How many Russians are absolutely opposed to war against the Baltic states, or Poland, which are NATO members? You may not like the answer, because it’s not very many (16% and 14% respectively.) 

But at least it’s unlikely. Surely no one looking at Russia’s plodding performance against its smaller neighbor, Ukraine, thinks it would be possible to engage in another conflict? The answer to these questions are almost as grim. Some 34% already believe the conditions exist that could lead to hostilities against the Baltic states. (And remember that aggression against the Baltic states is not yet a mainstream Russian propaganda theme.) 

So while NATO allies are already signaling hard that there will be no fast-track process for Ukrainian membership during the Vilnius Summit on July 11-12, the debate in Russia is completely at odds with their assessment.  

Instead, it seems the focus will be on the creation of a new NATO-Ukraine Council, where Ukraine will have an equal place with its allies, and where it will consult and make decisions of common interest. Alliance, US, and European officials keep stating that their priority is avoiding a direct confrontation with Russian forces and that is the main obstacle for Ukraine joining NATO before the Russo-Ukrainian war ends, or even shortly afterward. (Members say that admitting Ukraine while war is underway would trigger the alliance’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense.) 

The thing is, Russians believe NATO forces are already on the ground and engaged against their troops in Ukraine. This belief is quite consistently expressed, according to the results of all-Russian sociological surveys conducted by the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR) — which the author runs — during December 2022 and April 2023: some 41-43% of Russians believe that their troops are engaged in combat with NATO forces. Only 2% believe that the Russian army is mainly fighting the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  

Despite this idea’s absolute disconnection from observed reality, this fantasy is not quite as strange as it may at first seem. Russian state media and other supportive outlets have been producing an unending diet suggesting exactly this for more than a year since the all-out invasion started. These assertions have helped Russia’s regime explain why the so-called special military operation has floundered for the past 16 months — Russia, viewers, and readers are told, faces the full might of NATO and the “collective West”.  

This has further consequences. If Russians are willing to believe that the war of aggression against Ukraine, which posed no threat to Russian national security, then they are of course open to the idea that new wars may be launched against other nations, whether NATO members or not. 

Respondents present various arguments to justify their willingness to support their authorities in waging a new war. The most prevalent is the otherworldly proposition that the Baltic states may attack Russia, which is deemed sufficient by 54% of Russians to justify military action against them. (This could be read more sympathetically if Russia did not have a long history of aggression against its smaller neighbors justified by claims they pose a threat.) In second and third place by a wide margin are arguments such as the oppression of the Russian-speaking population (21%) in these countries, and labeling their leadership as Nazi (18%). 

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These attitudes are widely shared regardless of the possible target. Only 17% of respondents would unequivocally reject a decision to fight Kazakhstan under any circumstances. The same is true for Georgia

As a result of all these factors, combined with an increasing number of Russians becoming routinely involved in the war against Ukraine in their daily lives, war inertia sets in, making it extremely difficult to halt. While 44% of our respondents have had a friend or family member die in Ukraine, and 60% say their ability to pay for goods and services has declined in the previous 12 months of the war, most do not draw conclusions about the regime that caused their problems. 

The split consciousness will serve as the foundation for future wars against neighboring or any other countries.  

Avoiding confrontation will not guarantee even relative safety for certain NATO members as this confrontation is an ongoing process for a significant part of Russian society. For this reason, it has no reason to avoid another “special military operation”, as it will be the logical next step of this confrontation in Russian public consciousness.  

NATO can of course close the door on Ukrainian membership, but it is wholly wrong to think this makes it safer. Russians are ready for the next round. 

Dr. Oleksandr Shulga is the head of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), the only institution in Ukraine conducting monthly sociological monitoring in Russia. He possesses 16 years of advanced experience in the field of quantitative and qualitative sociological research. During these years, Dr. Shulga was engaged as a supervisor, consultant, or expert to carry out various studies, including areas of the potential risk of escalating tensions and instability. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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