Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Natasha Yefimova-Trilling – On the War and Its Impact in Russia

| Feb. 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: Natasha Yefimova-Trilling is a contributing editor with Russia Matters, a website and project based at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. Russia Matters produces analysis and news and offers interactive factual data and fact checks related to Russia and the U.S. Russia relationship. It focuses specifically on aspects of Russian policy and the bilateral relationship that impact U.S. national interests.

Belfer Communications Fellow Ada Ezeokoli interviewed Yefimova-Trilling on her perspectives regarding the Russian-Ukraine conflict one year on, and her thoughts on the year to come. An edited transcript follows. 

Ada Ezeokoli: As we reach the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, can you share with us your perspective on how Russians are thinking and feeling about the conflict right now?

Natasha Yefimova-Trilling: Obviously as with any large group, there's going to be a measure of variety, and public opinion polling in Russia has gotten very difficult. One way to approach Russian public opinion is to look at two distinct categories. The most obvious way is to look at those who have left Russia and those who have stayed. As we all know from press reports, quite a large number of Russians have left Russia. This happened basically in two waves, one shortly after the invasion and another after the announcement of mobilization into the military in September. Nobody knows for sure how many people have left. The estimates range from 300,000 on the low end to 1 million at the high end. Many of those who left in the original wave after the initial full-scale invasion actually came back, finding it very difficult to settle permanently in the places they went. Even among those who left and have not returned, I believe a very tiny number have actually gone through the steps of giving up Russian citizenship. As far as I know, that's well under 10,000.

Of course, the majority of Russians are the ones who stayed. More than 140 million people remain in Russia. Here again, public opinion polling is quite difficult to conduct, but the Levada Center is still operating, which provides us with some very useful data points. Among those Russians who have stayed in Russia, I would describe what’s happening in their thinking - or at least their publicly stated opinions on the conflict in Ukraine - as a little bit of a re-Sovietization.

There is an increasingly clear and unified and strident government narrative with very tight media control. So the price of dissent has gotten very high. You could lose work, you could get kicked out of school if you're not toeing the party line, and at the extreme end, you could be jailed, and so forth.

In that context there is a mix of responses by Russians. You're going to have a quite high level of genuine support for the government for whatever mix of reasons. You're going to have a tiny sliver of dissent because the space for expressing that dissent has shrunk immensely. The dissenters are still in Russia, but certainly they're very limited in any activity they can undertake. I would guess that - like in Soviet times - you're going to have a measure of what Sovietologists would call "double think.” You may think one thing in one part of your mind and another thing in another part of your mind and what you can say publicly may be different from what you can say privately. And then there gets to be a sort of intertwining that can be quite difficult to untangle. 

What we do know about Russian public opinion is that because the war has gone on for so long, and really the day-to-day impact on people is quite limited for the most part, we have seen concern about the war fade to the background. For example, Levada does monthly surveys on what events of the past month you still remember. Right after the invasion, 75% of people were thinking about the invasion and the Russian "special operation" in Ukraine. By January this was down to 30%. It's on people's radar, but it's not at the forefront of their minds. That's one thing that the polling reflects. Another thing it reflects is a growing sort of approval or confidence in government institutions, specifically the president, the military and the security services. The public perception of the role of business in influencing or shaping life in Russia has declined.

AE: When you think about U.S. policy toward Russia, what are some of the biggest shifts you've seen in the last year and have any of those shifts surprised you? 

I'll say the same thing that most people would say: the amount of aid to Ukraine, both military and financial. The variety of that aid, the increasing willingness to provide weapons that are more powerful and have longer range. I think that has been the biggest shift because if you think back to the earlier phase of the conflict in Ukraine starting in 2014, one of the things that the Trump administration and the Obama administration had in common was a reluctance to provide what they call lethal aid. The growing willingness to provide a greater variety of weapons, and the sheer amount of both aid, is definitely the major shift that we're seeing.

AE: Did last year’s establishment of a price cap on Russian oil have an effect on the way Russia is able to fund this conflict?

NY-T: I'll defer to the experts on the efficacy of the price cap. But the best estimate I've seen so far is that if you're just looking at Russia's financial resources, not weaponry or personnel, Russia would manage to finance the conflict at the current rate for at least three years— even if oil prices drop significantly.

AE: How would you rate the international community's response towards the plight of the Russian people?

NY-T: Those Russians for whom the war in Ukraine is a calamity have been handling the situation in a very piecemeal way. Among my personal friends and acquaintances, people have gone to Germany, to Israel, to Portugal, the Netherlands - so they've really scattered. Those who were able to leave found footholds wherever they had personal connections or could somehow find work. 

The international response to the plight of the Ukrainian people has been a textbook response to a refugee crisis, especially on the part of Europe. It's been amazing and I think there are two main reasons for that. One is that there's no question in anyone's mind what Ukrainians are running from. It's very clear that Russia is the aggressor in this situation. Also, Europe at this point had both the wealth and the labor-market capacity to absorb so many people. And also they have this unified governing structure. The speed with which Europe was able to provide Ukrainians who were fleeing the conflict with legal status, for example, which is a huge obstacle often in refugee response, was amazing. 

But in the case of Russians, you don't have either of those two things. There's not the "moral clarity." It's hard to figure out which Russians are running away from what. And again, Russia is the aggressor, so helping Russians is just not as high a priority. But, also, the places that most Russians were running to - many of them former Soviet republics - just don't have the capacity financially or bureaucratically to absorb so many people. There was a flood into Georgia and Armenia and Kazakhstan. And this creates problems locally: It pushed up real estate prices and rents, for example, or added strain to relations with Moscow. Initially those countries on Russia's fringes that people could get into were quite welcoming, but I think that there's neither the capacity nor the clear moral imperative to help, as there is with Ukrainians.

More recently, I have seen some attempts to help Russians coming from certain professional groupings. Like in academia, we're now seeing efforts to create support networks for scholars who have had to flee Russia and can no longer teach there. 

AE: Fighting around the nuclear power plants in Ukraine has been a major concern to many. What do people in Russia think about this? And are you more or less concerned about a potential nuclear incident with the reactors than you were earlier in the conflict?

NY-T: On the question of how concerned Russians are about this, I wasn't able to find anything that would shed light on that question. As for my own impression, I would say that I'm both less concerned and more concerned. 

Thanks to the efforts largely of the IAEA, the situation has stabilized somewhat. There have been small teams of very brave experts rotating in and out of Ukraine since fall, providing nuclear security consultations at the plants. The director of the IAEA has been trying for months to set up a security zone, at least around the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is still occupied by Russian forces. And the Russians and the Ukrainians through the IAEA are negotiating about that but can't agree on how large the zone will be or what exactly will be allowed and not allowed. In that sense, I am somewhat less concerned. 

I'm somewhat more concerned because there have been a lot of reports of Russia running low on precision munitions. It's very hard to determine how accurate that is. But certainly, as fighting grows more intense or more, kind of, desperate, if more non-precision munitions are in use, then obviously the dangers of accidents rise.

AE: There have been concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin may resort to the use of nuclear weapons in this war. How concerned are you about this possibility and do you have any insights into how Russians may be thinking about this possibility? 

Back in June about half of Russians polled were quite worried that Russia would use nuclear weapons and about one-third were worried that Russia would use them first. Russia has a nuclear doctrine that is relatively clear, and Putin has reiterated this, that Russia will only use nuclear weapons if it feels there is an existential threat to the state. The 6-million-dollar question is what does Russia interpret as an existential threat to the state? It's clearly not only a nuclear attack. It could be an attack with conventional weapons. But we've seen Russian territory being hit during this confrontation in regions that border Ukraine and, clearly, that was not deemed enough of a threat to Russia's existence to put nuclear weapons into play. 

What worries me most is that in the relations between Russia and the West, it's been so hard for the two sides to understand each other's concerns and intentions. It's been so difficult to establish a dialogue and understand that it’s necessary, even if you've got to pinch your nose, to talk. Some of the experts on this issue who I find the most sensible and convincing on the Russian side have said that, for example, if Ukraine were to use long-range weapons provided by the West to fire deep into Russian territory, the Russian leadership would perceive that as the crossing of a red line. I have no way of assessing how accurate that is, but that's certainly an assessment from a source who in the past I've found to be reasonable and reliable. 

When we think of nuclear weapons, we often think of the mushroom cloud and the obliteration of cities within minutes. But there's also the possibility of using what's called non-strategic nuclear weapons. They are shorter-range and they have a less destructive payload. These weapons would cause radiation poisoning in the area that gets attacked and obviously would damage it, so it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to use them in an area that you plan to capture, only one you plan to abandon.

AE: Based on what you know now, where do you see this conflict heading in a year?

NY-T: We can't really make predictions right now about where it's going to be in a year, but, again, I can share what I think is pretty clear. The fundamental underlying concern that the Kremlin seems to have had in launching this war is that it sincerely, genuinely saw a threat to its national security from a Ukraine that is deeply integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions, particularly NATO. That doesn't mean necessarily membership in NATO. It can mean a greater integration with the militaries of NATO members. So, presuming that we're right on that, Russia wants to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence in order to decrease that threat. Russia wants to be able to have a say in Ukraine's decisions on foreign policy because Ukraine has the misfortune of being a buffer geographically between Russia and NATO.

Whatever happens a year down the road, that fundamental concern of Russia's isn't going to go away. Russia sees spheres of influence for great powers as a legitimate construct of the global order. And the West has been arguing that it isn't - sometimes convincingly, sometimes less so.

But the underlying tension remains. So the big question is how does that get resolved? Is there something that all sides will find acceptable? And obviously there are so many moving parts in both Russia and Ukraine, but also in the United States. Domestic political circumstances are going to affect some of the decision making in all three. Both Putin and Zelensky have elections coming up in about a year. The United States, in November of '24, is going to be facing elections again. It’s going to be difficult for Zelensky, after the revelations in Bucha and other places where signs of atrocities have been found, to agree to trade land for peace.

The majority of Ukrainians, about 75%, aren't willing to trade land for peace. Perhaps that portion will shrink. We don't know. For Putin, also, even though he has very tight control on the electoral system in the country, even autocrats have certain concerns about seeming legitimate and about popularity. How much leeway will he have to present as a win whatever Russia is able to gain militarily by then? We also don't know what will happen between the Democrats and the Republicans in the U.S. and how Ukraine will figure into that. 

It seems that Russia will have the material resources to keep fighting for quite a long time. It's very actively rerouting its energy flows and looking for new markets. And we've got to remember that there are giant portions of the world that don't condemn Russia's actions. We have to remember that the world isn't just Western Europe and the United States and Japan and their allies - that Russia does still have some room for maneuvering. I don't have anything more definitive to predict than that, but, sadly, I think it's not likely that this conflict will end in the foreseeable future.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ezeokoli, Ada.“Natasha Yefimova-Trilling – On the War and Its Impact in Russia.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 24, 2023.