Public sentiment in Russia over war casualties has been turning more negative during the intense fighting in recent months in eastern Ukraine, according to a new analysis.
U.S. officials have highlighted the huge numbers of Russian troops killed and wounded in Bakhmut, Ukraine, in recent months, which they estimate to be more than 100,000. The city has become the scene of the most intense urban combat in Europe since World War II.
Those losses appear to be affecting public opinion. FilterLabs AI, which uses messages on the Telegram app, posts on social media and discussions on internet forums to track Russian public sentiment on a range of topics, has found that views on war casualties have become increasingly negative since late February.
Why It Matters: Putin needs public support
At the beginning of the war, some U.S. officials predicted that public support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would erode as the war went on and economic sanctions bit more deeply, potentially pressuring him to end the conflict. But that has not happened. Support for the war remains strong in Russia. It began to dip slightly in early March, only to rebound around the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations, according to the FilterLabs analysis.
Still, U.S. officials say that while Russian public opinion has been difficult to accurately track, they too believe cracks in support have begun to show in recent months.
Background: How to measure public opinion
Polls in Russia, or any other authoritarian country, are an imprecise measure of opinion because respondents will often tell pollsters what they think the government wants to hear. Pollsters often ask questions indirectly to try to elicit more honest responses, but they remain difficult to accurately gauge.
FilterLabs tries to address this shortcoming by constantly gathering data from small local internet forums, social media companies and messaging apps to determine public sentiment. It also looks for platforms where Russians may feel freer to voice honest opinions, said Jonathan Teubner, the chief executive of FilterLabs.
FilterLabs has worked with Ukrainian groups to try to measure their ability to influence Russian opinion. The company’s work is most useful in measuring the direction of sentiment, rather than a snapshot. As with any attempt to measure public opinion, sentiment analysis is imperfect, includes various sources of potential bias and represents just one organization’s analysis.
FilterLabs uses native Russian speakers to help detect normal features of colloquial speech, improving the algorithm’s ability to spot nuances of language, such as sarcasm and irony. The company also tries to identify known sources of propaganda on such forums and track them separately.
What’s Next: A Kremlin propaganda push
Concern over high casualties earlier in the war eroded support for Mr. Putin, prompting propaganda pushes by the Kremlin. But that loss of support was only for a short time, and the public rallied once more behind the government, according to FilterLabs.
The situation looks a little different now.
Kremlin-aligned news outlets appear to be trying to counteract the growing concern, publishing articles that are more sanguine about the number of Russian casualties, FilterLabs found. But the state-controlled news media seems to be having a limited effect on opinion so far this year, Mr. Teubner said.
U.S. officials warn that while Russians appear to be aware of the high number of casualties, so far that knowledge has not led to less support for the war or Mr. Putin. But, one official said, the recent casualties could be different.
As the war has gone on, battlefield setbacks have become less shocking to Russians. So a single event has a hard time changing overall support for the war, Mr. Teubner said.
But over time, if concern over casualties continues, support for the war is likely to fall. “Despite efforts to reverse Russian attitudes by Kremlin-aligned informational sources,” Mr. Teubner said, “the reality of casualties is still one of the Kremlin’s greatest vulnerabilities.”
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