Numerous polls since mid February have found that a sizeable majority of Russians support the war in Ukraine – the so-called “special military operation”. For example, in poll taken 25–27th February, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 68% of respondents supported the war, compared to only 22% opposed.
It should be noted that the Russian Public Opinion Research Center is state-controlled. Yet independent organisations have documented similar levels of support. According to surveys carried out by the respected Levada Center, approval of Vladimir Putin rose sharply from 71% to 83% between early February and early March:
However, it’s still possible that support for the war is overstated. After all, respondents might be scared to reveal their true beliefs, even in ostensibly ‘anonymous’ surveys. Since the war began, Russian authorities have arrested thousands of people for taking part in public protests.
A new survey demonstrates that support for the war likely is overstated, though still very substantial. Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub conducted what’s called a ‘list experiment’ – a method designed to gauge public opinion on issues where people might not be willing to reveal their true beliefs. Here’s how it works.
You divide your sample in two at random: half of respondents read a list of three statements, and the other half read a list of four statements (the three original statements, plus a fourth). The fourth statement corresponds to the issue you’re interested in, while the other three correspond to different issues.
Below is an image from Chapkovski and Schaub’s survey, for illustration. Half of respondents saw the list on the left, and the other half saw the list on the right. They were asked to say how many of the statements they supported (but not which ones). Note: only the list on the left includes the statement “Actions of Russian armed forces in Ukraine”.
By compring the average number of statements selected by the two groups of respondents, the researchers were able to estimate support for the war in Ukraine without asking directly. For example, if the average in the left-hand group was 2.5, and the average in the right-hand group was 2, it could be inferred that 50% of respondents support the war.
This is more or less what the researchers found, as shown in the chart below. Note: they also included a question directly asking respondents about their support for the war, in order to estimate the degree of bias in opinion polls.
In the list experiment, support for the war was 53%, compared to 68% when asking directly. This suggests that opinion polls overstate support for the way by about 15 percentage points. But it also suggests that support for the war is substantial even after correcting for biased responding.
And note: highly educated Russians, as well as those living in urban areas, were overrepresented in Chapkovski and Schaub’s sample. Since such individuals are more liberal than average, and hence less likely to support the war, 53% constitutes a lower bound for the true level of support.
Overall, it seems that most Russians do support the war, although their level of support is somewhat overstated in opinion polls.