How The War In Ukraine Might Change Putin’s Popularity Among Russians

How The War In Ukraine Might Change Putin’s Popularity Among Russians

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.


It’s hard to fathom what’s happening in Ukraine right now. Schools being bombed. Civilians forming militias and making molotov cocktails. Millions of people displaced, and an unknown number of deaths. But perhaps equally difficult to fathom is the fact that, as recently as last month, the man behind this war, Russian president Vladimir Putin, was enjoying his highest approval ratings in nearly four years.

In February, Putin had a 71 percent approval rating and a 27 percent disapproval rating among the Russian public, the highest it’s been since May 2018 (though it’s never dipped below 59 percent according to the Levada-Center). 

On the one hand, it’s natural to question the accuracy of public opinion polling under an authoritarian regime, but there are actually a number of reasons to believe those approval ratings represent genuine Russian sentiment. For one, the polling comes from the Levada-Center, a respected, independent pollster. And if you’re suspicious that Russians aren’t being totally honest about their feelings with pollsters due to fear of retribution, research to control for this phenomenon has found this isn’t the case — the polls are capturing true Russian opinions on Putin. Sure, there is likely some bias, but the bottom line is that Putin’s popularity at home is real. 

Other recent polling suggests that many Russians view the war in Ukraine differently from those in the West. A poll conducted in Russia last week by a group of independent survey research organizations (who have remained anonymous in order to avoid backlash from the Kremlin), found that about 58 percent of Russians approve of the invasion of Ukraine, while 23 percent oppose it. 

One reason Russians still support Putin and the war in Ukraine has to do with the propaganda and disinformation being sown by the Kremlin. Last week, Putin banned the spreading of “false information” about the war — including calling it a war. He also blocked Facebook and Twitter, as well as a number of Western news outlets including the BBC, making it even harder for Russians to get outside information. And among state-sponsored media in Russia, the war is downplayed and cast as a peacekeeping mission designed to liberate Ukraine from Nazis and drug-addled dictators.

As a result, it’s not surprising that the Russian public has a very different view of the war: When asked in a poll by the Levada-Center in late February who they thought was the initiator of the escalations in Ukraine, 60 percent of Russians said the U.S. and NATO members were to blame — just 3 percent said Russia was the initiator. 

But there are some realities of the war that can’t be ignored or downplayed, and they impact Russians’ views, too. For instance, as international sanctions place increased pressure on Russia’s financial sector, the ruble, Russia’s official currency, has plummeted, and Russians have been lining up at banks trying to withdraw cash. As a result, consumer confidence in Russia has taken a hit, dipping to its lowest point this year. On March 2 it dropped to 98.4, a 5.6 percent drop from four days prior, according to Morning Consult’s Russia Index of Consumer Sentiment

It’s also clear from the public protests by Russians against the war, which have resulted in thousands of arrests, that many are not buying the official Kremlin line. Many of those protestors are young Russians, among whom support for the war was lower in the anonymous poll released last week: Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 29 percent supported the war, and 39 percent opposed it.

As the war rages on, Putin’s popularity may become more precarious, too, if history is any indication. Russians have tended to lose faith in Putin when faced with ongoing war, economic uncertainty or public protest against the leader.

“While examining hundreds of thousands of Russian public opinion survey responses from 2003-19, I have found that merely being exposed to public protest depresses approval of Putin and his regime,” Noah Buckley, a political science professor at Trinity College Dublin, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Conversation. “Members of the general public learn about regime misdeeds from these protests, and discover that there are more dissenters in their society than they may have previously assumed. In other ongoing research, my co-authors and I have found that when Russians find out that Putin’s approval levels are not as sky-high as they thought, their own feelings towards him sour substantially.”

Other polling bites

  • On Tuesday, President Biden announced a ban on Russian oil and energy imports, and it turns out that many Americans support this decision, even if this results in higher gas prices. When asked directly if they would support imposing sanctions on Russian oil even if it led to higher fuel prices, 71 percent of Americans (from a Mar. 4-6 Quinnipiac University poll) and 79 percent (from a Mar. 4-7 Wall Street Journal/Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/ALG Research poll) said yes. When some pollsters included the option to support sanctions but not if they increased oil prices, support for sanctions was less consistently high. Sixty-nine percent of Americans supported sanctions even if they increased U.S. energy prices, and 12 percent supported sanctions as long as they didn’t increase prices, according to a Mar. 1-2 poll from Marist College/NPR/PBS NewsHour. However, a Mar. 5-8 The Economist/YouGov poll of Americans found much lower support (46 percent supported sanctions regardless of their effect on U.S. gas prices, but 27 percent supported sanctions only if they didn’t raise prices) as did a Mar. 5-7 Morning Consult poll of registered voters (49 percent supported sanctions regardless of their effect on U.S. gas prices, but 28 percent supported sanctions only if they didn’t raise prices).
  • A plurality of Americans (42 percent) felt that parents should have the final say over whether K-12 students are required to wear masks in school, according to a Feb. 26-Mar. 1 poll from The Economist/YouGov. Twenty-two percent said it should be up to school administrators, 14 percent were unsure and 13 percent said the government, while just 7 percent said this responsibility should fall to teachers.
  • The Major League Baseball lockout is dampening interest in the season among baseball fans, though most aren’t following the dispute closely, according to a Mar. 3-7 poll from the Los Angeles Times/SurveyMonkey. Sixty percent of fans said the dispute had caused them to lose interest in the season, but 78 percent said they weren’t closely following the lockout. In terms of who to blame for the dispute, baseball fans were split between blaming the lockout on both the players and the owners (49 percent) and blaming just the owners (31 percent).
  • Over three-quarters of European women1 thought that the COVID-19 pandemic had led to at least a small increase of violence against women in their country, according to a Jan. 25-Feb. 3 poll from Ipsos European Public Affairs, commissioned by the European Parliament. Women from Greece (93 percent) and Portugal (90 percent) were the most likely to say the pandemic had increased violence against women in their country, while less than half of Finnish (48 percent) and Hungarian (47 percent) women said the same.
  • Though it’s hardly a resounding vote of confidence, Americans seem to be giving Biden better marks for how he is handling the crisis in Ukraine. According to the aforementioned Marist College/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll from Mar. 1-2, 52 percent now said they approved of Biden’s leadership in Ukraine, versus 34 percent in a Feb. 15-21 poll. Polls from Morning Consult/Politico showed a similar but less pronounced trend: A Mar. 4-6 poll found 47 percent of registered voters approved of Biden’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine, versus 40 percent from Feb. 19-21.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 42.5 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 51.6 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.1 points). At this time last week, 41.6 percent approved and 52.9 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -11.3 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 41.3 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,3 Republicans currently lead by 2.1 percentage points (44.8 percent to 42.7 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.2 points (44.8 percent to 42.6 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.0 points (44.4 percent to 42.4 percent).

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