Can Public Opinion Undermine Russia's War in Ukraine?

Can Public Opinion Undermine Russia's War in Ukraine?

Putin has difficulty rallying the Russian people behind his decisions if they are not framed as reactions to arrogant and obtrusive Western calculations.


When describing geopolitical events, it is common to assume that foreign citizens harmoniously support the decisions made by their political leadership. The downside of this tendency, however, is that it can gloss over domestic cleavages which, if left unattended, can mushroom into irrepressible conflicts. This is what makes public opinion such a crucial metric. Polls and surveys can provide decisionmakers with a more nuanced perspective regarding how a certain population views its role on the international stage and what global factors explain changes in its viewpoints.

Leaders often overlook trends in other countries. Although it is necessary to prioritize the interests of one’s own citizens, doing so without noting public opinion abroad can have devastating consequences. Failure to account for Ukraine’s progressive shift toward favoring European integration has cost Russia dearly in its ongoing war.


Russian public opinion of Vladimir Putin may be discouraging for Western observers. The Kremlin has an 83 percent approval rating, up from 69 percent before the invasion. The direct correlation between Moscow’s military activities and the support for Putin is undeniable. An immense majority of the Russian population approves of the revival of the Russian Empire and Putin’s far-reaching rhetoric, in which he compares himself to pivotal historical figures.

What may be more productive to investigate, however, is the source of this widespread support. Putin’s popularity is not necessarily driven by imperialistic desires within the populace. Insisting that the West is the provocative aggressor, Putin has depicted Russia as waging a defensive war. In the same way that the United States’ grand strategy faltered following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the absence of an easily definable enemy, Putin has difficulty rallying the Russian people behind his decisions if they are not framed as reactions to arrogant and obtrusive Western calculations.

In a recent speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the defensive element of Putin’s strategy shined through. The Kremlin rebuked Western leaders’ tendency to conceive of their global preeminence as a perpetual feature of the international system. Any attempt that Moscow makes to promote its interests or enlarge its territorial holdings, according to Putin, is met with inexplicable sanctions, ostracization, and condemnation. Putin celebrated the “solidarity and responsibility” of Russia’s citizens in the face of aggressive Western efforts to contain Russia. Through this lens, Moscow becomes an underdog resisting an oppressive collection of states seeking to halt its ambitions.

Thus, the recent rise in Putin’s popularity cannot be reduced solely to the invasion of Ukraine. Most Russian citizens are not advocating for unfettered expansion; rather, they accept the idea that the West has provoked Russia into launching a “special military operation.” Putin would prefer it if Russians focused on anti-Western sentiments rather than foreign intervention and present economic hardships. This is not the first time that the Kremlin has employed such a tactic.

The number of civil unrest incidents in the Soviet Union between 1979-1982 jumped to more than four times the amount between 1970-1978, which saw a decline in the quality of life during the war in Afghanistan. However, Soviet politicians forced citizens to direct their frustration toward an antagonistic Western rival at all costs.

Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist who demanded the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and protested the 1980 Soviet Union Olympic Games, is a case in point. He was jailed for six years and his colleagues were discouraged from speaking out against similar issues. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, reported that American scientists were being pressured to sign petitions breaking ties with their counterparts across the globe and that they were corrupting Soviet professionals. In reality, however, American scientists were willing to engage with their Soviet counterparts. At the same time, Soviet protesters who participated in spontaneous demonstrations against expansionist wars were promptly exiled, especially if they were interviewed by Western media. Anti-Western sentiment drowned out domestic pain.

With very little transparency and public discourse before unexpected invasions, Russian citizens have become accustomed to accepting the narrative provided by state media during foreign interventions. While Russian nationalism and territorial subjugation certainly play a role in Putin’s approval rating, the Kremlin’s untiring depiction of the West as a diabolic enemy is perhaps a more important factor in fueling public support.

The frequently quoted final sentence of Putin’s July 2021 essay on the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” reads: “what Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide.” Unfortunately, it seems that Putin did not heed his own wise words.

In 2010, only 28 percent of Ukrainians supported joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Four years later, in the face of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, 44 percent of Ukrainians hoped to join the alliance. Just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that number had risen to 62 percent. The International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted a survey of citizens living in all of Ukraine’s regions except for those occupied by Russia. In March of 2014, asked how they would vote if a referendum were held on NATO membership, 34 percent of Ukrainians said that they would join the organization. In November 2021, months before Putin launched his invasion, the proportion had increased to 54 percent. No matter the study, the trend is incontestable.

Again, these results represent the opinions of Ukrainians throughout the country, including in the east. If the choice of Ukraine’s future were really “up to its citizens to decide,” Putin would have taken the time to analyze these trends and anticipate the resistance he would meet.

Putin’s supporters may point to the divide between eastern and western Ukraine as proof that Russia only intended to conquer parts of the country sympathetic to Moscow’s interests. This is hard to believe. In February 2022, troops massed on the northern and southern borders of Ukraine, sprawled across Belarus, and aimed to attack Kyiv. It is only because they were repulsed that Russian troops are now concentrating their activities on the eastern front.

Even if Putin had chosen to only target eastern Ukraine, he would have neglected years of gradual shifts in public opinion showing that Ukrainian citizens increasingly wanted to join NATO. Indeed, the IRI conducted another survey six weeks after the invasion and asked Ukrainians how their opinion of certain countries has changed since February. Of Ukrainian citizens surveyed, 73 percent of those living in the east said that their opinion of Poland improved somewhat or significantly. When asked which countries and international organizations aided Ukraine the most to resist Russian military aggression, 59 percent of eastern Ukrainian respondents chose Poland.

It is clear that Ukrainians from all parts of the country have come to recognize the benefits that NATO and European Union (EU) membership can offer. According to an Atlantic Council article, researchers found that the provinces of southern Odessa, central Vinnytsia, and eastern Sumy, which borders Russia, were at the head of European integration efforts before the war. Putin is not letting Ukrainians choose their future.

As analysts lament the dissolving unity of European states experiencing the economic hardships of cutting ties with Russia, the distinction between elected officials and ordinary citizens becomes noteworthy. Are European leaders responsible for directing their country’s attention toward other matters that they find more important, or has the initial zeal of their citizens slowly started to fade?

The Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a French think tank, has measured how European citizens have changed their perspectives on Ukraine and Russia. The proportion of German citizens that view Ukraine in a very favorable light has dropped from 86 percent to 77 percent between March and May 2022 while in France, support declined from 82 percent to 79 percent of citizens in the same period. Rising inflation and domestic fractures are certainly contributing to this trend. 

However, this does not signify that Russia has succeeded in ameliorating its public image and swaying Western citizens toward its cause. When French president Emmanuel Macron warned that the West must avoid humiliating Russia by seeking diplomatic means to end the conflict, he was met with resounding opposition and accusations of not empathizing with the Ukrainians fighting for their country’s sovereignty. Public opinion snapped at his remark. In March, more than one-fifth of the French population viewed Russia very favorably. Two months later, this proportion fell to 14 percent.

Without a doubt, European public opinion of Russia, and of Putin specifically, are dreadfully low at the moment. Nevertheless, since the EU includes such a diverse collection of countries, it will inevitably have to overcome roadblocks when forging ahead with its ambitions. Hungary and Turkey are two notable examples of countries that have expressed dismay at the decisiveness of European anti-Russia initiatives. Even so, the EU has succeeded in crafting exemptions for concerned countries when instituting embargos on Russian resources.

The EU should maintain this flexibility in the long run and respond vigilantly to the evolving needs of its member states. While it is tempting to shun Hungary, this would be disastrous for European unity. The majority of Hungarians believe that they have no business engaging in Ukraine’s problems, according to recent public opinion polls. Though this is a choice that most Western observers take issue with, Hungarian citizens should have the last word when it comes to the trajectory of their country.