By Richard Arnold
The results of Russian public opinion center VTsIOM’s recent poll, published on February 2, concerning the war in eastern Ukraine make for an interesting read. According to the poll 50 percent of respondents believe the developments in Ukraine should be called a “civil war.” About 17 percent agreed that the events constituted “genocide, the murder of peaceful people, or terror,” while another 17 percent called them “banditry.” Only 3 percent responded that the conflict in Ukraine was linked to “fascism” or an “American provocation” (Wciom.ru, February 2.
These results somewhat undermine the current and dominant Western narrative, which portrays Russians as fully buying into the Kremlin narrative of Western expansionism as a key threat. Undoubtedly, the Russian state media has been trying to portray the Ukrainian crisis as an epic confrontation between Western-backed “fascists” and Russian “saviors,” but the latest evidence from VTsIOM suggests this narrative has yet to permeate Russian public opinion.
A separate VTsIOM poll asked Russians to identify the Kremlin’s objectives in the Ukrainian conflict. Over half of respondents (65 percent) believed that Russia aimed to “freeze” the conflict in the same way as it froze earlier conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. Similarly, 70 percent stated that Russia was assisting the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk—a position that deviates from the Kremlin’s official stance that it is not involved in the Ukrainian conflict (Wciom.ru, February 4). The fact that these opinions persist at such high response rates should be a warning to those who blindly accept depictions of Russian society as entirely lost to a domestic quasi-totalitarianism. These polls may also suggest that—in the eyes of the Russian public, at least—diplomatic solutions to the crisis have not yet been exhausted.
However, other polls show that Russian opinions concerning potential crisis resolutions and Russia’s role are changing. For the first time since VTsIOM began polling the public on the situation in Ukraine, the number of Russians favoring Moscow’s recognition of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) is greater than those in favor of Russia’s neutrality on the matter. This demonstrates a hardening of Russian opinion against the Ukrainian authorities and an increasing sense among Russians that Europe’s newest emerging de facto state—DPR-LPR, or “Novorossia” (“New Russia”)—is well on its way to becoming a reality. Likewise, 70 percent of respondents said that the Russian government’s support of the DPR and LPR was either “in the interest of society as a whole” or “in the interest of a majority.” Just 14 percent thought intervention was “in the interest of a minority” or “a small group of individuals.”
In sum, the results of the latest set of VtsIOM polls should at least give pause to those who argue that the Russian population will not tolerate their country’s greater and bloodier involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. Instead, if the above-cited data can be believed, it appears that Russian society not only expects a more direct intervention, but may even encourage the Kremlin to push on further.