In spite of Russian assurances that it does not intend to invade Ukraine, troop build-ups on both sides of the border continue to alarm Western politicians and press… and the Russian public too. Data from surveys and focus groups show that opinions among Russian citizens are unusually homogenous when it comes to a potential war with Ukraine: many fear that it is imminent and blame escalating tensions on the USA and Nato, but appetite for conflict is low.
Fear of world war is unusually high among Russians as tensions spike between Russia and the West. According to independent polling organisation Levada Center, 62% of Russians polled feared a world war in April 2021, which is the highest proportion since regular polling began 25 years ago. When it comes the threat of a war with Ukraine, 77% felt that such an event was possible in December 2021, the highest number since the confrontational year of May 2015, when the figure stood at 80%.
The America paradox
Fear of war may be widespread relative to the 2000s, but it remains far less consistent than the apportioning of blame for escalating tensions. Polling by the Levada Center shows that 50% of Russians believe that the US and Nato are responsible for tensions in the Donbas region, while only 4% feel that Russia is to blame.
There is a paradox in Russian society whereby the US is held chiefly accountable for a wide range of problems – both geopolitical and domestic – and yet consensus holds that improved relations with the US are desirable. Many see skirmishes in Ukraine as a proxy war with US-backed forces. But at the same time, 80% of Russians see America as a “friend”, with only 3% naming it a “foe”.
Every good leader needs a crisis?
Such undivided opinion would be rare in any society. According to the US State Department, it may be partly attributable to misinformation narratives spread by the Russian government.
There would be a certain degree of sense in such a move. Some experts consider that manufacturing crises helps to engineer national unity and drive up ratings for Russia’s president, who will soon have held power for 22 years. Many point to the rising ratings which the Russian government enjoyed after annexing Crimea in 2014 as evidence for the success of such a strategy.
Yet this explanation is hard to reconcile with the widespread fear of war which is well documented in Russian society. While distractions from domestic woes may be useful up to a certain extent, conflict fatigue and a feeling that this particular fight is less justifiable than the annexation of Crimea both suggest that this explanation has run out of road.
Indeed, Russians seem to view peace talks very positively. Both talks between the leaders themselves and between their delegations – like the Blinken-Lavrov talks which recently commenced in Geneva – have both resulted in improved attitudes towards the US among Russians as well as Europeans. Ironically, it is Ukrainians who seem the most disgruntled by the way in which America has held the talks, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issuing an angry reply to Biden’s comments about the possibility of a “minor” Russian attack provoking a weaker response from the US.
Another explanation for Russian society’s relatively unified view on Ukraine is foreign policy fatigue. In an article for The Riddle, director of the Levada Center Denis Volkov wrote that “for the average Russian, all the events of recent months (i.e. Western objections to Nord Stream 2, the Belarusian border crisis, Nato naval exercises off the coast of Crimea, the constant threat of new sanctions, Western criticism of Russian military aid to Kazakhstan and talks of ‘a looming invasion of Ukraine’) have long merged into a stream of poorly discernible negative news coming from the West.” The result, he went on to explain, was that “this news no longer causes anything but irritation in the case of the vast majority of Russians, and they do not want to decipher it. Given such a perception of most recent developments, it seems that a war is being imposed from the outside and is therefore practically inevitable – hence the growth of mass fears.”
As fraught talks continue in Geneva, the burning question for Western politicians and diplomats may be how precisely they can cut through this wave of accusations and negative news and telegraph to the Russian people that the West, too, does not want war.