Measuring Russians’ Views of the War

The Bell

Hello! This week, we look at how a closed, state-run poll reveals more than meets the eye about the Russian public’s attitudes towards the war in Ukraine. We also look at why Putin’s gas war with Europe has only just begun and why Russian lawmakers are eyeing a total ban on LGBT information.

What the closed poll says about the public’s attitude to war

The Bell got the chance to see the latest closed poll conducted by Russia’s leading state sociological center, VTsIOM, into the public’s feelings about the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. There is an even split between those who believe that Russia should continue its military activities in Ukraine and those who believe it is high time for peace talks. The majority of under-35s support an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.

What’s going on

In June, the state-run VTsIOM pollster carried out a closed survey of Russians’ feelings about the ‘special military operation’ (as Russia officially describes its war). The survey, called ‘SMO: Problem Zones’, was discussed at a meeting within the presidential administration in late June, a Kremlin source told The Bell. The survey was also reported by Italy’s Corriere della Sera at the weekend, while Meduza uncovered the answers to one question last week.

The key findings from the survey:

  • The most striking result is the equal split in answers to the question of whether it is more important for Russia to continue pursuing its military activities in Ukraine or enter peace talks. Each option attracted 44 percent of respondents, while a further 12 percent could not answer the question.
  • Another question about the future of the operation went like this: “Some believe that the military operation in Ukraine must end as soon as possible. Others believe that the fighting should not stop now. Which point of view is closer to you – the first or the second?” Here, a majority supports the continuation of the war – 57 percent versus 30 percent, with the remainder unable to answer.
  • The proportion of survey respondents who gave positive answers to a question about their support for the ‘special operation’ was 70 percent. This figure has remained consistently high throughout the campaign: the lowest number (65 percent in support) was reported on the day after the war began. Seventeen percent said they did not support the SMO and a further 13 percent were unable to answer.
  • The 18-24 age group is least likely to support the ‘special operation’, with 37 percent ‘inclined not to support’ and 38 percent ‘inclined to support’ it. In the 25-34 group, these figures are 26 and 50 percent, respectively. Loyalty increases with age: there is 79 percent support among over-45s and 84 percent among the over-60s.
  • Support for the ‘special operation’ is highest among those who describe themselves as active TV viewers (81 percent against 11). Among active internet users, support for the war drops to 45 percent (and opposition rises to 33 percent).
  • It was not possible to identify trends among different wealth categories: among those who said their financial situation was ‘good’, support for the ‘special military operation’ runs at 75 percent; among those in a ‘poor’ financial situation, the figure is 61 percent.
  • Another question read: “Some people believe that due to the economic and humanitarian sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, it is essential to unite around the president and support him even if you do not entirely agree with him. Others believe that even under sanctions there is no need to rally around the president and support him. What do you think?” This question has been posed twice: in late April and on June 21. This time, the figure that agreed with the need to support the president fell from 81 percent to 75. In the youngest age group, those figures were 67 and 43 percent, a drop of 24 percentage points. In the 25-34 age group, the number who saw no need to rally around the president rose from 19 to 26 percent.

Can we trust these numbers?

Since the outbreak of the war, analysts in Russia and the West have debated the extent to which we can trust sociological data from Russia given the state’s effective monopoly on polling and the current wartime conditions. This question is even more pertinent when most polls produce numbers favorable to the Kremlin. There is no clear answer: it’s obvious that a significant proportion of the answers are insincere and polling technology can be steered towards numbers that favor the authorities, but it is not clear to what extent this distorts the findings.

Sociologist Grigory Yudin urges us to remember that the presidential administration is the client for these VTsIOM polls: “The results of these surveys are regarded as a reflection of the will of the people, so VTsIOM will highlight those results that strengthen its client’s position and not show any that are disadvantageous to the customer”. At the same time, Russians themselves believe that these polls are conducted by the state and tailor their answers accordingly. “People are well-attuned to the atmosphere: direct questions about ‘support’ are seen as a requirement to show loyalty. VTsIOM is also aware of this, and therefore asks indirect questions, asking about which scenario seems more favorable to respondents right now. These questions are less pressured and give more problematic answers, so VTsIOM does not publish the results.”

One of the more striking conclusions we can draw from this poll is the generation gap. Young Russians are more minded to halt the war, and their view of the president in the light of the war and sanctions is steadily becoming less positive. A clear split between the generations has emerged on all key policy questions of recent years, Yudin adds. “Putin’s core support comes from the older generation, who have lived through various crises in their middle age.” Independent sociologist Alexander Prokopenko sees this generational split as an important factor: the stability and sustainability of autocratic regimes largely depends on the younger part of the population.

Why the world should care

It’s hard to evaluate specific figures from the VTsIOM poll and during war or large-scale crises, sociology tends to change rapidly. However, it is possible to draw some unequivocal conclusions from the survey – support for Vladimir Putin and his actions is relatively low among young people, and it is falling fast.

As Vladimir Putin starts his gas war, Europe faces a difficult winter

Vladimir Putin has unleashed his most potent economic weapon against Europe: the threat of halting or restricting gas supplies. However, this gas war is no blitzkrieg, but a battle of attrition. After a week and a half of anxious waiting, Nord Stream 1 finally resumed operations – but at 40 percent capacity. This leaves Russia with plenty of wiggle room when it comes to applying future pressure – and clears the way for Gazprom to record increased profits against the odds and generate serious problems for Europe this coming winter.

What happened

Since the start of the war it has been clear that if Russia has any significant economic weapon against Europe, it would be gas. Most European countries are not hugely dependent on Russian oil and Europe itself decided to stop buying oil from Russia this spring. But the EU cannot wean itself off Russian gas so easily, while Russia has scope in its budget to risk some of its gas revenues: even in 2021, amid record prices in Europe, gas exports to Europe represented only a quarter of its total oil-and-gas revenues.

Moscow deployed its gas weaponry for the first time in mid-June. On June 14, Gazprom announced it was reducing the flow through Nord Stream to 60 percent of its planned capacity, followed by a further cut to 40 percent just one day later. The reduction was blamed on delays in the delivery of a turbine being serviced at a Siemens plant in Canada. While sanctions were lifted from the turbine in question, the gas pipeline operated at a reduced capacity for the following month. When, on July 11, it was closed completely for 10 days of planned maintenance, Europe was left to wonder whether the taps would re-open at all. On July 21, the gas pipeline began working once more, but at the same 40 percent of capacity. Putin warned that further repair work was scheduled and made clear that Europe should not count on receiving a full gas flow for the foreseeable future.

What’s the Kremlin’s plan?

Gas market players surveyed by Goldman Sachs at the start of the week (The Bell studied the investment bank’s report) never seriously believed that Nord Stream would stay closed after July 21. They correctly anticipated a restart at 40 percent of capacity, explaining the logic behind this for Russia:

  • First, cancelling all deliveries via Nord Stream would deny Russia any flexibility in its future decisions – after all, the only way to go from zero is up.
  • Second, cutting Europe off from Russian gas would ultimately hit the country’s budget.
  • And third, halting the pipeline would force Gazprom to mothball its production capacity, which is unwelcome if not disastrous. From a technical standpoint, there is no way to redirect gas intended for Europe toward other markets, Goldman Sachs explains in its report.

Independent energy expert Sergei Vakulenko explains Russia’s strategy thus: On the one hand, it demonstrates legal responsibility (‘We are fulfilling every obligation that we can given the force majeure situation that Europe along with Ukraine has created’) and does not completely sever trade relations with Europe, making it easier to restore them when the situation returns to normal (as the Russian side seems to expect). On the other hand, Russia continues to generate substantial revenues. All of this continues at a level that does not prevent Europe from falling into an energy crisis this winter.

The ultimate aim, as in any war, is to inflict enough pain on the opposition to force it to change its policies; in this instance, to force Europe to abandon its support for Ukraine and renew its relations with the Kremlin, Vakulenko concludes.

How will Europe survive the winter?

Closing Nord Stream would have been a catastrophe, but limiting gas flows to 40 percent still leaves Europe with serious problems. At this rate, Russian gas exports to Europe by the end of 2022 will fall from 150 billion cubic meters a year to 50 billion, an international oil and gas analyst calculated for The Bell.

Europe’s supply-and-demand situation on the gas market is ‘hanging by a thread’, James Henderson, head of the gas program at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, told The Bell. The EU’s gas storage facilities are currently 65 percent full, a figure that should reach 80 percent by Nov. 1 – but Henderson warns that this will not be enough in itself. If Russia cuts off the gas closer to winter, those storage facilities cannot compensate. This is because they are normally used to supplement the flow of imported gas.

“If pumping continues at 20-40 percent the situation will remain manageable only if the winter is not too cold,” said Henderson. A cold winter could increase demand by 20-30 billion cubic meters for a half-year, and if Russian supplies stop, Europe’s industrial production will begin to slow. Based on this figure, the European Commission’s latest recommendation is to reduce demand by 15 percent.

Both business and the general population in Europe have yet to feel the full increase in gas prices – actual retail prices for gas and electricity in many countries remain lower than the exchange prices, an analyst from an international company added. In the second half of the year, the increased price burden will steadily shift onto consumers and he believes this will bring a very severe price shock to businesses and civilians alike.

European politicians are aware of this. On Wednesday, speaking about negotiations with Canada to lift sanctions on equipment for Gazprom, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “If we don’t get the turbine, we won’t have gas. Then we won’t be able to support Ukraine because instead we will be busy with popular uprisings.”

What risks does Gazprom face?

None. Every expert approached by The Bell agrees that increased gas prices will fully compensate for any reduction in Gazprom’s exports. Russian gas expert Marcel Salikhov assumes that the cost of gas exported via the pipeline will rise by 50-60 percent over the course of 2022, enabling Gazprom to post a 15-20 percent increase in profits even after making allowance for the strengthening of the ruble and the decline in domestic demand for gas.

Why the world should care

Gas is the last economic weapon available to Vladimir Putin. The president himself understands full well that within as little as three or four years this threat will lose its potency – so while it exists, he will have no hesitation in using it to the fullest extent. This winter, Europe will have to pay for its support of Ukraine.

State Duma pursues a complete ban on “homosexual propaganda”

In the fifth month of the war, having dealt with the independent media, ‘foreign agents’ and opposition to the war, the Russian authorities remembered their antipathy toward the LGBT community. State Duma deputies from the Communist Party and the LDPR introduced a bill for a complete ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” and “denial of family values”. The current ban only affects “homosexual propaganda” aimed at under-18s. Immediately after the bill was launched, leading tennis player Darya Kasatkina became the first major athlete to come out as gay – and sparked a scandal on state TV.

  • The law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” came into force in Russia back in 2013 and carries fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for individuals or up to 1 million rubles ($15,000) for businesses (which can also be liquidated if found to be breaking this law). But in the context of the current conflict with the West, Duma deputies fear this is not enough. Six deputies from the Communist Party, A Just Russia and the LDPR are proposing a total ban on “gay propaganda”.
  • The bill’s authors propose to regard “promotion of non-traditional values” – i.e. any publication or statement LGBT relationships or identity – in the same light as distributing pornography or inciting ethnic hatred. The draft bill does not include any new level of legal responsibility, but one of the deputies spoke of the need to introduce criminal liability for violations. Meanwhile, the bill specifically calls for a list of all movies that “promote LGBT” and stripping them of their distribution licenses.
  • One of the bill’s authors is Communist Party deputy Nina Ostanina. Journalists immediately recalled how, in spring 2011, Ostanina was part of a group of Russian opposition figures who met with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on his visit to Russia. Others at that meeting included, for example, Boris Nemtsov (killed in 2015) and Garry Kasparov (who emigrated long ago and adopts a radical anti-Putin position). After that meeting, Ostanina said that she complained to Biden about electoral violations, discussed the fall of authoritarian regimes and presented the U.S. president with a copy of the communist newspaper Pravda.
  • Sources told Meduza and the BBC Russian service that this particular bill will not pass into law, since no United Russia deputies are involved. But this does not mean we will not see a new ban. At the start of July, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin directly called for a ban on the “propaganda of non-traditional values”. According to Meduza, United Russia is already drafting its own equivalent legislation.
  • Ironically, on the day that the bill was introduced, Russia faced its most notable ‘coming out’ of recent years. In an interview on YouTube, Russia’s top female tennis player (ranked No. 12 in the world) Darya Kasatkina announced her homosexuality, talked about her girlfriend and added that she was considering changing her citizenship. This is the first time ever that a Russian athlete at this level has come out.
  • Two days later, Kasatkina was discussed on a recently launched scandal-seeking talk show on Match TV, a national sports channel owned by Gazprom. The host devoted 45 minutes to Kasatkina in the company of State Duma representatives and veteran athletes. The participants concluded that Kasatkina came out in an attempt to curry favor in Spain, where she lives, and gain Spanish citizenship. They added that homosexuals in general – and Kasatkina in particular – “revel in dragging people into the dirt”.
  • After the broadcast, Match TV’s chief tennis correspondent Sofya Tartakova, who is also Kasatkina’s PR agent, called the program “a freak show for tongue-tied deputies, pseudo-experts and people seeking their five minutes of fame”, adding that no active tennis player would have any further contact with Match TV. In response, the channel removed the journalist from the airwaves.

Why the world should care

The man behind the latest ban on LGBT propaganda, Vyacheslav Volodin, is one of those senior officials whose stock has been rising since the start of the war. He speaks even more radically than Putin himself (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev is another striking example of this). A complete ban on gay propaganda can be seen as an attempt at further political prestige. As long as the war continues, the number of repressive measures that are not directly related to the conflict will also increase.

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