US intelligence officials are skeptical that any change in Russian public opinion against the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine – even a dramatic one – would have an effect in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the conflict, according to multiple sources familiar with the latest intelligence.
Officials also doubt that the war, which many strategists believe has been an unmitigated disaster for Russia’s military, is likely to lead to the removal of Putin from power, at least in the short term.
That assessment reflects the extent to which officials believe Putin has cemented his control over Russia during his more than two decades in power. Although intelligence officials believe Putin is keenly sensitive to small shifts in public opinion, his ability to crack down on protests and control the media still helps insulate him against any significant popular uprising – leaving him free to prosecute the war on his own terms.
Putin is intimately involved in the day-to-day management of the conflict, according to three sources familiar with US and western intelligence, who told CNN that Putin directly participates in decision-making that in most Western armies would be reserved for lower-ranking officers. One source familiar with Western intelligence said that Putin often makes decisions on minutiae like the location of attack lines and day-to-day operational goals.
“He clearly is his own decision maker. He doesn’t seem to rely even on experts within the government or the cabinet very much,” said a senior NATO official. “So it’s a bit hard to imagine that popular opinion sways him all that much.”
That raises questions about the effectiveness of Western sanctions designed in part to make the war unpopular inside Russia by inflicting broad economic pain. Efforts to target Russian oligarchs have led to the seizure of millions of dollars in assets, including yachts and luxury properties around the world. But within Russia, analysts say Putin has succeeded in staving off the more immediate economic repercussions, at least for now.
And while there has been some grumbling among Russia’s elites who are getting squeezed by sanctions, sources say it’s nothing that would lead the intelligence community to believe that Putin will be forced to change course – and certainly not enough to remove him from power.
“Wide range of opinions,” said one of the sources briefed on US intelligence. “In my view, we are a long way from him being in any danger of being removed.”
A popular war in Russia
Russian public opinion over the war remains high despite the heavy losses Russian forces have suffered, according to outside analysts and sources familiar with US intelligence. Officials are quick to note that most Russians don’t fully grasp the reality of the war, thanks to the deeply repressive media environment inside Russia. Putin has tightened free speech laws surrounding the conflict and effectively shuttered the few remaining independent outlets.
Public dissent has also been quickly crushed. Widespread protests in the early days of the war were met with mass arrests. Even if disapproval is simmering beneath the surface of rosy public polls, fear of reprisal could keep that disapproval buried and ineffectual.
“Everybody will be against (the war) but they will be afraid of doing anything,” said Dr. Natalia Savelyeva, a sociologist with the Center for European Policy Analysis who specializes in the conflict in Ukraine. “Kind of like a long-lasting, stable and horrible situation.”
US intelligence officials are intensely tracking public views of the conflict inside Russia, in part because they do believe Putin’s perception of public opinion might offer clues to his thinking and future decision-making, according to one source familiar with the latest reporting.
But sources say it has become increasingly difficult to measure public opinion from the outside. The US doesn’t trust the available polling and Putin’s crackdown on dissent has left American intelligence agencies without a confident picture of Russian attitudes – and even poorer predictions of how those attitudes might shift as western sanctions begin to impact ordinary life or if Putin orders a mass mobilization amid mounting Russian casualties.
The US “has very little accurate insight post-invasion,” said one source briefed on US intelligence. “The assumption right now is Putin has effectively isolated his people from information and repercussions regarding the conflict. How long he can do that is unknown.”
For now, Putin appears to have been successful in pushing his alternate reality through state media, which has continued to report that Russia is fighting Nazis in Ukraine and that the West is to blame for the conflict. Even as unprecedented Western sanctions are expected to shrink Russia’s GDP by at least 10% over the next year, both outside experts and officials familiar with US and western intelligence believe Putin and his war are broadly popular – and are likely to remain so, in large part because of how effectively Putin has controlled the media narrative.
It is extremely unlikely that there will be a large enough shift in domestic attitudes to forge a popular uprising, according to one source familiar with the latest intelligence, and only slightly more likely that cracks in popular support for Putin and his war embolden Russian elites to stage a coup.
But even if public support were to tank, many officials familiar with the intelligence are doubtful that it would do much to alter Putin’s commitment or ability to wage the war. Putin could simply move to repress any bubbling opposition, those sources and outside analysts say. Time is also on Putin’s side: the Russian president doesn’t face reelection until 2024.
“It would take a long time for that shift to happen anyway, given the way the information security culture works there,” said one source familiar with western intelligence. “And that’s not to assume he won’t go full communist – already you have people reporting on their neighbors.
“A culture of fear can live for a long time, even if you’re not so popular,” this person added. “And he is popular.”
Despite the grim outlook, the Biden administration has in place a number of policy measures designed at least in part to turn Russians against the war. The CIA earlier this month published on social media instructions for how Russians concerned about the war can securely contact the agency. The State Department has started a Russian-language channel on Telegram, one of the few open social media platforms that remains available to Russians.
There have been some signs of percolating discontent inside Russia at different points since the beginning of the conflict, and there appears to be a growing awareness at least in Russia’s urban centers and among younger Russians that the conflict isn’t going very well. On Monday, a former senior Russian officer warned on state television that the situation will get worse, in a rare instance of public criticism of the conduct of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine – although, days later, he appeared to soften his criticism.
But inside the intelligence community, there is little optimism that Russian views of the war are changing.
“What we see is that the majority of the Russian people continue to support the special military operation,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers earlier this month when asked directly about the impact of sanctions on popular resistance. “I think it’s just very hard, frankly, for information to get into Russia to the Russian people. They have a very particular perspective that they’re being fed by the government during this period.”
Public opinion is still of “incredible interest” to the intelligence community, according to another source familiar with the latest reporting, because officials believe that Putin himself is closely watching for any cracks in his popular support. Watching public opinion may allow the intelligence community to predict Putin’s next moves, this person said.
The Russian president – long fearful of so-called democratic “color revolutions” – is likely to be sensitive to marginal shifts in his popularity because his ability to command overwhelming support is one of the keys to maintaining his grip on power.
Popular sentiment may influence Putin’s decision-making on ordering a mass mobilization, for example, even if it is unlikely to convince him to back away from the war, analysts say.
CIA Director William Burns said last week that the Russian leader is determined to fulfill a sense of personal destiny in seizing control of Ukraine through armed conflict, but as his forces continue to perform below expectations, he will likely be inclined to adjust his strategic thinking without quitting entirely.
Gaming out a post-Putin Russia
A mass mobilization order – which senior US intelligence officials have said publicly that Putin would need to implement to achieve many of his war aims – would also likely have an immediate impact on public perceptions of the war, analysts note.
“We can only guess,” said Savelyeva of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “(But) that’s a very different thing when you just observe the war on TV and support it, and when your child or yourself have to go and fight.”
Some Russians will likely also blame the US and the west for the bite of sanctions, Savelyeva and other analysts note. Putin has primed the nation by insisting the west would have imposed sanctions against Russia no matter what action it took in Ukraine.
Multiple US officials and outside experts said that the only opinion Putin is forced to be truly responsive to is the opinion of Russia’s security and business elite, who help keep him in power and whom he has made rich.
Still, the intelligence community has begun doing “serious exploratory analysis” in an effort to predict what the end of the Putin era might look like – eventually.
“There’s just a lot of ways that it looks super messy,” this person said.
For now, the Biden administration has taken a wait-and-see approach.