With conflict continuing in Ukraine, Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border and the Russian economy in trouble, now is as good a time as ever to check up on what the average Russian is thinking. Reliable polls are hard to come by in Russia's spin-filled media, but Levada, which released a new round of polls Thursday, is considered by Westerners and Russians alike to be fairly unbiased, making the polls worthy of a deeper look.
The polls, which were mostly taken on July 21 (four days after Malaysian Airlines flight 17 crashed in eastern Ukraine), show Russians' views on a number of topics, including Russia's involvement in Ukraine, culpability for the crash and Western sanctions against Russia.
In the first set of polls, it is clear that most of the Russian population does not support direct military intervention in Ukraine, and only half support technical military assistance (such as consultations between militaries). This sentiment is critical when analyzing the buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin could have a contingent military plan for Ukraine, but carrying out that plan likely would generate significant domestic backlash.
Russians are thinking about Moscow's influence not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia's entire neighborhood. Russians are very aware of their country's geopolitical imperative to maintain buffer space (such as Ukraine) along its borderlands.
One of the primary reasons Russia has cited when threatening to intervene in its neighbors' territories is to protect ethnic Russians residing in those countries. This reason became part of Russia's National Security Doctrine in 2010, something Russia's neighbors — ranging from the Baltics to Kazakhstan — have all been wary of. A recent poll shows that the Russian population's support for protecting ethnic Russians abroad has dropped significantly — 15 percent since March. This is an important shift in sentiment because it decreases support for Russian interventions further outside its borders. Of course, Russians make an exception for Moscow's annexation of Crimea because most Russians feel the territory has always been Russia's.
Another poll just released shows that the bulk of the Russian population believes that Ukraine is responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. In the past two weeks, Russian media has actively diverted attention from the West's assertion that the Kremlin is supporting the separatists who are reportedly responsible for the crash. Such domestic perceptions will be key to Putin's ability to maintain support at home amid growing international admonitions and if new evidence is revealed proving the Kremlin's involvement with the separatists reportedly at fault.
In addition to Russian media shifting the domestic focus to Ukraine, Russian politicians continually have downplayed — and at times laughed off — Western sanctions on Russia. Already, the top concern for Russians is the declining state of the Russian economy, but most of the recent sanctions on Russia do not appear to be a factor in this concern. Most Russians believe that the sanctions will not affect them, only Russian elites.
There are visible splits among Putin's loyalists over the effects of the sanctions on Russia, while the official line from the Kremlin has been that the sanctions will not seriously affect the country. The Kremlin is attempting to prevent domestic sentiment from shifting to panic over the economy. Its strategy appears to be successful thus far, but as the effects of economic stagnation start to trickle down more, the Kremlin will have difficulty maintaining a sense of positivity.