With Ukraine surrounded by some 130,000 Russian troops, the threat of a major military conflict in Europe is closer than ever since the end of World War II. There’s been no lack of speculation about whether President Vladimir Putin intends to invade and why. But is what he wants the same as what most Russians want? The answer is complicated, with serious implications for the Western response. Denis Volkov, director of Russia’s only independent polling agency, joins The Cable from Moscow to explain.
Director, Levada Center
Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs
Journalist, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power
Senior Fellow and Director of Democracy Initiatives, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Europe and Eurasia Bureau, US Agency for International Development
The Cable is produced by Glenn Kates. Audio mastering by Danil Komar.
Read the transcript:
Gregory Feifer The prospect of a major military conflict in Europe is closer than ever since the end of World War II. With more than 100 thousand Russian troops massed in and around Ukraine’s border threatening attack, and Western countries in a full scale diplomatic effort to talk the Kremlin down, Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding they accede to nothing less than the transformation of Europe’s security architecture, by giving Eastern Europe over to Moscow’s kleptocratic sphere of influence. The United States, NATO and the E.U. have rejected the Kremlin’s demands outright, vowing a united swift and severe response to any new Russian aggression in Ukraine. Meanwhile, there’s been no lack of speculation about what Putin intends to do, and his motives in the latest stage of his new Cold War. But we’d like to ask another question — because his decisions are calculated to generate support at home. Is what Putin wants the same as what most Russians want? What do they really think about provoking a conflict in Europe? I’m Gregory Feifer, and this is The Cable, the transatlantic discussion about the front lines of democracy. Produced in Washington by the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group and the Institute of Current World Affairs, I’m joined by my co-host Jonathan Katz, also in Washington.
Jonathan Katz Thanks, Greg. We were both struck by the recent data from the Levada Center, which is Russia’s only independent polling agency, about what Russians are saying and not saying, and about the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and how Russians view the current crisis. So, we’ve invited the Levada Center’s director, Denis Volkov, who is joining us from Moscow, to explain the situation. Denis, welcome.
Denis Volkov Hello, glad to be with you!
Jonathan Katz I’d like to start by asking you about something some of us observers in Washington found particularly interesting. In a poll your Levada Center conducted in December, 83% of Russians said that they had a positive view of Ukrainians, but in another poll conducted the same month, 39% of respondents thought a new conflict was likely. What do those views say about what Russians feel about the situation? Is there a contradiction here?
Denis Volkov Well, we must start with how Russians understand what is going on. And I would say it’s rather different from the views of the Western public and Western media. First of all, we see that the majority actually hold the United States accountable for what’s going on. It’s not even about Ukraine. It’s about the United States and Russia. And the logic that we see in focus groups is as follows: The majorities say that it’s the United States who is influencing the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian government is trying to mastermind something against the unrecognized Republics of “DNR” and “LNR” and Russia unwillingly has to step in to defend these.
Gregory Feifer I’m just jumping in to say those are the two regions of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of pro-Kremlin forces.
Denis Volkov Yes, but only 7% of Russians now hold the Russian government responsible for what’s going on, so they’re in the minority. We see in focus groups that being in minority, these people are very shy in expressing their views publicly. So, I can expect that there are more such people than only 4%, like in our public opinion poll, but they feel the pressure of majority. They feel the pressure of the Russian media that presents the picture of what the majority is saying. So they do not do not want to go public about what they think. So, with this understanding of what’s going on, I can try to put in several words what the attitude is: The majority don’t want a war with Ukraine. They fear war with Ukraine and with the West. But at the same time, more and more people feel that war is closer and the Russians can’t do anything about it.
Gregory Feifer That’s very interesting, the sort of contradictions and differences among levels of opinion. I understand that you’re saying most Russians don’t want a war, but public opinion is on the Kremlin’s side. I’d like to burrow a little bit deeper about this majority opinion. What I take from what you’re saying is that essentially Russians are being manipulated into essentially tacit agreement, but also gauging public opinion among the majority. This can be tricky because people tend to say what they believe that they’re expected to. On the other hand, you have Ukrainians who have been very clear about the direction that they want their country to take — toward a democracy that is integrated with the West. So I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you address these issues of really gauging the majority opinion when people are reluctant to talk.
Denis Volkov Well, I think what is important here, in understanding how this rather unanimous public opinion is formed, is that everything is shown through the prism of Russia and the Western world, and the Russian-US conflict. And it makes people take sides. And again, this frame of Russian-US conflict is very familiar for many Russians, because almost all the conflicts that Russia has taken part in in recent years were interpreted and seen through this lens. In this lens, it is always the West who is bad and Russia is good.
Another important point is that the main source of information is state media, with not many people wanting to get more information. Quite often the main sources of information are state TV channels because they’re still the main source of information. And then when people are interested, they try to go and dig for additional information. But in this event, it is not happening. People do not want to get additional information. It’s also the result of manipulation of the Internet as well. Not only the Russian TV channels, but also how the Russian state works with independent media on the Internet. The primary source of information on the Internet is Yandex News. It’s part of the Russian aggregator, Yandex, which is the most popular one in Russia, and the news on its first page is usually the main source of information people usually go for. And when several of the main independent media were recognized as foreign agents last year, their information stopped appearing on Yandex News, or maybe appears, but less frequently. So, there is independent media on the Internet, but it’s in the way in this instance, they were blocked from primary use of ordinary Russians. Again, you have to go and look for additional information to get it. And if you don’t want to do it or you are afraid or you are tired of doing it, you do not get this information.
And the fourth, I think, is that we can compare Russian society in 2014 and in 2022. In 2014, we saw a rather vocal and rather vivid anti-war movement. In spite of there being a a lot of optimism and approval of what Russia was doing — taking Crimea from Ukraine and so on and so forth. But there was a sizable minority who was against what was going on. We do not see it now, probably because Russian civil society is in a poorer state now. They are fewer independent and public figures who are speaking against war.
Jonathan Katz I want to follow up, because it seems like what you highlight is a very different landscape than even between now and 2014, in terms of civil society, independent media. There seems to be an effort, including with the leading opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny in jail, to really control the narrative. And you really outline that. I wanted to ask you based on this, can we really talk about Russian public opinion as something separate from the Kremlin line?
Denis Volkov Well, of course, there are topics that Kremlin can control and wants to control and influence. But on other topics, Russian public opinion is less homogeneous. We see that, for example, opinions about the government is different with the younger generation, who are more active and significantly more skeptical about the government. Many, many political issues are seen differently by the younger generation and the older generation in Russia, including protests inside the country, outside of the country, for example Belarus. There were sizable differences in these topics — how different people in Russia see what was going on, but on this topic, probably seen by the Russian government as very important, we do not see these differences. And probably it is because of the points I was speaking about.
Jonathan Katz Can I just add one follow up question on this just on narratives? You clearly have been following this quite closely, even over the last couple of months. Are you seeing any shifts in narrative from the Kremlin, when it’s talking compared to where we were even a couple of months ago to where we are today? Given the diplomatic efforts and the changes that are happening on multiple sides of this equation.
Denis Volkov Well, it is hard to say about dynamics because we do not have fresh figures yet, but what is certainly happening is that this topic is in the media, on TV, on the Internet. They are speaking about the conflict. They are speaking about the Western reaction to this conflict. And for those people who don’t want to follow what’s going on, they are still following because the media is full of news about this event. So, it is still there. And I think it’s keeping the tension. It helps to maintain the tension within society, the anxiety about what’s going on. So, I think we are still far from the end of this situation.
Gregory Feifer So, manufacturing an external enemy has helped galvanize support for Putin during the more than the two decades that he’s been in power. But in this case, there’s a contradiction in his presentation of a threat to Russia from Ukraine. If his overarching goal is to provoke a crisis in Ukraine in order to undermine Western unity and claim a sphere of influence over former Soviet republics, the Western response has been that everything he’s doing is encouraging the very opposite, with NATO beefing up forces near Russia’s borders. So, when it comes to Russia’s long-term interests, do Russians see any contradictions in the Kremlin’s rhetoric and the facts on the ground?
Denis Volkov Well, there is, of course, a debate, but I think these people are still in the minority again. The Russian-American conflict helps to explain what’s going on and this framework actually predates Putin’s effort to use it for the purposes of legitimizing his power. It is partly the result of the inflated expectations that many Russians had after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 90s, we saw that a lot of people were saying that now we will be friends with the United States, partners — the United States will save us from our troubles. When it didn’t occur, people became disoriented. And then, after the first enlargement of NATO, after the bombing in Yugoslavia, it somehow crystallized this anti-American sentiment. Still, with big portions of the Russian population, the overall view of the United States is positive. Actually, it is now about 50-50 — those who favorably look at the United States and those who do not. And the United States is seen predominantly by younger people as a very developed country, as a prosperous country, a country of advanced technology, mass culture and so on and so forth. But quite often, even with young people, we see that the international foreign policy of the United States and the views of how the United States reacts to Russia and treats Russia, they’re predominantly negative. And this was the case for the last maybe 20 years. So, this is the discrepancy. The overall US image can be quite positive, while this international dimension of foreign policy, was rather negative for quite a long time.
Jonathan Katz Recently, there was a group of more than 100 Russian intellectuals urging the Kremlin to de-escalate the standoff over Ukraine, saying the government is deceiving and using people for a holy war with the West. But no one asked the citizens of Russia. There’s no public discussion. The issue was the price of war for Russians, not the rights or views of Ukrainians. Why has there been so little show of solidarity among Russian opposition leaders, dissidents and other leading advocates for human rights and democracy in Russia, for human rights and the right to self-determination in Ukraine?
Denis Volkov It is a very good question, and probably, at least partially the answer is in the state of Russian civil society right now after the high pressure of last year, when the key oppositional figures were either put in prison or recognized as extremists and forced to leave Russia. I think this is one reason — with Russian civil society being preoccupied with itself and with the with survival in these rather harsh conditions. And probably another explanation is that still, after 2014, there was a sizable rift between Russian and Ukrainian civil society. Ukrainian civil society being offended, maybe by the modest role of Russian civil society in the events of 2014. And there were a lot of accusations taking place. So, it seems that the two civil societies feel estranged from each other – too few connections are being preserved and kept. And I think this is the result of this rift, of this conflict, which influenced not only attitudes towards the governments of both countries, but civil societies as well. And because of this, there is too little solidarity on Russia’s side right now.
Jonathan Katz I want to ask you about sanctions and the economic impact of sanctions, and whether or not there’s a recognition that potential military action could result in a significant pushback, with consequences for Russia internally, and then, also on the military side.
Denis Volkov Speaking on sanctions, I think that the Russian government was successful in convincing people that there is no connection between what Russia is doing or not doing and the sanctions. The majorities say that there will be sanctions anyway, no matter what Russia is doing, and the West is only looking for an excuse to impose new sanctions on Russia — to weaken it, to make a life difficult and so on and so forth. Initially, when the sanctions were introduced in 2014, there was a shock in public opinion and people were anxious, if not afraid, of how it will work and what the effect of the sanctions will be. But as time passed, people got used to living under sanctions, and not many people can say what is their effect. Speaking about the nature of this conflict and how people see it, I think many Russians understand that if such war happens, it would be a bloody war with the involvement of other countries, not just Ukraine. But again, many blame the United States and the West for what’s going on. They say, well, what can we do about it? I think there is still some hope for negotiations. And actually, 80% of Russians want negotiations to happen. They want a settlement. But again, they don’t feel that it is Russia who is not making this happen, but blaming the West.
Gregory Feifer [00:21:08] So, in your description, Putin’s propaganda calculus appears to be extremely effective. Essentially, he’s got the majority of the Russian population exactly where he wants it, at least looking at it from the outside. But in getting at the main question here in the West, and that is what will Putin do, what are his motives, how much should Western policymakers take Russian public opinion into account with the Kremlin propaganda top-down propaganda so effective? Is there any sense that public opinion could have an effect on Putin? That the traffic could go in the in the other direction and change his calculus?
Denis Volkov Well, my answer will be twofold. First of all, I think in the current conflict, Russian public opinion does not pose any limits to Russia’s foreign policy. But at the same time, I would like to say that it’s not just about propaganda. It may be, of course, propaganda, but it is playing off the vulnerabilities that Russian public opinion has. And maybe there are several points in the way Russian propaganda is so effective. One is that the majority don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on, and partly they they feel they do not have any responsibility, because the government decides. And at the same time, we see that the majority don’t want to see Russia responsible for what’s going on. At the same time, I think it’s also the result of the offense that many Russians felt after the Soviet Union collapsed. And finally, I think that because of this, there are more or less hidden aspirations that the majority of Russians have. It’s about Russia’s own place on the world stage. Still, big portions of Russian society want Russia to be not only great, but also replace the United States on the world stage as the leading power. They themselves want to quite often dictate to other countries what they should or should not do.
Jonathan Katz I have to follow up with what Greg was just asking you too and how you responded, talking about this feeling of loss. I wanted to ask you about generational views of this. There’s certainly a large generation now that was either young or born right after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. How are you seeing those different generational gaps in how they view the current crisis and Russia’s place in the world? Do they share the same feelings, and how do they view themselves in the world?
Denis Volkov Well, first of all, on this particular topic, in this conflict, we do not see any significant generational differences in the views of the Russian public. But with many other political issues, even in the overall attitudes towards the West, we do see significant differences. But they usually are about cultural issues, about music, about technology, about gadgets. The younger generation just wants and likes to consume Western culture, Western products, and in this sense, in this dimension, younger people are much more positive towards the United States and the West than older generations. But again, in the aspects of foreign policy and international conflict, the Russian government was able to convince even young people to adopt the official view of what’s going on, probably because the younger generation tends to care less about politics and especially about international politics.
Gregory Feifer So, it seems Vladimir Putin has done an outstanding job of tapping into Russians worries and aspirations, to paint himself as the restorer of Russian greatness, as the most capable global leader, perhaps when it comes to opposing the United States and the West. And you’ve described very well the challenge in getting independent and alternative views inside Russia. But nevertheless, Russians still can log on to the Internet and read news published anywhere in the world if they want to. So, I wanted to ask, given that, is there any advice you would have for Western policymakers who are seeking to de-escalate this conflict? Anything they could do to try to have an effect on Russian public opinion? Or is there really nothing to do? How should the West present its side of this of this conflict in a way that might resonate with Russians?
Denis Volkov Well, it’s a very hard question, because we do see that the messages from the West do not come through the screen of Russian media, but we see that many public figures online are very cautious in speaking on this conflict. Probably they’re cautious because they see that it can be dangerous for them. They can be closed or pressured and so on and so forth. So, it’s very hard for Russian civil society to function in the circumstances of this international conflict, because quite often the Russian independent media, Russian independent organizations, journalists, activists are recognized as scapegoats. They are seen by the Russian government as trying to translate the opinion and the views of the other side who is not friendly. So, I think the victims of such conflicts are not only on the battlefields — let’s hope there will be no such victims — but quite often they’re the victims inside Russia’s civil society as well, because the Russian government can be very hostile to independent points of view and independent voices. When the West is trying to penetrate through independent media, it’s the independent media who are made the scapegoats. So, it’s very tricky to put this message through in the circumstances of the conflict. When the situation calms down, it is easier and it’s more efficient in a sense to speak, to make your point of view get through and be understood. But when the stakes are high and when the tension is high, it is rather hard to do.
Jonathan Katz Denis, what if there is a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and an occupation of Ukraine and then also the impact potentially — an economic impact that could really lead to a very significant downturn in the Russian economy? I mean, aren’t those things that might have an impact on Mr. Putin internally?
Denis Volkov It’s very hard to predict, but of course, I think a huge scale military conflict will upset the whole picture. It will make it certainly less predictable. If you are speaking about the invasion, the invasion is not seen by the majority as something viable, something that Russia should do. Yes, Russia may act as a helping or defending power, but the full-scale invasion is somehow outside of the logic that is acceptable for the population right now. Of course, it’s very hard to predict what will be next. But a limited conflict may be not harmful, like according to the scenario of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 — rapid, not bloody several days and over. This is acceptable. But if we are speaking about a longer conflict, a bloody conflict, of course, I think it’s not what the Russian regime and Putin is interested in because it opens the door for events that you just can’t calculate. You can’t understand what the reaction will be, what a chain reaction might be, and it opens the door for unpredictability.
Gregory Feifer Dennis Volkov, thank you so much for this really fascinating and very nuanced explanation.
Denis Volkov You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
Gregory Feifer That was Denis Volkov, and this is The Cable, a podcast of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group and the Institute of Current World Affairs, hosted by Jonathan Katz and me, Gregory Feifer. Glenn Kates is the producer, and Danil Komar conducted audio mastering. If you like what you’ve heard today, please share this podcast with your colleagues and friends, recommend it in your newsletter and take a second to rate us wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Photo: Russian military on display as people gather around in Red Square (www.kremlin.ru, Wikimedia Commons)