Russians Voicing Support for ‘Special Operation’ while Empathizing with Mobilization Dodgers

May 31, 2023
  • Vladimir Zvonovsky 

    Professor at Samara State University of Economics

Vladimir Zvonovsky writes about the implications of Russians’ readiness to fight, in word and in deed, and about their attitudes toward fellow citizens who are trying to avoid being sent to Ukraine.
A volunteer unit. Tver Region, January 2023. The words on the flag are: "We are Russians. God is with us!" Source: VK
ExtremeScan research conducted on March 20-23, 2022, at the end of the first month of the “special military operation” (SVO), showed that almost half (46%) of Russian men aged 18 to 50 were ready to be mobilized. Such a high stated readiness was also reflected in an actual readiness to fight, which allowed the Russian authorities for a long time to replenish their army’s ranks by recruiting volunteers and contract soldiers.

In September last year, after the announcement of the “partial mobilization,” more than half of Russian men aged 18 to 59 (55%) expressed a readiness to fight – voluntarily or if called up. Until mid-April, when we last asked the corresponding question, the figure remained at about the same level, fluctuating between 53% and 58%.

Clearly, a stated readiness to fight is not a sufficient basis for assessing potential reserves. It largely reflects general loyalty toward the authorities, Putin and the SVO, shaped by many years of propaganda and the propaganda now in support of the war effort. Actual readiness to go and fight is more correlated with personal socio-economic circumstances. In addition, an important factor is the extent to which the war affected a person or his loved ones.

At the end of March 2023, the agency ExtremeScan conducted a survey in Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions – near the front line – where the war has become an everyday experience, where fortifications are being built, where military bases and hospitals are located.

Among men aged 18 to 59 living in these regions, 22% expressed a willingness to serve voluntarily, while more than a third (37%) said they would fight only if called up. (Military duty in Russia applies to men from 18 to 50 years old if they did not undergo compulsory military service or finished it as a private or sergeant, and up to 65 years old if they ended it with a rank no higher than lieutenant colonel). If the respondent stated a readiness to go voluntarily, the interviewer asked if he had tried to sign up as a volunteer. More than a third (39%) said that they had, with a sixth saying that they even went to the enlistment office but were refused, having been told that “there is no need at the moment.” In other words, approximately 1.3% of border region residents liable for military service can be put down as volunteers – people not only ready to go to war, but having taken (according to them) some actions to realize that intention.

Overall, across Russia the share of people who expressed a readiness to voluntarily fight in the SVO was 15% (in the border regions, as mentioned above, it was 22%). If we assume that in other regions of the country, these people acted on that intention (with some even going to the enlistment office by their own free will) in approximately the same proportion as in the border regions, then in Russia about 400,000 (or 1%) men of military age – very close to the number mobilized last fall, according to the authorities – are more or less actually ready to go and fight.

Voluntarily or if called up

The “volunteers” from our surveys, who, as mentioned above, accounted for 15%, are almost entirely supporters of the SVO who, for one reason or another, cannot be mobilized or did not take any action to go and fight. (Fathers with multiple children, the disabled, men who suffer from certain diseases and men of advanced age are not subject to mobilization.)
Note that the proportion of volunteers increases with age: among 20- and 30-year-olds it is only 8-10%, among 40-year-olds 16% and among 50- and 60-year-olds 29%.
Figure 1. Share of men ready and not ready (pink “ready if called up”, red “ready voluntarily”, blue “not ready) to take part in the SVO across age groups (Russian Federation, men aged 18-65, April 2023, ExtremeScan)
Thus, this group cannot be looked at as a reserve for mobilization into the active army.

Thirty-seven percent of men are ready to go and fight if called up in Russia overall. Meanwhile, 31% said they are not ready. The “mobilization readiness index” we put forward shows the ratio of men who are ready to be mobilized versus those who are not. If the index is greater than one, then the number of men who can see themselves at the front is greater than the number of those who cannot. An index reading of less than one shows that there are fewer people who are ready to fight than those who are not.

Overall, across Russia the index is 1.18, meaning for every six who are ready one way or another to go to war, there are five who are not.

Figure 2. Mobilization readiness across federal districts (from top downward: Far East, Siberia, Northwest, Volga, Urals, South, borderline regions, North Caucasus, Central, Moscow) (Russian Federation, men 18-65 years old, April 2023, ExtremeScan)

Figure 2 shows that the readiness to fight is high in the Far East and extremely low in Moscow.

Looking at the breakdown by age, the index peaks among 40-year-olds at 2.08, meaning that in this age group, for every one man not ready to be mobilized, there are more than two who are. The index is very high for budgetniki (people reliant on the state for their livelihood) at 1.92 and moderately high for those employed in the private sector at 1.35, though it does not reach one among businesspeople at 0.95.

Overall, high-income segments of the population are more likely to support the SVO and express a readiness to be mobilized, thereby demonstrating loyalty to the state system (index score: 2.62). However, in reality, it is low-income segments that are more often doing the fighting, as for them the army is one of the few social elevators, while they have much fewer resources to dodge mobilization. Twenty-nine percent of residents in border regions with a monthly income of RUB 12,000 reported having someone from their closest circle fighting in the SVO; among those whose income is above RUB 30,000 rubles the figure was only 20%.

The involvement of any family members in the SVO increases the degree of personal readiness to fight in Ukraine. Whereas among men who have acquaintances who have already fought in battles the mobilization readiness index is 1.73, it is only 1.03 for men who do not have such acquaintances.
When a person has an actual, personal attachment, it can be assumed to increase his willingness to be involved in the special operation – losses cause a desire to settle scores with the enemy and avenge one’s own friends and family.
Table 1. Dynamics of attitudes toward mobilization dodgers (October 2022-April 2023)
Positive and negative changes in one’s life during the SVO also affect readiness to go and fight. People who have lost their jobs or businesses are not burning with such a desire – they have a more negative attitude toward the war, and do not intend to compensate for losses in civilian life by earning money at the front (index score: 0.57). Meanwhile, people who, after the start of the SVO, opened a business or were hired willingly express a readiness to fight (index score: 1.58). Given that sectors of the economy associated with the military-industrial complex – whose employees are usually exempt from conscription – have grown in recent months, the readiness to be mobilized among those who are doing well reflects support for the SVO rather than a desire to fight in it.

Attitude toward mobilization dodgers

The number of those who have fled Russia since the invasion of Ukraine is conservatively estimated at about half a million people. At present, the outflow has weakened, but has not stopped completely.

In October 2022, during the active phase of the mobilization, according to our data, 17% of Russians empathized with those who “left Russia in an effort to avoid the mobilization” (see Table 1). Nearly two thirds (63%) disapproved of them, meaning that for every person offer empathy there were almost four who disapproved. Fifteen percent said they were indifferent.

Four months later, attitudes had changed significantly: only 8% of empathizers remained, while the number of those disapproving decreased to 46% (the number of “neutrals” jumped to 43%). Such a big swing is attributable to a noticeable decrease in the intensity of both the mobilization itself and the fighting, which gave rise to a feeling of “routinization” of the SVO.

In April 2023, when there was active talk about the upcoming counter-offensive of the Ukrainian army and the Duma passed a law that made it significantly harder to dodge mobilization, the percentage of those who disapproved of “dodgers” was only 30%, while the people who treated them with understanding rose to 45% (!). (In the April survey, the option “indifferent” or “neutral” was not provided. Thus, a significant percentage of those who did not choose a single response fell into the “hard to say” category or refused to answer.)

Perhaps this is due to the fact that previously dodging meant only going abroad. One way or another,
“Though more than two thirds of the country’s population verbally support the SVO, almost half empathize with those who get out of fighting.
This inconsistency can be explained by the circumstance already mentioned: approval of the SVO often reflects support for the president and his policies, while refusal to condemn mobilization dodgers means that the risk of ending up at the front is perceived as an unacceptable threat.

Women treat dodgers with significantly more understanding than men (51% and 39%, respectively), though men significantly more often choose not to pass moral judgement on those who do not want to fight.

Dodgers are treated more often with understanding than with condemnation across all age groups, including the oldest, though this is especially true for young people, among whom only 16% condemn dodgers.

Proximity to the war zone leads to a tougher assessment of efforts to avoid mobilization. But even in the border regions (Bryansk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, Rostov regions and Crimea were included in our study here), empathy prevails over condemnation – 34% versus 41%, respectively.

There is a much more tolerant attitude toward dodgers in Moscow, where for every person condemning them, there are two offering empathy (26% versus 51%, respectively).

Dodgers are more often empathized with by businessmen – people who have invested in their skills and their employees and are not ready to hand them over to the military machine of the state. And even among people employed in the public sector, the share of those offering condemnation for mobilization dodging barely reaches a third (34%).

Even among people who get their news mainly from TV, critical attitudes are in the minority, though it is tight (36% versus 40% offering empathy). In other words, federal TV channels have failed to convince people that any actions of their fellow citizens that run counter to the goals of the authorities are worthy of condemnation.

People who most zealously support the war – in particular, those who approve of the new laws that make it harder to dodge mobilization and conscription – are predictably more likely to condemn those who do not want to fight in Ukraine. They represent almost half of this group (49%).

It is intuitive that personal involvement in the SVO leads to feelings of condemnation toward those who want to avoid fighting. The subsample of men who saw action is small, but those who have such people in their inner circle more often condemn dodgers (44% versus 32% who treat them with understanding).

Even among those who are convinced that the military conflict with Ukraine poses a threat to the freedom and independence of Russia, the number of those offering understanding and condemnation was approximately the same at 41% versus 39%, respectively. In other words, even the idea that Russia could be invaded today does not necessarily lead to condemnation of mobilization dodgers.


The stated readiness by Russian men of military age to go and fight changed after the “partial mobilization” was announced at the end of September 2022. Whereas before that Russians looked at such a prospect only as a result of a voluntary decision, it became seen as involuntary, and their assessed likelihood of ending up at the front increased significantly.

The readiness to fight as a volunteer, upon closer examination, is often expressed by those who, for various reasons (large families, health, family influences), cannot actually be sent to Ukraine.

Support for the SVO, along with readiness to be mobilized, might be a manifestation of loyalty toward the state. Such behavior is common for high-income segments of the population, as well as for people who since the start of the SVO got a new job or opened a business, i.e. improved their material well-being. Our hypothesis is that often in this category are military-industrial complex employees, who are protected from being drafted: stating that they are ready to go to war, they know that they will not get sent to Ukraine – rather it is most often low-income segments of the population who do the fight.

An intention to personally fight in the SVO is more common among those who have combatants in their closest circle. In other words, first-hand accounts about the war, especially from close people, do not lead to anti-war sentiment – rather the opposite.

Along with the high rates of support for the SVO and mobilization, there is a high degree of tolerance for mobilization dodgers. Only less than a third (30%) of Russians aged 18 to 65 condemn dodgers, while almost half (45%) treat them with understanding.
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