Traumatized by the news Levada Center director Denis Volkov on why we shouldn’t expect a ‘Donbas consensus’ following Putin’s recognition of the ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine
Russia recognized the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine on February 21. President Vladimir Putin formally announced the decision following a National Security Council meeting that looked more like staged production than an actual debate. Senior Russian officials expressed unanimous support for recognition, even though it appeared to be a sure path towards an all-out war with Ukraine. At the same time, Putin claimed there was broad public support for the move. Will we see a repeat of the “Crimean consensus” that emerged after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014? And how do ordinary Russians really feel about the Kremlin’s further intervention into Ukraine? Meduza turns to sociologist and Levada Center director Denis Volkov for insight.
Please note. This following is a summary of Meduza special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva’s interview with Denis Volkov. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” at the very end of a lengthy video address on February 21. In his speech, Putin expressed confidence that Russian citizens supported this decision — but is this really the case?
According to sociologist Denis Volkov, the director of the independent Levada Center, polling data gathered over the past year, and particularly at the end of 2021, points to a number of prevailing views among Russians about the current crisis over Ukraine. “The first is that America is to blame for everything. Not even Ukraine, but America and the West,” Volkov tells Meduza.
As the sociologist explains, Russians have been primed to believe that under pressure from the “West,” Ukraine is supposedly hatching a plot against the breakaway “republics” in the Donbas — and that Moscow should “intervene” to protect Russian speakers and passport holders living in this so-called “DNR” and “LNR.”
“Over the last seven years we’ve regularly asked people [in Russia] how they see the fate of these republics. A portion — a little more than quarter [of respondents] — said that these republics need to be independent; a quarter said that they should be incorporated into Russia. About the same number said that they should remain part of Ukraine. The rest were at a loss,” Volkov says. “In other words, there is no general opinion.”
That said, he continues, posing the question differently elicits a different response. “When we asked, ‘if these republics ask to be incorporated into Russia, should they be annexed?’, about 70 percent [of respondents] said yes, they should,” Volkov explains. “Therefore, I think that now, when the decision has been made and, moreover, framed as in 2014 as a Russian-speaking, fraternal population under threat — not even a fraternal [population] but the same people — then yes, the majority are inclined to support it.”
Support through fatigue
The prospect of Western countries imposing tougher sanctions on Russia provokes similarly mixed emotions. “The fear of sanctions, the initial shock, was at the very beginning, when they were just being introduced. Then, over time, [Russians] got used to them,” Volkov says. What’s more, many survey respondents are of the opinion that Western sanctions against Russia are unavoidable. “As in 2014, we were told: if there were no Crimea, then something else would’ve been thought up. This is a persistent conviction based on a distrust of America’s foreign policy — we’ve been recording it since the late 1990s, when NATO began to expand,” Volkov recalls.
While attitudes towards the United States were once generally positive, things changed drastically following the response to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. “After 2014 a negative attitude prevailed. There was maximum anti-Americanism. It peaked in 2014–2015, then started to drop. In late 2020, negative and positive attitudes were already [split] fifty-fifty. Now I think there will be a new deterioration,” Volkov speculates.
In a recent column for the Levada Center, Volkov noted that both pro-Kremlin and opposition-leaning Russians tend to blame Washington for the escalating tensions between Russia and the United States. And while this may be partly due to patriotism, Volkov points out that it also speaks to how people are (or are not) being informed about the ongoing crisis. “The conflict is primarily talked about on television and in [state] media, and if people are interested, they turn to additional sources. Apparently, people aren’t turning to additional sources on this topic,” he explains. “As they say in the surveys: as soon as I hear something about Ukraine, I immediately switch [the channel], I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to know about it.”
By all appearances, this sense of exhaustion is a perfect backdrop for the Kremlin’s recognition of the “republics” in eastern Ukraine. “It turns out that support for the policy towards the Donbas was obtained not through mobilization, but through fatigue, through imposing this topic: people hear something [about it] but they don’t want to know anything more. They’re traumatized by all this news,” Volkov explains.
At the same time, the Russian population has long been led to believe that recognizing these “republics” — or perhaps even incorporating them into Russia — is a necessary step. “In the mass consciousness, Russia’s role here is not a defensive one, but rather helping an injured party,” Volkov says.
Indeed, even the treaties Putin signed with the de facto leaders of the “republics” are framed in terms of “friendship, cooperation, and mutual aid.” And it’s this very framing that rallies support for the Kremlin’s policies. “‘Driving tanks into Kyiv’ is clearly a marginal position. You can’t get support that way,” Volkov explains. “Therefore, everything is presented [in terms of] preserving peace and supporting our own, Russian-speaking [people].”
‘Putin can afford it’
As of December 2021, the Levada Center’s survey data showed that Russians were more or less divided when asked about the likelihood of an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine. Now, the situation feels like it’s out of their hands. “We want peace, but nothing is up to ordinary people. [In the public mind] nothing is even up to the Russian government,” Volkov says.
Volkov believes that people in Russia are “implicitly” prepared for a military conflict, simply because it’s been talked about so much. But this doesn’t mean that public sentiment won’t change over time, he says: “It’s impossible to predict how the situation will develop, how people will react to it. Initially, there will probably be a mobilization around the leader. But what then?”
Russians may be able to stomach a short war — like in Georgia in 2008 — but a protracted conflict could have a serious impact on the leadership’s political ratings, Volkov warns. At the same time, it appears as though the population doesn’t have high hopes for resolving the ongoing crisis through negotiations. “We wanted [negotiations], we asked, we offered, but no one agreed — this is understanding people have,” the sociologist explains.
According to the Levada Center’s polls, the Russian authorities’ ratings have been going through peaks in valleys since last summer. “In January, they grew slightly once again — by a few percent. I think this is also in connection with the conflict. Now, against the backdrop of the recognition of the DNR and LNR ratings may still go up,” Volkov predicts. “I don’t think it will be for long, but there may be an effect.”
As Meduza previously reported, concerns about Putin’s political ratings have affected the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in recent months. However, Volkov doesn’t seem to think that public opinion will act as a restraining factor when it comes to Putin’s foreign policy: “Of course they look at the ratings, but what Putin does in [his] foreign policy he does not for the ratings but because he can afford it. Society won’t condemn him and his ratings won’t be seriously affected.”
Although many Russians wish the authorities would pay closer attention to domestic issues rather than intervening abroad, Volkov says this view tends to fall flat or get put on the back burner in the event of an “emergency situation” like this one. “When we’re talking about life or death the economy recedes into the background — we’re told: well listen, there’s a war, people need to be saved, and the majority agree with this framing of the question.”
It’s also worth noting that Russia has seen dramatic changes since 2014. According to Volkov, the “level of anxiety and fear of war is higher” today. And this is compounded by the fact that independent opposition forces have been decimated. “[In 2014, civil society] was more free, more visible, there was an anti-war movement, there were opposition politicians who enjoyed support in parts of society after 2011–2012 — [Boris] Nemtsov, [Alexey] Navalny, a whole bunch,” Volkov remembers. “Now there’s no one except for the Yabloko [party], which isn’t so popular, and rallies are banned. That’s why we aren’t seeing an anti-war movement: both independent politicians and independent media have thinned out.”
Coming up on eight years since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, Russian attitudes towards the annexation remain largely unchanged. “The majority still believes that this brought more good [than bad], that it needed to be done, that yes, Crimea is Russian, and that this matter is closed,” Volkov explains. “Only the ‘Crimean effect’ associated with [political] ratings has disappeared — it exhausted itself by 2018.”
At the same time, Russian attitudes towards Ukraine have grown divided between a positive view of ordinary Ukrainians and a resoundingly negative view of the country’s leadership. “When [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky was elected, there were hopes for improvement, but they faded quickly. People basically agree with [the claim that] ‘Ukraine is not independent’,” Volkov says. “But in actual fact, no one really cares about Ukraine.”
Summary by Eilish Hart