When we began to examine support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine within Russian society, we ran into a paradox. Many people we interviewed were shocked by the news when the war broke out. They were horrified. They could not understand how such an event was possible. “It was just unbearably hard,” “I was horrified,” “It shouldn’t be like this,” “We are making a terrible mistake,” “I had a fit of hysteria, I cried,” “I didn’t talk for three days,” “My world turned upside down,” “I never expected to see a real war in the 21st century and that my country would be the aggressor in this situation,” said our informants. A month later, all of them, to one degree or another, began to support the war — or at least justify it. So what happened?
Morally disorientated, our informants sought to fit the war into a revised world picture. They tried to find conditions and arguments to offset the perceived reprehensibility of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; they normalized the war by convincing themselves that “wars always go on”; they attributed their initial shock to their naivety, to not understanding that “the world is not perfect”; finally, they embraced their impotence and the futility of trying to influence a situation that was beyond their control. Of course, they referred to and appropriated propaganda clichés in defense of the war. They did not do so by default but with cognitive, rhetorical, and even physical effort. These efforts allowed them to overcome moral conflict, resolve ethical dilemmas, recover from shock, and return to everyday life. As a result, what seemed impossible to them yesterday is now seen as inevitable.
This dynamic view of how support for the war has spread over Russian society allows us to understand the basic logic and mechanisms behind a significant part of this support. Of course, among the supporters of the war, there are people who are convinced, politicized, people with deeply held views — they support the war in a very different way. The war and its changes coincide with their aspirations, hopes and ideas about the world order. But such people are a minority among our interviewees and, it is safe to say, a minority among Russians. The support for the war by most of our informants (and a considerable section of the Russian population) is not a consequence of their conscious political stance. It is passive and reactive. It does not serve as a guide for action in everyday life. It is not derived from their interests, needs, or moral principles (on the contrary, it largely contradicts them). At the heart of this support is the depoliticization of Russian society. This is one of the main conclusions of the forthcoming analytical report produced by our research team, which describes and analyzes this very particular, depoliticized support for the war.
Since the beginning of the war, our team has used qualitative methods (sociological interviews) to monitor how Russians perceive it. We seek to understand what lies behind support for war and how war affects our society. We chose qualitative methods to understand the logic, the mechanisms of support and condemnation of war, invisible behind the numbers. In the spring of 2022, we gathered over two hundred interviews with supporters of the war, opponents of the war, and those who were doubtful about their attitudes toward it — and published an analytical report, which you can read here. In the fall of 2022, we decided to focus on examining support for the war and collected nearly 90 interviews with those who do not consider themselves opponents. While the value of our first report was in comparing three groups of people with different attitudes toward the war on a range of grounds, the value of our second report, which is going to be published soon, lies in the fact that we managed to capture and describe general patterns of depoliticized support for the war in authoritarian Russian society. Such support is not only support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as such. In a sense, it is a particular case of many Russians supporting government decisions that run counter to their interests, especially if the causes and consequences of these decisions go beyond the immediate experience of their private lives. When such decisions concerned domestic politics, their adverse effects primarily affected people in Russia while remaining invisible to the rest of the world. This time, unfortunately for Ukraine, the full brunt of their consequences has fallen on the citizens of the neighboring country.
How does this support work?
First, supporters have no positive feelings about the war despite justifying and generally “supporting” government actions — in this case, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. Indeed, most of our informants experience fear and anxiety in the face of the protracted military conflict. “Anxiety is intense, it doesn’t end in any way, it’s awful, people are dying on both sides,” explains one of them (male, 50 years old, administrator at the circus, October 2022). The fear got exceptionally high when the military mobilization began in September 2022, but just a few weeks later this fear receded into the background, turning into a nagging anxiety without a cause. Moreover, many people cannot imagine optimistic scenarios. The main desire of informants who are not opponents of the war is paradoxically to stop it (however, preferably on terms favorable to Russia). But even Russia’s victory is wished for not because they believe in positive change after the war but because losing seems like an even greater disaster.
Second, the main arguments in defense of the government’s actions do not stem from these actions’ appeal. Just the opposite is the case: most of our informants try to show that they have a negative attitude towards military aggression as a phenomenon. Hence, their support is based on the idea that there is no room for alternatives (“I am against the war, but there was simply no other way,” “The war is bad, but it is a forced measure”). For these people, the invasion of Ukraine does not appear to be an optimal solution but rather the result of a lack of choice and the impossibility of resolving the situation in a better way. According to the same logic, many Russians responded to the announcement of military mobilization: it is scary and horrible, but there is no way to do without it. “I do not feel elated that I will have to go to war, kill someone. No, absolutely not” (male, 28, computer graphics artist, October 2022), “I have no desire to go to war” (male, 60, entrepreneur, October 2022) — our informants admit, adding that if they receive a summons, they will be “forced” to go to war. “Where else can we go?” “Well, if that’s what it takes,” they conclude with a heavy sigh. Both war and mobilization are extremely unpleasant but forced and unavoidable steps, which most of our interviewees, by their admission, would prefer to avoid, but which they consider necessary to put up with.
Third, people support some elements of the government’s decisions and condemn others. We have already written about contradictory support for the “special operation” here. Participants in our study may consider Russia’s actions justified and necessary and, at the same time, wish for an early end to the war due to its prolongation. They may deplore the draft but believe that good citizens should not turn their backs on their country, even if it is wrong. They may wish for a Russian victory but see no reason to have started the war or its positive consequences. “I side with those who stayed, and are willing to go to war if necessary,” says one informant. “If our country is at war, this is very bad. But if we lose in this war, it will be even worse. We didn’t start it, but we must finish this war.” Elsewhere in the interview, however, she admits: “I don’t understand, what does NATO want from Russia? I’m afraid that Ukraine and the Donbas area may disintegrate into small entities beyond anyone’s control, like Somalia. There will be little satisfaction from this state of affairs because territories that no one controls pose severe economic and political problems” (female, 21 years old, student, November 2022). In this sense, it is not strictly speaking easy to call each individual a “supporter” of the war or an “opponent” of it. They are both supporters and opponents at the same time. However, in an authoritarian and depoliticized society that wages war and demands support from its citizens, to support this war, it is sufficient to remain silent, come to terms with reality, and continue living one’s life. And to turn against it, one must overcome the inertia of depoliticization, formulate a position, and speak out (even in an anonymous interview with a sociologist). As a result, even contradictory acceptance, an approval that coexists with condemnation, continues to work to produce tacit support for the war.
Finally, people often justify the government’s decisions without looking at their reasons but rather at their consequences (even geopolitical arguments prepared by Russian propaganda still seem too abstract and incomprehensible to many people). We call this type of justification for the war in Ukraine a “reverse” justification, an apologetic argument that reverses the course of argumentation. In these justifications, inevitable consequences and “effects” of the war, such as the aggressive behavior of Ukrainians/ AFU toward Russians, begin to be seen as causes of the war and become arguments in defense of its necessity. Roughly speaking, since Ukrainian bombs are falling on our border territories, and the West supports the AFU, then the “special operation” was indeed necessary. “Look, you asked me: do you believe in the threat from Ukraine? Yes, I do. Kill me, I do. On the 24th, I didn’t. And now I do. When everything [started happening] I saw, I realized that they hadn’t fooled around,” admits one of the informants (male, age 60, entrepreneur, October 2022). Another participant expands on this thought:
“The guys who went there in the beginning, they didn’t want to go. And now they want to see it through to the end. Nobody knew it was real fascism — we thought that was all over. […] Many people were not in the mood to fight. They thought it was just to scare them. But when we dug deeper, there was something that even adult men did not expect. So I think that Russia had to lance that boil. I don’t think it would have just gone away. Because judging by the way things are going, the conflict would have happened” (female, 52 years old, university professor, November 2022).
Moreover, with time war itself is becoming more tangible and real, forming part of the surrounding world (albeit still mediated for most Russians by smartphones and television screens). Many people even begin to perceive it as bad weather outside their windows or a natural disaster: a manifestation of global world processes and crises, the power of which, like bad weather, cannot be resisted. “It’s cloudy now,” says one of our informants in response to a question about his attitude toward war. “This is what happens. On the ground, in general, there’s always shooting, killing, somewhere” (male, 42, IT professional, October 2022). In addition, over the long months of the war, some Russians are in touch with Ukrainian relatives and acquaintances and are seeing their attitudes toward Russian citizens worsen. These episodes confirm the inevitability and, simultaneously, the validity of the war as if in hindsight. Thus, many Russians no longer have to actively search for arguments in defense of the war — something they did in the first months of the Russian invasion. It is as if the war is starting to justify itself, and they are coming to terms with what seemed impossible six months ago.
Indeed, even forced, knee-jerk, and ideologically indifferent support for the war is not innocuous. This support ultimately contributes to normalizing the war and maintaining the status quo. However, our research shows that in Russia, massive support for the war resulted primarily from the structure of the state and society, which took shape over recent decades. To support the war in a situation where it is of fundamental importance to the official state doctrine and lies at the core of the ideology of the political regime, it is not necessary to emerge from depoliticization, just the opposite. Instead, to oppose the war, politicization turns out to be vital. Since the depoliticization of Russian society has been brought about in part by the consistent efforts of the authorities over the last twenty years, an antiwar position requires that people overcome their inertia and make an effort to leave their apolitical stance. The Russians, who lived in a depoliticized authoritarian state where social institutions have been destroyed for so long, became hostages of this system at the beginning of the war and could not condemn the state’s decision. Even though this decision was contrary to their interests.
“Doesn’t the sheer number of deaths, the destruction, and suffering that the war has brought about constitute a reason for you to condemn it?” antiwar-minded Russians ask their fellow countrymen. “Isn’t that enough to say that war is a crime?” Our research shows that it isn’t enough. What seems to the opponents of the war to be an individual (and ethically colored) human reaction, a moral choice of an individual, is, in fact, the result of the actions of social forces. In a sense, we can distinguish between two levels on which people who passively support the war judge what is happening: the socio-political, on which they may be driven, insensitive, and cynical, and the personal, on which they remain human in their own eyes.
This knowledge is essential in the discussion of collective responsibility, which provides the ground for political decisions at the international level. Under a different social arrangement and a different political regime many of the insecure, forced supporters of war might have turned out to be its opponents. This situation again demonstrates the enormous power which social order and society have over the individual. It also gives some hope that, should the socio-political situation change, some people supporting the war may quickly start to condemn it.