What makes Russians support (or at least not oppose) the war?
In 2022, amidst much uncertainty, one thing appeared to remain constant – the results of surveys on Russian public attitudes towards their country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
According to both state-owned and independent Russian sociological agencies, 75-85% of Russians expressed confidence in Vladimir Putin’s leadership. While we can glean useful insights from these numbers, polling in authoritarian regimes, particularly about a topic that respondents are legally banned from criticising, cannot be as reliable as those in democratic countries.
At Open Minds Institute, we delve beyond raw numbers to understand who the war supporters are and what motives drive them. In our research, the qualitative and quantitative methods are combined with psychological and behavioral sciences to grasp Russian public opinion.
In this article, we aim to show you the underlying demographic, personal, and socio-psychological factors that contribute to support of the war, based on our research. By demonstrating the causes rather than just the consequences of these attitudes, Open Minds Institute hopes to paint a more comprehensive portrait of the Russian mindset today.
Russian Society Clusters
Instead of simply dividing Russian society into pro-war and anti-war groups, we identified five main clusters. To characterize each cluster, we used attitudes towards the war and the government, demographics, personality traits, and socio-psychological features:
Segment 1: Hawks (13-15% of all the respondents OMI surveyed) – firmly believe that Russia is moving in the right direction, support the war against Ukraine, strongly identify with Russia and Russians, believe in themselves and their group, and have good psychological well-being.
Segment 2: Loyalists (36-49% of all the respondents OMI surveyed) – hold the same beliefs as the Hawks but express them with less intensity. They have an average level of stress and a high level of conformity and authoritarian obedience.
Segment 3: Uncertain (11-14% of all the respondents OMI surveyed) – hold average rates of support for the war and are unsure whether Russia is moving in the right direction. However, they experience the same high level of psychological suffering as Radical Liberals described next.
Segment 4: Radical Liberals (10-14% of all the respondents OMI surveyed) – believe that Russia is moving in a catastrophic direction. They are strongly against the war and do not identify with their compatriots, which places the group in a marginalized position in society. Radical Liberals are poor both economically and “mentally”, having the lowest indicators of psychological, emotional, and social well-being.
Segment 5: Moderate Liberals (12-16% of all the respondents OMI surveyed) – oppose the war, but in a more temperate and “moderate” way than Radical Liberals (“rather don’t support”). They don’t experience stress and anxiety. Also, Moderate Liberals tend to be more prosperous and older than the Radical.
Demographic factors for support of the war
Let’s begin by examining some of the basic demographic factors that seem to play a role in shaping attitudes toward the Russian government and its actions.
The research we at Open Minds Institute have conducted revealed a clear correlation between age and level of support for the regime and the war. Among those aged 45-60, 58% express support for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Older people are more likely to support Putin as they associate him with maintaining national security, order and the stability they highly value. In their perception, after Putin came to power, Russia began to “rise from its knees”, became active in foreign policy, feared, and, therefore, respected.
Youth, in part due to globalisation, tend to have a more open-minded worldview. Only 29% of 18-30-year-old respondents express support for the actions of Russian officials. Additionally, they did not experience the USSR’s collapse that led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis and don’t tend to associate Putin with the end of hard times.
This gap could be attributed to several factors. Women in Russia tend to be less interested in international politics and more focused on their personal lives. When it comes to the male population, the majority of 45+ male Russians have been in the army – served, took the oath. This experience may push them to agree to be mobilized. Nevertheless, both sexes exhibit similar levels of support for Putin.
The level of material well-being – or rather its changes since 24 February – may affect the attitudes toward the invasion. If financial income decreased during 2022, the person might be less supportive of the war.
Older people, men, and those whose income increased in 2022 are united by the sources of the news about the war that they consume, which influence their sentiments: the war supporters predictably consume pro-war media (propagandistic/war correspondent channels) and conversely, the anti-war stance follow the news from the liberal anti-war media. Curiously, while Radical and Moderate Liberals avoid pro-war media streams, 10-14% of the channels Hawks and Loyalists consume are “anti-war” or “liberal”. Individuals in the Uncertain group derive information from a variety of sources, with liberal anti-war media holding a slight advantage. These figures suggest that some members of this group may harbor anti-war sentiments but remain reluctant to express their disapproval even in the anonymous questionnaire.
Personality factors for support of the war
Personality characteristics also play a role in shaping attitudes about the war.
The famous Big 5 personality trait theory shows a moderate correlation between the personality type and the level of support for the government and its actions. The correlation revealed that the anti-war respondents appear to be more worried and anxious, while the pro-government and pro-war opponents appear to be extraverted, organized, and conventional.
The OMI team also decided to test a hypothesis that war supporters tend to be narcissistic, manipulative, and even psychopaths (dark triad traits). However, the study gave no proof: individually, both opponents and supporters of the invasion can be “good” or “bad” people.
Socio-psychological factors for support of the war
Among all, socio-psychological factors proved to have the most impact on Russian public attitudes toward the war in Ukraine. One of these factors is values.
Values are the variables we regularly investigate, and in every study, we test and combine the different ones to discover which predict positive attitudes toward the regime the most. After testing dozens of factors, the following appeared to be the most connected to support of the war and the government: authoritarian obedience & aggression, conservatism , and a desire to dominate other groups.
Russians with these values tend to blindly follow authority because they want to fit in and are hostile toward any dissidents. These deep beliefs make them support the current government and war efforts and discourage peace negotiations.
People who value authoritarianism (both authoritarian obedience and aggression) see society as a relatively primitive system, a world of predators and prey. Those in power are right simply because they have power: the government is always right because “it is the government.” Such people are inclined to obey and subdue, to maintain social order, and are hostile towards those who behave as if they aren’t like-minded.
Strong identification with compatriots grows into Collective Narcissism – the tendency to exaggerate the positive image and importance of a certain group. Russians adhering to this principle believe in the greatness of their nation and that the world does not recognize it enough – and support the war because of it.
Opinions on geopolitics impact attitudes toward the government and its actions, too. Russians who oppose the war view Russia as a European country and are concerned about maintaining positive relationships with the EU. The pro-war groups don’t seem to care as much about international relations.
The Hawks and Loyalists perceive the war positively, seeing it as a defense and a natural way to keep the perception of Russia as a separate civilization, with its “unique” path, different from both the West and the East. For the war supporters, the West is imposing its values, and the war in Ukraine is a struggle against this influence.
In short, the main socio-psychological motivation for Russian war supporters is a striving to protect and defend what is “theirs”: national interests, social order, stability, and conformity.
Over the last year, we conducted 34 psychological studies of Russian society. Each revealed parts that fall together like pieces of a puzzle, yet more research is needed to achieve a comprehensive picture.
This puzzle piece showed us that demographic factors such as age, gender, dynamics of material well-being, and media consumption habits, as well as socio-psychological factors like a unique attitude towards the world, being prone to authoritarian obedience and aggression, all influence Russian opinion about the war in Ukraine.
Our goal at the Open Minds Institute is not to excuse or blame Russian citizens based on their subconscious beliefs or innate factors. Rather, we aim to conduct studies beyond traditional polling to look right at the root of pro-war morals and whether they are a one-off case or a fixed tendency. This has the potential to uncover the underlying factors that fuel authoritarianism and military aggression. This knowledge could therefore help us resolve ongoing conflicts and prevent future ones.