Photo Cred: Kirill Zykov / Moskva News Agency
The long-term outcome of Putin’s bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine will depend on hard power (coercion, tanks and rockets versus Molotov cocktails and rifles) as well as soft power (winning hearts and minds at home and abroad). And in turn, soft power depends on cultural attitudes and information streams flowing through legacy airwaves, digital platforms, and personal networks.
Surveys conducted immediately before and after the outbreak of the Ukrainian invasion on 24 February report that the majority of ordinary Russians expressed support for the Ukrainian war and for President Putin. Overall, across the series of initial polls, a ‘silent majority’ – about 60% of Russian respondents – indicated that they endorsed the “special military operation” in Ukraine. But are these results reliable indicators of Russian views prior to the invasion? In February and early-March, did the majority of ordinary Russians actually sympathise with Putin’s decision to declare war?
History will ultimately decide how much of the blame for initiating the bloodshed rests on Vladimir Putin alone, as well as his Kremlin acolytes, and how much responsibility rests with the tacit acceptance of ordinary Russians. It is important to determine this issue morally, to assess culpability for the conflict, and legally, to prosecute potential war crimes. Understanding Putin’s soft power can also provide insights into the long-term consequences of the conflict for his leadership and for the future of both countries.
The early polls can be treated, like surveys elsewhere, as genuine signals of Russian public opinion. After all, cultural attitudes of nationalism, patriotism, and support for strong leaders remain powerful forces in the world. Many Russian citizens may have no idea of what is happening in their name and judge based only on pictures from Russian state TV.
State propaganda and fake news about Ukraine “shooting its own citizens in the Donbas region” started back in 2014 and since then has been increasing in its pace and volume. Even if many ordinary Russians are badly misinformed, however, the early polls may still capture authentic attitudes reflecting a silent majority at home supporting Putin’s actions, and thus represent the social construction of reality in modern Russia. At the same time, there are several potential arguments why the results from the early polls should be treated with great caution – or perhaps even discounted as meaningful.