“I think the best thing you can do with this is to hope that the president has enough information to do the right thing. And then you need to trust him to do that and as part of the country you need to support that…”
In both form and content, this statement is very similar to how many Russians described their attitude to the Russian Armed Forces’ “special military operation” in Ukraine. 213 qualitative interviews collected by the PS Lab team between February and June 2022, demonstrated that for many Russians the very fact that Russia was in Ukraine was enough to conclude that there must be a reason — even if it was impossible to know what it was.
Yet the “right thing” from the quote above refers not to Vladimir Putin’s decision to start the so-called “special military operation” on 24 February 2022, but to George Bush Jr.’s decision to invade Iraq on 20 March 2003. This quote is taken from the paper by the U.S. sociologist Monica Prasad and her co-authors, exploring the mechanisms of resistance to information that contradict people’s political beliefs. Many Americans had been convinced of Saddam Hussain’s involvement in the organization of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, and this conviction led them to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bush never directly stated that Hussain is responsible for the attacks, but his administration’s political rhetoric consistently connected Iraq with 9/11. Although the 9/11 Commission wasn’t able to prove Hussain’s involvement in the preparation of the attacks on the twin towers, Bush supporters continued to think that the war was justified, because the president couldn’t have started it without a reason.
Prasad and her co-authors call this form of reasoning “inferred justification”. When justifying a political stance or a moral assessment, people don’t appeal to specific facts they themselves consider credible, to leverage them in order to convince the opponent. Rather, it is sufficient for them to simply say that such facts exist or must exist, even if it is utterly impossible to know what they are. For Prasad and her co-authors, this phenomenon is rooted in universal social-psychological mechanisms, unrelated to specific political positions. When interpreting their political experience, only rarely do people have enough time and resources to analyze rationally all the relevant information. Under such circumstances, they can’t help but resort to heuristics — thinking shortcuts that help to process information, form judgments and make decisions faster. For instance, when choosing whom to vote for, voters use their political preferences to evaluate candidates and use the latter’s party membership and ideological stances as heuristics. In addition to preferences, another source of heuristics may be the situation itself — for example, the balance of forces in the parliament or the composition of a future coalition which sometimes prove to be more important than ideology or partisanship. Such situational heuristics become particularly influential when people face large-scale consequential events — it could be a fateful referendum, a pandemic, or the start of a war. For some Republicans who voted for Bush in the 2000 elections, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was such an event: the situation of going to war itself was sufficient to assume that the war was justified.
“Inferred justification” is not the only strategy people use to resist disconfirming information. During interviews with Republican voters for Bush who believed in the link between Hussain and the 9/11 attacks, researchers showed them a fragment from Bush’s speech where he denied the existence of this link. Yet only one out of 49 respondents actually changed his opinion in response to this information. The majority of respondents tried to defend their positions in spite of the disconfirming information (41), while some others denied that they ever believed in Hussain’s involvement (7). Responses have been diverse, including some respondents who cast doubt on the very possibility of finding out whether Hussain’s Iraq was connected to Al Qaeda, or ignored or refused to discuss Bush’s statement, and insisted that they don’t have to give reasons in support of their political opinions. Often they tried to redirect the conversation towards other justification of the Iraq war, unrelated to 9/11 attacks. For instance, some referred to the intelligence reports that Hussain’s regime might have been developing nuclear arms. These suggestions also have not been confirmed.
An important feature of “inferred justifications” is its resilience to new or contradictory information. People who voted for Bush in the elections were sure that a political leader they elected cannot make such a radical decision as invasion of another country without there being a good reason for it. This confidence proved to be more important to them than substantive conjectures about what those reasons actually are. In other words, in their assessment of the decision to start the war, facts were less important than the belief in their existence. This belief is independent from how credible specific explanations are, as well as from their ability to be disproved by new information. Bush voters interviewed by Prasad and co-authors continued to justify the Iraq war despite the fact that Bush himself doubted the existence of the link between Hussain and the attacks of 9/11 that justified the war in the first place.
In the interviews collected by PS Lab, we found many examples of “inferred justification.” This way of reasoning was used not only, and not primarily, by the ardent supporters of the so-called “special military operation”, but also by the people “in doubt”, who tend to refrain from articulated judgments and emphasize the priority of private life over politics. Here’s an illustrative example:
So I don’t understand, in principle, what is going on there, because, first, perhaps the government did the right thing, maybe they didn’t have another option or this would be better for our country, for our people. But I want to believe that our government took into account precisely these facts when they launched this so-called special operation.
Interestingly, the phrase “I want to believe” refers not to the existence of the “facts”, but rather to the respondent’s desire to believe that the government was guided by these “facts.” In another respondent’s words the question about justification of the so-called “special operation” also turns out to be connected to the assessment that the authorities are “reasonable” and “know what they are doing”:
Why is there this war? Maybe if we didn’t have this war, maybe things would be even worse. I mean, nobody knows that, right? But I still believe that our authorities are reasonable and they know what they are doing, it’s not like there would be stupid people in the government. They must have had their own reasons.
Discussing that the president must have had the reason to start the “special operation”, some respondents admit that this “belief” makes it easier for them that way:
Is this war justified? Well, I guess, as the saying goes, any bad peace is better than a good war…. But I have this firm belief — and for me it’s easier that way — that our president must have had no other choice.
This type of statements signals that for some Russians it was a huge shock when the hostilities in Ukraine started. It is precisely in order to deal with this shock that they have to assume that an event of such a scale could not occur due to someone’s mistake, selfish interest, or just out of whim, and that assumption makes it easier for them to carry on. Similar to the case discussed by American researchers, the key feature of this type of argumentation is that it is “inferred”. In the quote above, the “firm belief” that the person is talking about does not follow from an analysis of facts, but precedes it. The justification is based not on the presence or absence of information that would allow us to assess the correctness of the president’s decision, but on the conviction that he had no other choice.
At the same time, Russian and American variants of “inferred justification” are not completely identical. The respondents of Prasad and co-authors voted for Bush, so the question of justification for the invasion of Iraq became for them a matter of confidence in their own political choice. As one of the respondents put it, “Saddam, I can’t judge if he did what he’s being accused of, but if Bush thinks he did it then he did it.” Respondents in PS Lab study are much less confident that the government “know what they are doing” — for them it is more a matter of faith or hope, as indicated by the modal words “probably,” “maybe.”
For Bush voters, the beginning of the Iraq war was at least partly related to their own political choice and responsibility. PS Lab respondents from Russia treat the “special operation” as an event that is beyond, although not necessarily against, their will and choice, and which they have no way of influencing. This is notable even in the most confident formulation of “inferred justification”:
The way I understand it, either there was no other choice, or there are some other circumstances that we don’t know of and we will never know of, but there was some background to this. That’s why it happened the way it did. Right now I’m reconciled to it — yes, it is what it is. <…> I am not a supporter of military action, of these violent measures. But since it happened, it happened, I will not be able to influence it in anyway.
Supporters of the so-called “special operation” more often express confidence that there was no alternative, while undecided respondents only hope that the decision to start the operation was not arbitrary. However, both emphasize the distance that separates them from the subject of decision-making, the president and the government of Russia. In this respect, Russian respondents differ from the Americans who had made a conscious choice for Bush. As one of the “doubting” respondents puts it:
You know, I have this feeling that we have a certain distance between the authorities and the people whom they govern. I have always had this feeling that these are two parallel worlds. The feeling is the same now, and has always been so. For me it is just like two parallel lines. <…> All decisions that they make — there’s nothing I can do about them, I have no influence on them. I understand that neither elections, nor some other things, they would not change the decisions.
On the one hand, the reference to some unknown objective reasons waives the question about the subject of decision-making: if the president and the government “had no other option,” then they had no choice. On the other hand, Russian respondents’ using constructions of hedging and self-reflection like “I want to believe” suggests that they doubt not only whether the president has enough information to “do the right thing,” but also whether he is able to do so at all.
In their justification of the Iraq war, Bush voters did not doubt his ability to make the right decisions, that is, to choose one of the available alternative courses of action. Russian supporters of the “special operation” can afford such confidence only if they interpret the situation, in which the authorities make decisions, as one in which there is no alternative. Between these two poles are those Russians who refrain from assuming a clear stance. They assume that the president and the government did have a choice. However, being unable to influence it, they behave as if the government’s choice was by and large justified.
According to the recent polls, popular support of the military action in Ukraine remains comparatively high — somewhere in between 50% and 70%, according to different estimates. Yet a correct interpretation of these figures requires a degree of methodological ingenuity, especially given the high likelihood of preference falsification. Thus, researchers from the survey company Russian Field tried to measure the support of the “special military operation” using two questions. In addition to the direct question of whether the respondent supports “the military operation of the Russian Army on Ukraine’s territory” (resulting in 69% of support), researchers asked respondents whether they would support two hypothetical decisions made by Putin: to begin a new offensive on Kyiv, or to sign a peace treaty. Answering this latter question, respondents don’t have to imagine themselves in Putin’s shoes, as if it is them who is in charge of making a decision. On the contrary, the way the question is phrased removes the burden of responsibility, even if an imagined one, and asks to take a stance towards a decision that has already been taken by Putin. Such an approach allows to distinguish the convinced supporters and opponents of the “special operation” from people whose position is primarily determined by their general trust to president Putin.
The results of the survey (that took place between 29 September and 1 October, 2022) demonstrate that 60% of Russians are ready to support the decision about the new offensive, and yet 75% would also support the decision to sign a peace treaty. Both numbers include convinced supporters and opponents of the “special operation,” as well as people who would support any Putin’s decision regardless of its substance. According to the researchers’ calculations, 16.1% of Russians are convinced that military actions must be continued and a new offensive against Kyiv pursued, while 26.8% are convinced that a peace treaty must be signed. In total, these two groups, the convinced supporters and the convinced opponents, account for 42.9%. At the same time, the share of Russians who do not hold strong opinions about the future of the “special operation” and would support any Putin’s decision regardless of its substance, is 39.2%, just slightly below the share of the convinced. Right now these people express support for the “military operation” — but this support is “passive” or “out of inertia,” because it only reflects their readiness to support any decision taken by Putin, whatever that decision is.
We believe that the logic of “inferred justification” reconstructed above represents the purest example of how such “passive” supporters of the “special operation” think about the events. These people support it because they follow Putin’s current course. It seems reasonable to assume that some of them are in the sample used by PS Lab where they feature as “undecided” people. In turn, some of these “undecided” respondents resort to “inferred justification” to defend their position. This type of justification is not the most widespread, but it captures the meaning of “passive” support for the “special military operation” in its most concentrated form. The analysis of the logic of “inferred justification” allows for making generalizations about this support — not in a statistical sense, but by constructing an “ideal type.”
In the media, the apparent support many Russians express towards the “special operation” is often explained by references to the peculiarities of the Russian culture — for instance, Vladimir Pastukhov, Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies, has recently argued that “fatalism” is an integral element of the Russian “cultural code.” However, a comparison with the American case complicates this picture and makes it more granular, as the appearance of “inferred justification” in Russia could be explained by the same underlying mechanism, the situational heuristics. Yet the differences between the two cases are political: we suggest that they are related to the fact that American respondents are, at least in theory, able to influence the decisions made by their political leaders on their behalf. Appeals to hope and faith found in the interviews with Russian respondents when they talk about the people who decided to start the “military operation” in Ukraine testify to the depth of political alienation, rather than tell anything about the Russian “cultural code,” whatever that is.
Research in social psychology into the mechanisms of “inferred justification” suggests that appeals to facts will not force people who “passively” support the “special operation” to change their minds. As Prasad and co-authors argue, the higher the stakes, the stronger the propensity towards “inferred justification.” People conclude that the particular action taken was justified by judging the scale and severity of this particular action’s consequences. If tensions exacerbate and the situation triggers an even stronger emotional response, as is the case with the announcement of partial mobilization and martial law in selected regions of the Russian Federation, situational heuristics do not cease to work but become even more convincing. It is for the same reason that emotionally loaded images that emphasize the scale of the consequences of military action (the shocking numbers of casualties, pictures of destroyed cities, calculations of economic damage etc.) are unlikely to make “passive” supporters of the “special operation” reconsider their opinions. An attempt to show the gravity of the situation won’t be able to convince those people, because it is precisely the gravity of the situation itself that prompts them to infer that, whatever is happening, there must be a reason.
Our analysis suggests that the key element of this “passive” support of the “special operation” is the hope that the decision to start it was justified: a hope, not a firm conviction. Many respondents evaluate the events as if there was a reason for them to happen. Isolated facts, however shocking, are hardly able to shake such a position — changing it would require a reconsideration of the entire frame of interpretation, rather than accounting for particular facts. Research on public opinion about the U.S. wars — World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq — shows that the key role in the public’s perception of military action is played by the “cues” the public receives from the political elite and its stances on the war. Such “cues” shape how the public perceives the information on the events on the frontlines, casualties, and defeats. Facts will become important only when the elite discourse will appear less consolidated, allowing for different positions towards the war to emerge. Under conditions of effective ban on any criticism of Russia’s political-military leadership, inconsistency of the official stance can trigger similar effects. Recent statements by Dmitrii Peskov and Tikhon Shevkunov about the possibility of peaceful achievement of the goals of the “special military operation” can be early signs of such an inconsistency.
To make the “passive” supporters of the so-called “special military operation” change their minds, one of the most important issues is the issue of identity. The desire to believe that there must be a reason forces them to interpret the situation as if the decision to start the “special operation” was justified. These processes are closely related to people’s beliefs about themselves and the proper conduct of the government towards them. Political misinformation research suggests that, if people perceive correction of their beliefs in light of new information as a threat to their own identity that casts doubt on how they see themselves and the world around them, such new information is either resisted, or fails to convince. To be able to change their point of view, people require not facts, but a convincing project of reassembling their identity.
24 February was a huge shock for many Russians. Some of them hailed the start of the “special military operation,” others opposed it, but a great number of people took the stance that PS Lab researchers call “undecided”. The very scale of the events forces these people to assume that there must be a reason, triggering the mechanism of “inferred justification.” Unable to prevent or influence the decision of those in power who started the “special operation”, they behave as if this decision was justified. The hope that such a justification is in principle possible allows them to mute the voice of their doubts and makes it “easier for them that way.” This hope is not necessarily related to the moral character or cultural c characteristics of Russians, but is a reflection of the socio-political situation in which they find themselves. To abandon such hopes, people need a new way of orienting in history, without relying on the dubious belief that their rulers are “reasonable” and “know what they are doing.” What could become such a navigation device is a convincing vision of what the future Russia could be, Russia after the end of “special operation” and after Putin, — Russia that would take responsibility for the consequences of the tragic February 2022 and therefore would be able to reconstitute itself anew.