By Oleksandr Shulga
Until 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, a citizen living a contented and peaceful life in the village of Robotyne in the western Zaporizhzhia region, for example, would have cared nothing about the average Russian’s view of his country.
Now, dead or exiled as the Kremlin’s forces raze his or her community to the ground, the matter is very personal indeed. And given that Russian social attitudes move ahead of future military aggression, it’s not only sociologists and politicians who need to worry about what these views might portend for neighboring states.
On the one hand, the Russian opposition seeks to portray Russian society as detached from the war, placing the blame on Putin personally, or his regime. That is why opposition leaders and representatives avoid discussion about the roots of acceptance of the war against Ukraine. It is an outlook very helpful to those thinking about a post-war settlement and post-Putin coexistence with Ukraine. This might be termed the one-man’s-war theory.
But there are much broader issues. Because surveys make it crystal clear that ordinary Russians do not recognize Ukrainian independence, and that this is not just one man’s war.
This results from a widely accepted idea within the Russian Federation regarding now-independent former Soviet states. It can be called a subordination-domination model, rather than one based on cooperation. As a result, the objective in relation to Ukraine is assimilation and absorption rather than mutual exchange and coexistence.
This is not a mere assertion; there is significant data to support it.
After more than a year of a full-scale war against Ukraine, with tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed and wounded and hundreds of settlements destroyed, the majority of Russians (65%) say their attitude towards Ukrainians has not changed.
Furthermore, over half of the respondents (54%) still believe that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation, while an additional 12% believe that both nations are very similar to each other. Only 8% state that Russians and Ukrainians are completely different people.
These figures may appear puzzling: after so many deaths on both sides, including among Russians (latest US estimates suggest Russian military casualties are now around 300,000), how can its citizens’ outlook have remained the same?
The absorption-assimilation model helps to explain this. The majority of Russian society perceives the invasion of Ukraine as an internal Russian matter, akin to the “imposition of constitutional order” in the Chechen Republic during the 1990s and early 2000s. If Russians and Ukrainians are essentially indistinguishable and belong to the same people, then the invasion is not seen as aggression against a sovereign state, and the act itself is not considered an attack but rather the re-establishment of order.
The second key characteristic, that results from the above, is a lack of empathy among the majority of Russians toward Ukraine and its citizens. This is deeply ingrained in the Russian public consciousness, characterized by a model of subordination-domination.
When asked about their support for Russian military missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, most Russians (63%) responded positively. It is important to consider the context in which this poll was conducted — the question was asked in December, during the peak of attacks on Ukraine’s civilian critical infrastructure. Russian federal television and other media outlets, both state-controlled and opposition, were actively reporting on these developments.
Despite the clear understanding that missile attacks were inflicting suffering on Ukrainian civilians ( who Russians say are “just like us”), most supported such actions. The refusal of Ukrainian society to accept the Russian model led to their dehumanization; in Russian eyes, those who resist are Nazis.
The key lies in the conscious or unconscious perception that Ukraine must be absorbed and cannot be treated as a sovereign equal. This is deeply ingrained in the everyday consciousness and life of the Russian public.
It will not change simply by removing Putin and his regime, whatever the claims of the country’s opposition.
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.