What Ukrainians Tell Russian Family Members About the War

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In Russia, an estimated 11 million people have relatives in Ukraine. With so many family ties connecting the two countries, why aren’t more Russians rising up against Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine?

According recent new stories, the answer is in part that many Russians believe the propaganda stories of President Vladimir Putin rather than the first-hand accounts of their own parents.

Are these headline-grabbing accounts isolated incidents or do they represent larger trends? Do Russian and Ukrainian parents still communicate? If so, have some Ukrainians pierced the veil of Russian propaganda, at least to their family members?

By addressing these questions, our recent survey offers clues to the durability of Russian support for the war. Our results also provide broader insights into the effectiveness of the strategies of dictators to maintain power by monopolizing information and deceiving citizens.

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From April 15 to 17, we deployed a online survey of Ukrainians, from a panel of smartphone users compiled by Graduatea Ukrainian research company.

Prior to the February 24 Russian invasion, the panel was representative of Ukraine’s urban adult population under the age of 60, excluding Crimea and eastern areas where there has been conflict since 2014. The panel then lost 7% of its respondents, mostly in war-torn areas. regions and among men of military age. Therefore, caution should be exercised before drawing conclusions from the survey on the views of male combatants, residents of areas most affected by the conflict in Ukraine, older Ukrainians and residents of rural areas.

Our survey had a sample size of 1,880 respondents, a response rate of 43%, and a margin of error of 2.1 percentage points.

Do Ukrainians talk about the war with Russian relatives?

Forty-eight percent of respondents said they had at least one relative in Russia, a heritage of Soviet and post-soviet migration trends. Of these 908 respondents with relatives, a majority – 59% – discussed the war with their relatives, mainly via WhatsApp, Telegram and video and voice calls.

During the first two weeks of the war, however, many of these conversations ceased, according to our investigation. At the time of the survey, about seven weeks after the Russian invasion, less than half (46%) of these communications about the war were in progress.

Whereas new often focus on confrontations between parents, children or siblings, these interactions are actually relatively rare. We found that 72% of respondents who discussed the war with relatives spoke exclusively with extended family members, such as aunts, uncles and cousins. Far fewer report discussions with siblings (19%) and parents (6%).

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We asked respondents with multiple relatives to focus on their closest family member. Below we refer to these conversations.

What are Ukrainians and Russian parents talking about?

Few subjects seem prohibited. About 74% of the 534 respondents who discussed the war with their next of kin spoke of Russia’s intentional shelling and shelling of Ukrainian cities, and 67% mentioned Russia’s killing of civilians. Topics such as Russian looting (41%), torture and rape (38%) and the use of weapons that violate international law, such as cluster bombs, came up less frequently (27%).

Many of these conversations also touched on Russia’s false claims justifying the invasion. We found that 52% of respondents discussed the claim that Ukraine’s leaders are “Nazis.” And 36% had discussed Russia’s claim to liberate separatist areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while 30% discussed the claim that Ukraine is commit genocide against ethnic Russians. The assertion that Ukraine was develop nuclear weapons received less attention (20%).

What is the influence of Russian war propaganda?

We asked respondents to rate the extent to which their Russian relatives believed in Russian war propaganda at the start of their discussions, on a scale of 1 to 10, where higher values ​​represent stronger beliefs. The median score was 8. Of course, these scores are based on respondents’ memories of the early days of the war. Nevertheless, they clearly show that many Ukrainians perceive Russian propaganda to dominate their relatives.

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As expected, respondents perceive older parents and relatives who receive information from Russian state television, as opposed to the Internet or other sources, to be more influenced by propaganda. Surprisingly, respondents perceived parents from Moscow and St. Petersburg as no less indoctrinated than parents from Russian small towns and rural areas.

Can the Ukrainians break through the Russian information bubble?

Evidence is mixed on whether communications from Ukrainians are encouraging their Russian relatives to rethink the veracity of pro-Kremlin information. On the one hand, 54% of respondents say their conversations had no effect on loved ones’ beliefs in Russian propaganda. In fact, 8% of respondents report that their Russian relatives have come to believe the propaganda more strongly because of these discussions. On the other hand, 22% report that the conversations made relatives believe Russian propaganda a little less, and 16% report that relatives came to believe much less.

Respondents who, at the time of the survey, were still communicating with Russian relatives, however, are more optimistic. Only 37% of these 228 respondents report that their conversations had no effect, and only 4% report that the conversations reinforced the beliefs of their loved ones. For this group, 59% say their Russian relatives have come to believe a little or a lot less in state propaganda.

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Most respondents said they rely more on facts (59%) than on logic (48%) or emotion (26%) to influence the beliefs of those close to them about the war. Yet, as many Ukrainians, Russians, Americans and others have experienced in our “post-truth” eraevidence and logic often prove ineffective against “alternative” facts adopted by someone ensconced in a separate information bubble.

Therefore, the family ties of Ukrainian citizens may be an underutilized tool in Ukraine’s information warfare toolkit. Social science research suggests that perspective taking and similar persuasive techniques make people receptive to new points of view precisely because they rely less on facts and logic and more on emotional connections and subtle cues related to gestures, tone and expressions. facials. Such techniques could help Ukrainians counter the influence of Russian propaganda, one conversation at a time, as they continue to convey the truth about the war to their Russian relatives.

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Timofii Brik (@brik_t) is rector and head of sociological research at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Aaron Erlich (@aserlich) is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University in Canada. He has been conducting public opinion research in Ukraine since 2015.

Jordan Gans Morse (@J_GansMorse) is an associate professor of political science and director of the Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies program at Northwestern University. In 2016-2017 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.

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