Old habits die hard for Russian elders, but younger Russians may be beginning to look West.
The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing escalation of tensions between Moscow and the West have led many commentators to dub the modern era a “return to the Cold War.” But how many of these people actually remember what it was like to live in a world shaped by that bipolar competition? People who were 18 years old the last time the Soviet hammer and sickle flag flew over the Kremlin are about to turn 50. It’s only the oldest Russians who have significant adult memories of the height of the Cold War, and a time when Ukraine and Russia were united under one flag.
Recent data indicate that these memories have had a lasting effect on this generation’s worldview. A March 24–30 Chicago Council-Levada Center survey conducted in Russia reveal significant differences between the oldest and youngest Russians on views of the West, the war in Ukraine, and potential paths to conflict resolution.
Oldest Russians are Paying the Most Attention to Conflict, and Are Most Supportive
As the war rages on in Ukraine, Russian interest in and support for the conflict varies across age groups. Older Russians are following the “special military operation” in Ukraine much more closely than their younger compatriots, with nearly half of Russians over 60 (45%) following the war very closely. That’s compared to only about a quarter of 45 to 59 (26%) and 30 to 44-year-olds (27%), and about one in 10 of those aged 18 to 29 (12%).
Russians across all age categories support the military operation in Ukraine to some degree, but the strength of that support varies significantly by age group. Majorities of Russians over 60 and in the 45 to 59 cohort say that they definitely support the activities of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. That figure drops to just under half for 30 to 44-year-olds, and to about a third for the youngest Russian adults.
Despite High Concerns, Russians over 60 Least Willing to Make Concessions for Sanctions Relief
A majority (56%) of Russians over the age of 60 are either very or quite disturbed by the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia by the West. Younger Russians are less concerned. In contrast, only about four in 10 Russians in the younger cohorts are similarly disturbed (45 to 59: 43%, 30 to 44: 41%, 18 to 29: 44%).
Despite their heightened concern about the current restrictions, the oldest Russians are also the least willing to support concessions to the West in exchange for sanctions relief. Overall, younger age cohorts are also opposed to making concessions, but have larger proportions supporting certain concessions compared to older Russians. For example, while only a 41 percent minority of 18 to 29-year-olds would support stopping the military operation in Ukraine in exchange for sanctions relief, that is over double the portion of the over 60 group that would support this measure (17%) (45 to 59: 25%, 30 to 44: 27%).
Could Youngest Russians be Looking West
In his attempts to justify and garner public support for the invasion of Ukraine, President Putin has relied heavily on anti-United States and anti-West rhetoric. He has painted Russia as a victim of NATO expansionism and claimed that the military operation in Ukraine is a defensive one to prevent attacks on Russia by the West. Some of the decreased support for the war among younger Russians may be due to the fact that they hold more favorable views of the West than do older generations. To be clear, this difference in views of the West is one of degrees—only minorities of 18 to 29-year-olds hold favorable views of the European Union (37%), the United States (28%), or NATO (24%). However, this still makes 18 to 29-year-olds between four and 14 times more likely than the oldest Russians to hold favorable views of these Western powers.
These sentiments are mirrored by the different age groups’ views of world leaders, with the youngest Russians expressing still negative, but markedly less abysmal, evaluations of Western democratic leaders. For example, while only one percent of Russians over the age of 60 hold a favorable opinion of US President Joe Biden, that figure jumps to five percent among 45to 59-year-olds, six percent among 30 to 44-year-olds, and 14 percent among 18to 29-year-olds. Similar patterns emerge in the favorability ratings of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and French President Emanuel Macron.
Previous public opinion and focus group research has indicated that younger Russians’ warming views of the West are likely due to the perceived economic opportunity and prosperity enjoyed by young people in the United States and European countries. Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Analytical Center, has found through decades of research on Russian public opinion that economic and cultural factors play a stronger role in shaping young Russians’ views of the West than ideological considerations like democracy and human rights.
Oldest Russians Out of Step on Perceived Threats
For Russians of all ages, a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia and international terrorism are seen as the top threats to their country out of the items presented in the survey. But beyond that, familiar generational divisions emerge, with older Russians perceiving significantly more of a security threat from the West. Narrow minorities of 18 to 29-year-olds classify Western cyberattacks (48%), US military growth (46%), and the NATO alliance (43%) as critical threats to Russia. Meanwhile majorities of each of the other age groups classify these threats as critical, with the figures reaching about seven in 10 among those over 60 (US military growth 74%, NATO alliance 70%, Western cyberattacks 68%). For those with real memories of the Cold War, it appears the mindset of constant tension between Russia and the West and a zero-sum security game is difficult to put to rest.
Because of the Russian government restrictions on the use of certain terms to describe the Russian military action in Ukraine, the joint survey used either “military operation” or “military action” in these questions. To be true to the results, we maintain that language here.