Russian public opinion: The question of support for conflict with the West

Thomas Sherlock,
Ph.D., Professor of Political Science,
Department of Social Sciences, United States Military Academy,
West Point, New York

Mounting tensions between Russia and the West raise the vital question of whether armed conflict between the two sides may occur.  Western observers often assume that Russian public opinion would not act to constrain the Kremlin if it contemplated aggression against its adversaries.  The expectation in the West is that Russian society would fully support its government in any protracted confrontation, including inter-state war.  However, evidence gathered from public opinion surveys, focus groups, and interviews in Russia over the past five years suggests this perspective is flawed.

It is true that most Russians applaud the official narrative that Russia has re-emerged as a great power under Vladimir Putin, particularly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Russians also agree with the claims of the Russian state that America is an unfriendly power. Yet the Russian public increasingly disagrees with the assertions of the Kremlin that the United States is a looming external danger and a subversive force in Russian domestic politics. In line with this stance, many Russians are unwilling to bear the economic burden of an escalating confrontation with the West, demonstrating the initially limited, and now waning, political significance of the “Crimea euphoria” and the “rally ‘round the flag” phenomenon produced by ensuing tensions with the West.

Such cautious preferences on the part of the Russian society go to the issue of guns-versus-butter in Russian politics. They also reflect differences over how to define a great power and the future course of Russia’s socio-economic and political development. When asked in a March 2017 survey by the respected Levada public opinion firm whether they prefer that Russia strengthen the military power of the state or improve the well-being of its citizens, the overwhelming majority of respondents (74.3%) chose the “well-being of its citizens.”  This number rose to 80.2% in Moscow.  As for Russia’s youth, analysts often maintain that a large segment of “Gen Putin” (the 18-24 year old group) has been socialized by the state into anti-American authoritarianism, forming a barrier against the West and its values.  While there is some truth in this position, only 22.5% of “Gen Putin” in the 2017 survey favored a build-up of Russia’s military strength.  In a subsequent Levada survey, two years later (May 2019), 82% of total number of respondents selected “the well-being of its citizens” and only 12.2% favored a build-up of military power.

Surveys reveal that Russian political, economic, and security elites often differ from the general public in their stronger backing for a more assertive foreign posture, including the creation of a sphere of influence in Eurasia which experts in the West often identify as a central goal of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.  Nevertheless, this preference is not favored to the same extent across all categories of elites. Equally important, the preferences for a forceful foreign policy among elites is often moderated by their preoccupation with socio-economic problems at home and by the apprehension that Russia will neglect domestic modernization indefinitely if its foreign policy is confrontational.  As with Russia’s mass publics, Russia’s elites often view the external environment as dangerous, a perception that is cultivated by the Kremlin to help produce patriotic “rally” sentiments. Yet this “rally” effect is dulled by the shared belief among a majority of elites and the Russian public that the greatest threats to Russia are rooted in its social and economic underdevelopment. Similarly, analysis of the views of elites and mass publics in Russia also suggests that a majority of Russians define a great power and its priorities more in terms of domestic socio-economic development than in the production and demonstration of hard power.

As the plausibility of the Kremlin’s “great power” meta-narrative weakens (and as the “Crimea effect” decays) an important question is whether (or to what extent) the perspective of much of Russian society and its elites will influence the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy. While several other factors clearly push in the opposite direction and toward an aggressive foreign policy, including the preferences of Russia’s military-security elites, it remains true that public opinion matters to the Kremlin and that much of Russian society at the mass and elite level values restraint in foreign policy and greater attention to domestic socio-economic development.

These attitudes are likely to constrain the Kremlin’s use of aggression in its foreign policy. Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, observes that Putin and his ruling circle understand that Russia’s future, and their own, “depends mostly on how ordinary citizens feel…. Russia is an autocracy, but it is an autocracy with the consent of the governed” (Trenin, 2016). Trenin echoes Hans Morgenthau, who identified “national morale,” or the “degree of determination” with which society approves its government’s foreign policy, as a core element of state power. For Morgenthau, morale is expressed in the form of public opinion, “without whose support [i.e., consent] no government, democratic or autocratic, is able to pursue its policies with full effectiveness, if it is able to pursue them at all” (Morgenthau, 1967). While most Russians currently back, if often cautiously, the Kremlin’s foreign policy, a costly and unpredictable escalation of conflict with the West in the context of Russian socio-economic stagnation or decline could undermine “consent” with uncertain political consequences.  The leadership in the Kremlin is almost certainly aware of this potential threat to its power.


This article does not represent the views of the United States Government, the Department of the Army, or the United States Military Academy

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