It is quite telling, however, that less than a quarter of respondents blamed the British for the attack on the Skripals. Instead, most chose not to answer the question directly, saying: “It could have been anyone.”
In fact, avoiding answers is how Russians typically react to any stories of Moscow’s possible interference in other states’ affairs. And it reflects the complicated relationship Russians have with their country’s political narratives and its standoff with the West.
Four years ago, when asked about the “little green men” in unmarked uniforms who popped up in Crimea, most respondents answered that “it could have been anyone.” The same was true of Russian participation in the Ukraine conflict, the presence of Russian troops in a neighboring country, and, later, Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the surface, they rejected it all.
However, their true views are probably not so simple. My colleagues and I have moderated dozens of focus group discussions over the past several years, and they present a somewhat different picture. Many respondents who hide their opinion or publicly deny Russia’s interference in other countries’ affairs, in fact, allow for these possibilities.
At the outset, focus group participants are usually reluctant to discuss these subjects. “This doesn’t interest me at all,” “this is so far away from me,” and “I couldn’t care less” were answers we initially heard about the poisoning incident. On Russian troops in Ukraine, most participants literally stated that the troops “aren’t officially present.” And they also denied the existence of a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as well as Russian election interference.
But when pressed to talk about the “unofficial” and “real” side of the story, a large number of people actually admitted Russian interference abroad was possible, although they were not ready to publicly discuss it.
And when a focus group moderator managed to provoke candid conversation, we could even hear about the Russian security services’ connection to the Skripal poisoning, Russian troops in eastern Ukraine and Crimea (long before the Kremlin acknowledged it) and Russian interference in U.S. elections.
All these cases reveal a vast difference between what ordinary Russians say in public and what they actually think. And fear of government retribution for speaking one’s mind doesn’t sufficiently explain why people are holding their real opinions back.
Once people overcome the internal barrier preventing them from freely expressing their views, they start speaking quite candidly. Yet they rarely express remorse or regret over the poisonings, secret foreign military operations, or election interference.
Much more frequently, their answers reflect indifference, bravado or even a willingness to automatically justify any of Russia’s actions. We recorded answers like: “Yes, it’s our troops, so what?”; “We poisoned him, so what?”; “That’s what was supposed to happen”; and “They did everything right.”
People didn’t see Russian interference as a problem in and of itself. Rather, the problem was that the country did not always manage to get away with it. Hence, the following exchange:
“You’re saying the United States is interfering in our affairs? Are we doing the same?”
“But do we need to?”
“Of course we do. We just have to be careful.”
In other words, while a large number of Russians are not ready to publicly recognize their country’s interference in other states’ affairs, they have no doubts that interference indeed took place. And they see no problem with it.