey the herd instinct, because it is the duty of a citizen, because they actually support the war, or because of the hopelessness of life at home. There are a lot of reasons. And the suppression of independence and freedom has even led some people to destroy their instinct for self-preservation.

One can imagine a pyramid of fear, where at the base there is the fear of death, the fear of losing loved ones, then the fear of prison and deprivation, the fear of power, the fear of poverty and discomfort. When the stage of direct fear for one’s life comes, a significant share of the people will break through the ceiling, and they will begin to realize that the source of the threat is the authorities.

But this stage has not yet arrived. It would seem that those whose relatives were mobilized, especially women, should logically be against the war, because they should be very scared for them.

But for now, most of these women are experiencing a stage of solidarity with our Army: “My son, my husband is fighting, [so] I must support the Army.”

And we see such an effect not only along the border, but throughout Russia, where at one level, people understand that a member of their family has been taken away and could be killed, and they even have dreams about [the soldier] being wounded and demobilized. And on another [level], compensation occurs: “We are not suffering in vain; our boys are not dying in vain.” And if someone close to you is at war, it is absolutely clear that you will have a more negative attitude toward draft dodgers, because “they took my man away, but that one ran off.”

Q. – If not “in vain,” then for what? How do people explain it?

A. – You know that the goals of the military operation have been constantly changing in the official rhetoric. We started with conventionally noble goals: to help the Russian-speaking population of the Donetsk Basin [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13]. Then [sic; in the same speech – Trans.] came denazification and demilitarization, narratives that we must liberate Ukrainians from their Nazi government – [ideas] that were superficially assimilated by society. All this was in the first half of [2022], when people still believed that the war would last a maximum of several months and the operation would be completed quickly, since there were enough troops to do that. Already by September, this status passed into another phase, when motives of protecting the homeland from danger appeared, and they became predominant.

We ask respondents a question: If Putin decides to withdraw troops and start peace talks without reaching [Russia’s] goals, are you prepared to approve this decision? We specifically included Putin in the question in order to relieve the person of responsibility and make it easier to say yes. And what was the effect? In November, after the announced mobilization, 35% of Russians were not ready to support Putin’s [hypothetical] decision. And when they measured it in February, 47% were already against such a decision, and there are even more of them in the border area. It’s no wonder. The Belgorod governor has just announced that the best way to stop the shelling of Belgorod Province is to annex [Ukraine’s] Kharkov Province to it. This ridiculous excuse for an undefended border is an accurate reflection of the state of fear of invasion, which leads to one desire: to fight and drive the Ukrainians away from Russia’s borders. . . .

Q. – Why are people not ready to support the end of the war?Just out of a sense of danger?

A. – There are many reasons. For example, if the war stops now, then the question arises: What was all this for? If we all remained conditionally on our own [territory], and even with such losses and destruction, and the whole world turning away from us? As for the border area, in relation to the “rest” of Russia, that reason is also becoming stronger, that very growing sense of fear. For many, it does not matter now whether it was right or wrong to launch the invasion, to believe or not to believe the “Bucha story” [Western media reported brutal massacres in this Kiev suburb, while the Russian authorities insist the stories were fabricated – Trans.]. Everyone understands that Ukraine has suffered enormous damage, that so many people have been killed and [we] will have to bear the punishment for that, even those of us who did not participate in any of it. And the consequences of this punishment relate not so much to victory or loss in the war, but to the fact that here, in our country, Ukrainians are going to come and take revenge.

Russian propaganda has a serious flaw: The image of the end of the war is completely absent. There is no image of victory, and it is becoming more and more illusory.

In open-ended responses in the summer of 2022 to the question of what victory might look like, people talked about returning to the beginning of 2022: Everything is calm, no one is being killed, we go to visit relatives in Ukraine. A year later, it is becoming obvious to everyone that such a scenario is impossible.

There is no other, and the future is becoming a more and more terrifying anticipation of punishment.

Q. – What does propaganda do instead of creating an image of victory?

A. – It paints an image of defeat: insane, scary stories about how the Ukrainians will come, chop [us] up, put [us] in jail and so on. And this fear mounts up into aggression. There are many texts on this topic, such as during World War I, inexperienced young soldiers would scream and charge the enemy out of fear. The same effect is at work here. At the same time, at the local level in the border regions, propaganda work is carried out even more seriously than throughout the rest of Russia. It appeals to universal human values and calls for volunteers.

The governor (of Belgorod Province, Vyacheslav Gladkov – Ed.), tirelessly travels through the shelled territories. A house is destroyed – he comes there with engineers, makes reports, and this creates a feeling that the authorities are involved. Even among young people in the border regions, who support the war much less than the elderly and mature, support for the governor reached 91% in March. They are not willing to go to war, but they support the actions of the head of the region. He keeps active, comes to universities, awards volunteers with prizes. This is the result of targeted PR. But guns are stronger than PR. And the more shelling and intrusions there are, the more accusations will be brought against the governor. . . .

‘The risk of shelling adds fear, but to change the attitude toward war, you need to experience suffering.

Q. – Residents of the border regions, like no other citizens of the country, are connected with Ukraine by family and neighborly ties.I know many Russian families in which people did not believe their Ukrainian relatives when they said that they were hiding in basements, that they were being shelled.Why did they choose propaganda over their kin?

A. – It’s basically a self-reinforcing process. At first, when Ukrainian relatives recounted what was happening to them, the Russians answered that all this was not true, that they were actually seeing on TV that no civilians were touched, everything was fine, and this Ukrainian propaganda was lying. Ukrainians were shocked: “What propaganda? I’m here!” And then a phase came when the Ukrainian relatives despaired and began to damn Russians with the words: “The time will come when you’ll pay for everything.” As a result, quite natural mutual aggression ensued, which led to a break in relations. . . .

Q. – You said that in the border areas, the war is not yet present on a large enough scale for people to start rejecting it en masse.Saboteurs riding tanks in the Graivoron District of Belgorod Province [see Vol. 75, No. 21, pp. 8‑12] – is this still not the right scale?

A. – You need to understand that the acts of sabotage in Belgorod and Bryansk Provinces are still symbolic. There are few losses, and they are chance occurrences. People are frightened by them, but these events form more like an anticipation and expectation of something even more terrible – which, however, causes even stronger impulses than the experience of the event itself. This expectation of a war, the border crossings and invasions have so far mostly caused a rallying effect. But when a situation arises in a border area the way it did in Kharkov at the end of February, with the destruction of infrastructure and houses, deaths and injuries, it will be another story, I am convinced of this. Life will be so disintegrated that people will not even be capable of remembering solidarity. The risk of shelling adds fear, but to change the attitude toward war, you need to experience suffering.

Q. – Do you think that destruction like what Ukrainians are experiencing awaits the Russian border regions?

A. – Undoubtedly. The shelling will deepen. The escalation in the border zone will change public opinion, channel the emotions that are in some ways mounting in the Army and around the Army, and Ukraine wants this. But for now, for some time, there will be a combination of shelling and sabotage attacks in the border zones.

Q. – But still, why do you think that in the event of an escalation, the attitude toward the war will cause rejection of it and not the opposite, a rally around the flag?

A. – As I said, the findings that we came across during the study showed that the key factors in attitudes toward the war are events that concern a person personally. If the number of them grows, and people have a real fear for their own lives, for the lives of loved ones, then other processes will begin.

If you have to constantly sit in shelters, and pregnant women give birth without medical assistance, the end of the war will become the main passionate desire.

For those who do not support the war, there are no insights; what is happening only confirms their rejection of the war. Insight is the fate [that lies ahead] for the supporters, who are still in the support phase. . . .

Q. – Due to military censorship, one gets the feeling that only Z voices are heard inside Russia [the Roman letter Z signifies support for the war in Ukraine – Trans.].What’s happening with the dissenters now?

A. – All the time, I remind everyone and myself that there is a huge portion of people in Russia who are shocked by the war and hate it. In Russia, according to our data, there are approximately 30 million, as opposed to 40 million supporters. But the latter are much louder, because the opponents have no channels to express their opinions; they are in the position of the oppressed. And what is very sad is that these people think they are in the minority, that they simply do not have a chance to be heard. By the way, the authorities have done everything to this end, and our work is to inform them that this is not so. Now we see the reactions of opponents of the war: Their status has moved from anger to the stage of depression and apathy, because they cannot do anything. But I think that this situation should already be changing, because the tension is growing every day, and it will only get worse.

Here you can draw the following analogy: If paint is poured on a tablecloth, it spreads by degrees; a bright red spot runs outward and gradually transitions into a still white tablecloth. In relation to the war, we also see this multidirectional movement. In our society, there are 10% of those who openly say in polls that they are against the “special operation.” For them, the negative consequences of the war can only exacerbate their rejection of the war. There are radicals who just want to fight. And there are all the others. Some will hold on to this concept of war for a time, claiming that we did not start it, we are not to blame, we need to support our boys, our Army.

For some, support will decline more strongly, for others it will strengthen, but overall we will see a decrease in support. . . .

People will say: Yes, we supported it, but now we have to finish it. And the further [the war goes], the more important the question will be of when scenarios for an armistice will be drawn. We can safely ask the question: What will happen if, for some reason, Putin stops the war (leaving aside the Ukrainians’ reaction) – he simply stops and returns to the borders as they were at the beginning of 2022? What proportion of Russians, the Russian population, will experience catharsis? It will be huge. And then even these 20% to 30% of silent ones will show themselves.