After 15 months of war, the number of Russians supporting the all-out invasion of Ukraine has fallen, but not hugely. What has changed is the nature of the support. A year ago, Russians expected a low-cost and rapid victory; now their backing is based on necessity and a fear of defeat.  

According to the most recent ExtremeScan poll, support for the war fell 13% in one year — from 64% in March and April 2022 to 51% in April 2023. That is significant, but it’s clearly not enough to make the Putin regime tremble.  

There is some greater light cast by other surveys, however. Russian Field found that only 27% of Russians support further military escalation while 34% want peace talks. Slightly confusingly, 33% favor both options at the same time. The trends are clear enough — backing for the war is on a slowly declining path and the issue is extremely divisive. More importantly, the reasons and justifications people use to make sense of the war have shifted.  

Interviews conducted by the Public Sociology Laboratory team in spring 2022, after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and in fall 2022, after the regime’s “partial mobilization” shed light on those changes.  

While the later study shows that Russians are much more unhappy about the sometimes-devastating consequences of the war, including its human cost (at least 40,000 dead troops), its length, and Russia’s slumping global reputation, the changes are not generally dramatic. Those who in spring 2022 manifested strong support for the war are somewhat more hesitant. Those who had “everything-is-complicated” views have shifted somewhat toward a more critical or more supportive outlook. But so far there is no volte-face group of supporters transforming into passionate opponents. There is however evidence that people’s views about the war are now more contradictory and often grim.  

In spring 2022, many people believed that the all-out war had been inevitable, or at least this is how they justified Putin’s decision. For them, Russia was not the aggressor, but a victim forced to attack Ukraine in self-defense. Others claimed that the very fact that Putin made the decision speaks for itself: there were clearly good reasons for it, even if they didn’t understand them completely (or at all.)  

By the fall, people had fully embraced the war’s existence as a “nothing-to-be-done” reality. “This is how things are, what can you think about it?”, a 52-year-old university professor asked. “Everyone understands that it’s impossible to end it [the war] in one day. I don’t understand what we’re hoping to achieve . . . but I do understand I am not able to stop it . . . like anyone else, I want it to end as soon as possible.” 

Get the Latest
Get regular emails and stay informed about our work

Seen from this viewpoint, the war is no different from any act of God, like the weather or a natural disaster: you must accept it as a mystery and wait until it ends.  

In a way, the fact that Russia is already fighting — not only with Ukraine but also that half of the world actively supporting Ukraine with arms and money — has become a self-sustaining justification both for the war and for the need to win. In spring 2022, there were people stating they were anti-war but must stand with their country. By the fall, a new phenomenon appeared: people claiming they are against the war but hoping Russia will win. As one young man explained: “I am against the war. But it’s impossible to change anything. So they [Russian politicians] should not give up since they started it.”  

Russians are also responding to apocalyptic scenarios of defeat issued by state-funded propagandists, including the main television channels. If Russia is routed on the battlefield, these mouthpieces suggest, there will follow terrorism or another war, maybe nuclear, along with economic collapse, civil war, crushing taxes to pay reparations to Ukraine, and complete international isolation. Necessity seems to demand victory: “If Russia wins, Ukraine will suffer. For me, as for Russian citizens, it’s better if Russia wins,” while another said, “The war is bad, but a lost war is worse.” 

The longer the conflict continues, the more that Russians find themselves trapped. Now they have to choose: are they with their country, or with the hostile world? Patriots or traitors? Framed in this way, the answer seems obvious. Maybe their country is bad. But as a young woman said in an interview: “Everybody’s bad. But there are our bad people and other bad people. I would prefer to stay with my bad people. Because I live in my country, I was born here.” 

Disempowerment, a lack of understanding of the reasons and goals for the war, and depoliticization together produce an unexpected result: a desire to find solid ground. The solid ground is my country, right or wrong. 

This is why mobilization, despite expectations, did not provoke greater resentment and pushback. Because, paradoxically, you can be against the war, but together with your country; and against mobilization but with your army. A young woman explains: “If I were mobilized, I would probably go. I wouldn’t try to flee, leave the country, etc. I am completely against mobilization, but if needed, I would go to work as a nurse or cook, or wash dishes. . . I will fulfill my civic duty. Not to fight against Ukrainians, but to help our soldiers.” 

A year of war has made Russians unhappier but more patriotic, even if this patriotism is sad and coercive. The conflict itself, its everyday presence, produces additional arguments for people to hate it and to support it at the same time. And the fear of defeat makes those who are against it long for victory.  

Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a sociologist who has studied at universities in Russia and the US, specializing in research on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. 

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.

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