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The Economist Intelligence Unit reported in March that some 33% of the world's population live in countries that support Russia in their war with Ukraine, and another 30% live in countries that are neutral on the subject. A report from Cambridge university surveyed people in 137 countries and found that of the 6.3bn people who live in the 'illiberal sphere', 66% of them 'feel positively towards Russia'.

On an individual level, what motivates ordinary citizens, particularly those in the global south, to support Russia's invasion?

One reason could be that the sanctions that followed the invasion affected global food prices. But that's a slightly different thing than supporting the principle of invading Ukraine in the first place.

Another is rejection of a world view promoted by former colonial powers. But again, that doesn't in itself provide any justification for the initial invasion.

I realise there is bias in the Western media, and during the run-up to the Iraq war (big country invades small one for strategic reasons, claiming they are an intolerable threat) the view of most of us in the West was slightly different.

But are there any valid reasons to support Russia's invasion?

EDIT: I added a second source which surveyed people's opinions of Russia, not just the alignment of their governments. Note that only a subset of those polled were polled after the Ukraine invasion.

EDIT: I understand Russia's sound strategic reasons to dominate Ukraine. And I get that some people dislike the West and root for Russia (and anyone else who stands up to them). But at the moment of invasion, when one sovereign nation invades a smaller one, ostensibly unprovoked (and I don't count anti-Russian language laws, foolish though they may have been, as justifying an invasion), how can an individual who has reasonably good access to news (i.e., doesn't live in, e.g., China) think to himself "yes, Russia was right to invade, I hope they win"?

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    Its worth recognising the wording of some of these statistics "found that of the 6.3bn people who live in the 'illiberal sphere', 66% of them 'feel positively towards Russia'." - the survey wasn't carried out by 6.3bn people - its a generalisation based on those who filled in the survey - I'd add some pretty big error bars on this (both ways) to account for some selection bias and generalisation from a few thousand surveys to billions of people. I'm sure the general sentiment is correct, however, and support for Russia is common. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 9:44
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    I would question any report that calls 66% of the world's population part of the "illiberal sphere". That shows quite a bias. They might as well say, "Axis of Evil" except its been used.
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 20:17
  • Note that while the question concerns support for the war by the ordinary populace, its quotations do not. One quotation mentions the official policy of countries, while the other speaks of popular opinion of Russia generally and not any war at all.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 18:45
  • There is no "Russia's sound strategic reasons". Poutine just tried to prolong his life by repeating 2014 attack on Ukraine to stabilize his position for few years more. But... a small victorious campaign (see almost exactly same 2008 attack on Georgia) turned out to be exhausting war for 2+ years. Commented Mar 24 at 9:43
  • @TonyEnnis: Agreed, but I would actually question the partition. It's somewhat like a society with slavery, which calls the slave stockades of a town the "fettered sphere" and the slave owners' part of town the "sphere of freedom".
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 24 at 22:54

15 Answers 15

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+50

TLDR: For real and imagined reasons, the West is less popular than it thinks it is and this is war is framed, by Russia, as them standing up to the West.

Russia has presented plenty of arguments for why its special military operation was legitimate:

  • NATO expansion to a neighboring country Russia considers its own by right. Russia is trying to return to the previous peaceful situation before Ukraine started to remove itself from Russian influence. Russia deserves respect from smaller countries.

  • "Nazis". Because of course Zelensky, who is of Jewish origin, is also a Nazi.

  • "Western domination of world affairs needs to come to an end."

  • "Hey, the West did this in Libya."

  • "It’s a battle between good and evil, in which Russia is the last powerful guardian of the good, seeking to maintain God’s Holy Laws while the decadent rest are just trying to hold a gay pride parade in Kyiv."

Now, the world is a big and diverse place. People have different worldviews, access to different source of news and different emotional affinities to different countries. Some people will just give more credence to Russia's arguments than to Western ones.

Here's a February 2023 poll, conducted in a number of countries, asking people about their opinions. Mostly covers geopolitics: trust/mistrust of Western motives and influence on world affairs, as well as democratic credentials.

In many places, Russia is still remembered as being supportive against past imperialism. Africa, a big concern in the linked article's map certainly has been exposed to Western colonialism more so than Russia's. Other countries include China (a competitor to the West) and India (which has had friendly relations with Russia in the past). You can top it off with a number of countries in South America with harder left governments.

Many people just struggle to survive and couldn't care one whit about a far off war involving Europeans. Global warming is also stressing some poor countries and quite a few rich Western basically ignore it if it brings any inconveniences to themselves.

When Covid came about, Russia donated - some - Sputnik vaccines (ditto China), the West initially kept a lot to themselves. Granted the efficacy of both Russia and China's meds might have been dubious, but...

Take something as clear and scientifically objective as Covid itself. Even in Western countries with populations having full access to unrestricted information, opinions and sentiment were all over the map. Why exactly do you expect the Russia-Ukraine war to be any different?

Heck, you even have a tribe of Americans, led by Tucker Carlson et al. who think Russia's actions are understandable.

To go back on the subject of poverty. Many people in poor countries feel rich countries (the West) aren't doing all that much. In a way, the fact that Russia hardly donates anything probably means that they are not blamed for insufficient overall aid.

This is basically a "why don't people think like I do" question, scaled up to a country level. There are numerous reasons why that would be the case, the only real surprise would be if everybody agreed.

That said, since the facts in themselves - Russian aggression against a neighbor whose territorial integrity it had guaranteed - are pretty clear cut, it might be the time for Western governments to think about how their PR towards the global South needs a bit of tuning. In the event of a potential future struggle for world influence between the West and China, best to have learned how better to communicate with the rest of the world.


any valid reasons to support Russia's invasion?

No. Whatever misbehavior the West can be accused of hardly excuses Russia's aggression in Ukraine. And it most certainly does not excuse Russia from its large scale, systemic, violations of the laws of war regarding civilians and POWs. I mostly answered the title - "Why do some people support Russia's war in Ukraine?".


p.s. about the Zelensky is really a fascist argument in comments, it hardly holds much water (the Nazi version of this argument is just laughable). Before the war started, Zelensky, primarily a Russian speaker, was considered by many as weak and too accommodating to Russia. Remember, he was better, to Russia, than the primary alternative in 2019, Poroshenko. Zelensky aside, dismissing this argument is not to whitewash Bandera and his modern followers - he wasn't "just" a nationalist. But you don't invade a country just because it has fascists and some fascist politicians - we'd all be at each others' throats, all the time.

p.p.s For a light dip into the sentiments of some Indians, a sizable slice of the Russophiles the question asks about, have a look at the Hindustan's YouTube channel. It's got 5.95M subscribers. Look at the comments. It's not all astroturfers or paid trolls - why would would anyone bother investing effort into preaching to this choir???

p.p.p.s Going to look up some more information on this, but Ukraine, remember a rather poor country itself, had only limited embassy coverage in Africa and other global South countries. Russia did quite the opposite. Not engaging with countries, while it saves much-needed cash, comes at a risk. While Ukraine might have had limited cash, disengagement was a hallmark of Trump's foreign policy.

US foreign policy really at times does seem to be designed to unnecessarily provoke Russia. For example, current military exercises with Armenia. Minor, sure. Possibly principled to assist freedom and development, motherhood and baklava? Maybe. Appropriate, in realpolitik terms, at a moment when it is desirable to have the Russian bear slink back home, by having it count the cost/benefit of getting its people killed for no good reasons other than its unjustified paranoia and hubris? By no means.


I wonder if there isn't also a "dirty laundry" effect. Consider this: Abu Ghraib, Iraq War, CIA-backed death squads in Central America... These are all parts of very public discussions, carried out in English, by people living in the perpetrator country. Anyone interested in world affairs can have a look to see what crimes were carried out, as recognized by Americans themselves. That's the nature of free speech in democracies, criticizing Western war crimes. Ask Chomsky (who has parlayed his dislike of the US into a lucrative career criticizing it, in the US).

Contrast that with countries that have limited free speech and suppress criticism of war crimes by their armed forces. To an outsider, they will look better. How much public soul-searching did Russia engage in when they razed Grozny in 1994 and 1999? Sure, they talked, a lot, about Russian military losses. What about Chechnyen (Russian citizens) civilians ones? Were Russians as assiduous in questioning their armed forces behavior in Syria as Westerners were critical of civilian casualties in Mosul, kicking out ISIS? We talk about Afghan civilian losses from 2001-2021 (NATO): 50k? Let's double that to 100k. Estimates for Afghan civilian deaths 1980 - 1989 (USSR) run from 500k to 2m. Is that the occasion for a whole lot of Russian soul-searching? Is Bucha?

Not that I am aware of, and if they were, the discussion was carried out mostly Russian, a language spoken by not that many people outside Russia.

This is not to say the West can't be massively self-righteous most of the time. That is already a core part of this answer. It is just that our misdeeds are largely part of our public record while Russia's is less easily accessible. Especially now, with their new censorship laws.

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    What do you mean "led by" Carlson? People were talking about how Russia has some justification well before he started speaking on it. As far as fascism goes, most people don't even actually know how to define fascism, so when the term is used, it's almost always for emotional impact, not because the definition fits. Good answer
    – Liam Clink
    Commented Mar 2 at 20:53
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    Eww, Chomsky... Talking about atrocities, I specially love his endorsements of Mao and Pol Pot regimes. Commented Mar 24 at 9:15
  • @FreeConsulting I mentioned Chomsky to contrast his success and earnings in the US with the fates that others - cough, Navalny, cough, might encounter when they try to do the same in Russia (or China). BTW, I would love if you could post a link to his endorsing Pol Pot. I found Manufacturing Consent a good book but I very much recall that - when he asks if others might expect it to criticize the USSR's own propaganda as well, he basically says: well, they're not great, but we are not talking about them here and let's get back to the baaaad baaad USA. Commented Mar 25 at 1:12
  • That comparison... Navalny was hero while Chomsky is just typical judeocommunist who loves everything red while sitting in comfy America. Commented Mar 25 at 2:48
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    The comparison is simply based on the observation that both men criticized the power structures in their country. One gets thrown in jail on dubious charges, near-assassinated with a state-level nerve poison and ends up dying under rather suspicious circumstances, at a convenient time. The other? Feted intellectual with a comfortable life on the speaking circuit. Doesn't say say anything about whether or not they were right in criticism, merely noting how much safer it is to criticize the US internally than it is to do the same in RU and how the dirty laundry is not equally visible in both Commented Mar 25 at 3:13
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The source you refer to only considers the national positions of the countries, not citizens opinions. Most of the citizens of the global south have their own problems to deal with, and do not have the time or capacity to think about how one random country is attacking another. Their opinions are just based on propaganda being peddled by Russian trolls.

The national positions in most cases reflect the natural position of the respective country on the US-Russia spectrum. That is, most countries have not suddenly started supporting USA because Russia invaded Ukraine. China is closer to Russia than US; Europe is closer to the US than Russia (except Belarus and Turkey), etc.

There are lots of conflicts happening in the world. Countries far away from the Ukraine war care about it just as much as they care about the coup in Niger.

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    A decent answer, but while one can concede Russia (around position number 50 out of slightly 200 in terms of GDP per capita) as rich, though "middle-income" might be closer, the same is not really true of Ukraine (around position 100). It's more one rich country attacking an average country. But the distance argument is spot-on, as is the "people are not their government" argument. Most people in the world have no idea what the background of the war in Ukraine is, and are just going off of what they hear politicians say, to the extent that they care. And yes, that includes most opposition.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 4:49
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    @Obie2.0 Fair point, I didn't know that Ukraine wasn't rich.
    – whoisit
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 6:07
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    I understand all your points but you haven't answered the question. Assuming a country has a more positive view of Russia, then Russia invade a sovereign nation unprovoked (AFAIK), why would people in that country back Russia? By contrast, when US and UK invaded Iraq, they lost a lot of popularity worldwide.
    – mdarwin
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 12:10
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    @mdarwin The US, UK were hardly ever popular in the global south to lose popularity. The criticism was mostly from European people. Citizens in the global south were not concerned then, and are not concerned now about what's happening elsewhere.
    – whoisit
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 18:38
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    This seems like a very reasonable answer but it seems to be somewhat contradicted by the second source link OP posted. Also people in general can have strong opinions about issues that do not directly affect them, and that they themselves cannot affect.
    – Ivana
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 12:01
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Frame challenge. Quoting from the referenced article,

There has been a large shift in stance among countries that lean towards Russia, whose number has increased from 29 to 35

Leaning towards Russia does not mean supporting Russia's war in Ukraine. It just means that maintaining healthy economic and political relations with Russia is more important to these countries than whatever war is happening half a world away.

Unless you redefine what words mean, wishing to be on friendly terms with Russia does not mean supporting every action that Russian Federation's government takes.

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    If it did mean that, it would mean that most users of this site support the same war atrocities in other countries than Ukraine. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 8:55
  • Or it means there was a pro-Russia coup like in Mali etc. (Mali is one of the countries mentioned by EIU as flipping.) Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 19:39
  • Russia is war with Ukraine right now. Poutine and his clique are literally fighting for their lives. Commented Mar 24 at 9:23
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When you cast the conflict as "Russia Vs Ukraine", you've already made an assumption that many around the world are not making.

An alternative analysis is that this conflict is "Russia Vs The West". The West being the liberal capitalist world, centred on the USA but also including other main capitalist nations like Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, and various clubs of the same like NATO, AUKUS, the EU, and so on.

A great deal of the world doesn't see the West in rosy terms. They've either been colonised by the West, been invaded by the West, or at some point their relatives have died fighting the West or in some kind of Western attack.

In contrast, Russia (by inheritance from the Soviet era), is often seen as a benefactor that once helped tame the West.

Once starting from this different place, a much larger range of opinions are possible.

For some around the world, this is simply a faraway war. For others, it's "trouble at the mill" again - the West and Russia duking it out as usual, without particular preference for either. For others still, it's Russia finally making a stand against Western aggression.

Russia (again from Soviet inheritance) also has a very strong history as a multi-ethnic nation. Most of the world probably struggles to understand why Russian absorption is such a bad thing.

That sending of Ukrainian children away from the frontlines the West calls "genocide" (or less rhetorically, as "forced assimilation")? A lot of the world have experience of either sending their children away from the frontlines of Western chaos, or wanting to do so. Their view will be that this - taking in children from frontlines and treating them well - is a sign of civilised behaviour on Russia's part and an earnest desire for unity, not barbarism.

This is especially given that the Soviets built most of the place. The Zaporizhia nuclear plant they keep talking about keeping safe? The Soviets built that. The Kakhova dam? The Soviets built that - twice, once after destroying it against a Nazi onslaught. The Azovstal steelworks where a large Ukrainian force staged a last stand? The Soviets built that.

Insofar as Ukrainian independence gets considered at all, it is likely interpreted as a confected conflict that the West always provokes to weaken other regions of the world and weaken anyone who opposes the West.

That is, many will be inclined to view Zelensky as a Western puppet regime, not seeking "independence" at all, but seeking Western alignment, with Western capitalists already carving up its natural resources as in Iraq. Or like Karzai in Afghanistan, grifters who maintain power only with the barrel of the American gun.

Insofar as anyone can sustain the view that Zelensky isn't Western-backed and the conflict not Western-confected, the whole dispute is likely regarded as a charge of the light brigade. Ukraine have picked a conflict with a massively stronger immediate neighbour, over whom they can never prevail independently, and entirely over narcissistic minor differences.

I don't think many people do analyse it in this way local to Ukraine though. The geopolitical analysis, involving the West as one of the combatants, predominates.

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    I find this answer fascinating. First can you explain what you mean by "Ukraine have picked a conflict" ? Even if you accept that Ukraine is a puppet regime, have they actually provoked a conflict? Have they attacked Russia in any way which justifies an invasion?
    – mdarwin
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 12:07
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    @mdarwin, an anti-Russian brownshirt force had been operating in the years up to the outbreak of war, and the differences the Zelensky regime has with Russia is not limited to things like economic ideology, but concern ethnic separatism and suppression of the Russian language (with a separatist, rather than unitary, purpose), so certainly there were provocations. Finally, a refusal to give a guarantee on the NATO question appears to have been the actual trigger for military action.
    – Steve
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 13:19
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    It doesn't really matter that the arguments supporting the theory don't stand up to light scrutiny. This question is about why people hold the belief. The fact that it's indefensible doesn't change the fact that people believe it.
    – bharring
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 13:23
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    "The Soviets built that" -- That's the old "Soviet Union == Russia" fallacy. "The Soviets" included the Ukraine, so saying "the Soviets built that" and actually trying to invoke the picture that "the Russiand built that" is not in good faith.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:06
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    Also, the Soviet Union "built things" with the resources of the Soviet Union. Those resources came from somewhere. Like all the grain for Moscow that came from Ukraine during Holodormir.
    – bharring
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 12:53
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Press Freedom and the Party Line

There are a number of large population countries that have:

  1. Low Press Freedom
  2. Incentive to support Russia
  3. And/Or Antagonism towards "the West"

China - population 1.4 Billion, press freedom rank 179 out of 180 - makes money trading with Russia, and also dislikes the West. Thus the tightly controlled media companies have incentives to message the population that "Russia is good, and the West is bad for 'oppressing' Russia."

It's fairly natural that a Chinese national would support Russia, because they don't have access to reliable information that would show Russia's bad actions.

Similarly, India - population 1.4 Billion, press freedom rank 161/180 - makes money trading with Russia, especially now that Russia has reduced options for international trade.

Population Distribution

China and India account for 2.8 Billion of the 8 Billion living humans - thus 35% of living humans have access primarily to unreliable, government distorted, media; and we've only looked at 2 countries.

Bangladesh (170 million), Egypt (110 million), Turkey (85 million), and Saudi Arabia (30 million) are all reasonably high population countries with press freedom below 160/180. Those countries may or may not have significant trade ties with Russia - I'm not going to bother researching them all - but Saudi Arabia at least wants Russian support for OPEC related matters, and therefore has an incentive to have the official party line of "support Russia."

Historical Partners

Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are all low press freedom countries that have historically benefited from relationships with Russia - I'd expect them to continue supporting Russia until their regimes collapse / change.

Wrapping Up

It's pretty easy to find regimes that have a) large populations b) incentives to side with Russia and c) enough media control to convince their populations it's a good idea.

These efforts obviously won't be 100% effective, but they certainly have some impact. So it's not surprising that a non-trivial portion of the world population support Russia in spite of it's obvious territorial aggression over the last decade.

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  • Indeed. Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 2:40
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    This argument is rarely discussed, but it is spot on: It's pretty easy to find regimes that have a) large populations b) incentives to side with Russia and c) enough media control to convince their populations it's a good idea. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 1:46
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I've not seen any sources on this, but here's an explanation based on the viewpoints of several people I know.

The shift you've noticed stems from the fact that people dislike being preached to. These people you're referring to originally held relatively pro-Russia views (the reasons for this are varied and could easily be a separate question, if you want to know them). The general feeling is not that the war is justified, but rather that it is understandable, and the US is the ultimate cause of the war. Sort of like if you kick a dog several times and the dog bites you, you could argue that the dog is at fault, or you could say that you provoked it.

Western media has consistently tried to push the viewpoint that the dog is at fault. Since they never acknowledge that the dog has been kicked for decades, or that the West is the one that did the kicking, or the irony of criticizing the invasion when they also invaded Iraq looking for non-existent WMDs + caused regime change (and later turmoil) in Libya/Afghanistan etc., or that Russia should accept hostile bases on their borders even though they themselves won't, this is not very persuasive.

For the same reason people downvote push questions here on Politics SE, people also get turned off by the constant moralizing coming from Western media.

Note this doesn't mean people support the war. More likely they hate the war, because war is bad and causes suffering. It also doesn't mean people hate Ukraine and want them to lose.1 Ukraine is just the unfortunate party caught in the middle. But it does mean they're less likely to support sanctions on Russia.

1A minority of people might want Ukraine to lose the war just to give the media the middle finger. You can see an analogous feeling among Republican voters in the last two US elections, when the media seemed to be overwhelmingly pro-Democrat.

Edit:

I understand Russia's sound strategic reasons to dominate Ukraine. And I get that some people dislike the West and root for Russia (and anyone else who stands up to them). But at the moment of invasion, when one sovereign nation invades a smaller one, ostensibly unprovoked (and I don't count anti-Russian language laws, foolish though they may have been, as justifying an invasion), how can an individual who has reasonably good access to news (i.e., doesn't live in, e.g., China) think to himself "yes, Russia was right to invade, I hope they win"?

This asks about actually supporting the war, which goes beyond the relatively neutral position described in my original answer. In this case, check out this old tweet by Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin is a chess Grandmaster born in Crimea who swapped to Russia in the 2000s, so he has a front-seat view of Ukraine-Russia relations. The tweet itself references the following Telegram post, which says (machine translated):

Are there people who like war? I suppose if there are, they are a minority. And the least lovers of war are among generals and officers. Because they know very well what the price of victory is.

There is a lot of noise on social media now that the war in Ukraine must end. But that's exactly what our polite people are doing now. For those who have a bad memory, I can remind you about the coercion of Georgia to peace. Until 08.08.2008 - constant provocations and shooting on the border, loss of life. After that, there is peace, silence and tranquility. And no one in Georgia even thinks of trying to attack South Ossetia and Abkhazia, let alone Russia.

We did not start the war in Ukraine, and it began a long time ago - with the first killed not even in Donbass, but on the streets of Kiev in January 2014. But now we have an opportunity to end this protracted war.

Therefore, I am extremely surprised to see those who are now calling on Russia to stop. Those who are really for peace, let them send words of support to their friends and relatives in Ukraine. The long-term plague will soon subside. Artificial enmity will cease.

Those who take to the streets of Russia with Ukrainian flags are simply deceiving themselves. The world is closer now than ever before. In addition, the risk of provocations is high, because the real enemies of peaceful Ukraine now really need videos of "aggression". This must be understood first of all.

I am for peace and tranquility on the Ukrainian land. And since the people of Ukraine themselves have not coped, it is our sacred duty to help them. Our soldiers came in peace. Any support for the Kyiv regime is support for the war.

Interpret as you will.

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The effects of propaganda are very strong, and too many people do not have time, skills and will to do in depth analysis for themselves: remember historical events, use the logic, compare different sources and think about the credibility of them. Completely different universies can be built by opposing propaganda institutions, each internally explaining everything.

At the end one of these 'alternative worlds' does prove to be false but takes time for this to happen. This is when one of the sides finally loses a lot, either in a military or economical scope.

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    One other important factor I believe is mistrust to the western governments. So people become more likely to believe propaganda. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 11:03
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    Let's not forget that the propaganda is at best equal on both sides. Shall we forget that the very Western media outlets condemning Russia now used to describe Ukraine as having the biggest Nazi issues in all of Europe a mere decade ago? Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 9:28
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    It's hard to say equal, bit indefensible to say equivalent. The nature of information exchange is inherently different in Western nations.
    – bharring
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 12:56
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    Russian independent press like Meduza or Novaya Gazeta EU is also very good, still is. Unfortunately it is mostly banned in Russia, working in exile. The situation in the West is not so extreme yet. Fully state funded media outlets are never trustworthy, anywhere.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 7:35
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    @Stančikas weirdly in the West state funded media outlets are often more trustworthy (and more critical of state interests) than privately owned media. It's true in Australia, where I live, and probably the US as well Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 1:49
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The question asks especially about citizens of the global south, but I think for completeness it's worth including the reasons why a minority of citizens of Western countries either weakly support Russia or are neutral on Russia and negative towards Ukraine (with the same outcome in either case). There are basically two lines of argument here, firstly relating to the Donbass:

  • A belief that the Euromaidan movement should be considered a CIA-backed coup against a legitimate Government
  • Therefore, support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine where there was majority support for the pre-maidan, legitimate democratically elected Government
  • Strong hostility towards the Ukrainian nationalist militias active in the Donbass region. To be fair, there is a lot of documented evidence that a subset of these militias were neo-nazis, with reports published by the UN and also European countries. If you already hold this view, it is easy to become extremely cynical about the Western media in its sympathetic portrayal of eg the Azov battalion.
  • Therefore, sympathy for one of Putin's stated goals of the attack, to 'liberate' the Donbass.
  • Also, there is a long history of 'atrocity propaganda' in wartime to drum up civilian support, going back (for example) to exaggerated reports of war crimes by German soldiers in Belgium in WW1. Therefore, reports in the Western media of Russian war crimes are basically ignored or dismissed as standard war propaganda. Of course, the same institutions reporting on war crimes by donbass militias are 100% reliable though.

The second line of argument relates to geopolitics, which has been mentioned by previous answers:

  • NATO is bad, basically a negative force in the world. It was created to oppose the USSR (but really to spread US military control across the world), and it certainly shouldn't have expanded into the ex USSR countries
  • Ukraine being in NATO is a serious threat to Russia
  • Therefore support Russia annexing the Crimea, where its black sea fleet is stationed (besides, the Crimea used to be part of Russia and was only transferred to Ukraine while Russia and Ukraine were both part of USSR and Crimea is mostly ethnic Russian (since the Crimean Tatars were "deported" ...).
  • The US supports Ukraine: this is enough of a reason for hard anti-(western) imperialists to not support Ukraine, as discussed by other answers in relation to the third world.
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"The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a quite common logic when people reason about conflicts in which they are not directly involved. Many countries in the world engage in anti-US propaganda, and their citizens are likely to associate NATO with the US and support any country that opposes NATO.

Additionally, people from countries under US sanctions can certainly sympathize with Russians who now share their fate. Depending on the questions you ask, this sympathy can be easily transformed into "support Russia's war".

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There are several reasons why ordinary people, regardless of what their governments are doing, are more sympathetic towards the Russian side (even if their government is not).

Please note, that the question is what motivates some people to find the Russian side more sympathetic, and not whether these people are right or wrong, factually or morally.

  1. Them being stupid, falling for propaganda, being evil bigots, etc. They certainly do exist, but this has been discussed in plenty of the answers. However, there are many other causes even well-informed, intelligent and kind people can likely believe in.

  2. They refuse to see the situation as black-and-white. They don't see the real world as a conflict between heroes and villains, but between interest groups. They refuse to believe that all the help the USA and NATO sends is done selflessly and out of kindness, but instead to further their own geopolitical interests.

  3. They don't believe the cause of Ukraine is as worthy as it's presented in Western media.

3.1. They refuse to believe that if Ukraine were to fall, Russia would go on and conquer (or try to conquer) Europe, they deem this only as Western fearmongering. They believe that if the Russian-majority regions in Ukraine were to be ceded, and NATO stopped building bases so close to Russia, then Russia would stop the war and would not have the incentive to try another one. Therefore they don't see the risk of another (possibly nuclear) world war to be worth defending Ukraine.

3.2 Currently Ukraine is trying to reconquer the Crimean peninsula, which never ever had a Ukrainian population higher than 15%, and belonged to Ukraine only for 23 years total across the entire human history. Therefore there are many who don't see this as a worthy cause, or at least not a cause for which they should pay for if their governments impose sanctions on Russia, send money to Ukraine, or in general risk the conflict to escalate further. They also don't see it justified for so many people to die for this cause, from both sides. One comment I've seen in a discussion forum sums this view of theirs about Ukraine very precisely: "They're basically sending their own people to die because the government wants to pretend they still own the separatist regions. Had they accepted the 2014 borders and renounced Nato membership, this would likely be over with much much less bloodshed. And Nato also encourages the bloodshed, because the more civilians die, the more evil will Putin look. And even if somehow Ukraine won, the Russians won't get out of Crimea. And even if by some miracle Ukraine reconquered the separatist regions, there will never be peace, because people there don't want to be part of Ukraine, and there will be a prolonged civil war and insurgency."

  1. They think that if Russia wins quickly (which without Western help would have already happened a long time ago, especially it was Western help which built up the Ukrainian military since 2014) then all what happens is that the Russian-majority regions of Ukraine will be officially part of Russia, (so nothing much would change) but people will stop dying, and the world economy would no longer be disturbed. Therefore they don't see much downside in case of Russia's victory. On the other hand, if Russia lost, especially if they collapsed as a country (which some Western politicians are openly wishing for) then they could do a lot of damage to the world in a final moment of desperation.

  2. They see the West, especially the USA, as hypocrites.

5.1 The USA invaded dozens upon dozens of countries in the recent past, in some cases with much worse pretexts than the Russians used in their invasion, yet there is no talk about sanctions against the USA, or them being barred from sports events, or US citizens' private property to be confiscated.

5.2 Another case they make is a comparison with Kosovo. In both cases, an ethnic minority which forms the local majority in a region feels persecuted and wants to secede, and holds a referendum. The host country regards the referendum as illegal, because according to its laws, for a region to leave, the entire country has to participate in the referendum, not just the region which wants to leave. The country lost control over the region which is now de facto under control of the separatists, this has been ongoing for years, with frequent clashes among their "border", with increasing ethnic tensions and violence. And then foreign powers invade to help the separatists. So they ask, if NATO was in the right to invade to help the separatists, why wouldn't Russia be in the right to do the exact same thing, especially given that the separatists are mostly ethnic Russians.

5.3 They often allege that if China or Russia would install military bases and missile systems in Mexico right next to the US border, then the USA would definitely do something about it, be it a coup or a military invasion, even though Mexico is a sovereign country and has the right to ally themselves with whoever they please.

5.4 Some smaller landlocked countries who are completely dependent on Russian oil and gas, and they don't have their own natural reserves, are vilified for still trading with Russia, and are falsely presented in the media as Putin's allies, yet the USA is still free to buy energy from Russia (in form of nuclear fuel).

  1. Independence. They definitely don't want to be under Russian domination, but they also don't want to be subordinated to the interests of the USA. Therefore they see it necessary for there to be a balance between the powers. They feel the need of a strong Russia to be there to counterbalance the West, so they can be independent from both sides. They believe if one sides emerges as the sole dominant power, then it will curtail their economical or even political independence.

  2. They are either sympathetic to or at least understanding of Russia's position. Even without having to believe any factually false statements, they can see the situation as following: Before 2014, ethnic minorities enjoyed a lot of freedom in Ukraine. They see the Euromaidan as a coup (or even Western-backed or at least Western-financed coup) against the legitimately elected government. These minorities feared the new government would limit their rights (which they did, the new government started oppressing the minorities, taking away their schools, banning their languages from administration and schools, and even from state-run workplaces. Considering that over 8 million Russians live in Ukraine, mostly concentrated in the East and Southeast, they didn't like it.) Therefore people in the Russian-majority regions stayed loyal to what they deemed as the legitimate government against what they deemed as a coup, and they did not want to submit to the new government. Therefore they tried to secede and the new government (which the separatists regarded as not legitimate) attacked them to reconquer them, leading to tens of thousands of casualties. Therefore they see Ukraine (and Ukraine's Western sponsors) as the main culprits, and are citing that the conflict did not begin in 2022, but in 2014, and the 2022 war could have been prevented diplomatically, just the West did not want it to. And this "did not want it to" leads to the following:

  3. They believe that the West has in its interests to keep the war going, or to weaken Russia, and have little to no care about what actually happens to the Ukrainian people. The following suspects are often pointed out:

  • The weapons industry
  • Energy. Let's ban other countries from buying cheap Russian gas and force them to buy the more expensive gas shipped from the USA. Even without digging into the craziest conspiracy theories, they deem it unlikely to be a mere coincidence that the son of the US president was on the board of governors of the biggest Ukrainian petrochemical company.
  • Neocolonialism. Citizens of many weaker countries can observe that companies from rich countries buy up the extractions rights in their countries almost for free, taking advantage of a weak government. Russia has the most natural resources on the entire planet. If Russia is weakened or even split up, then these resources would be up for the grabs. Therefore there are realpolitical interests in weakening Russia, or deposing its government, and it gave a strong motive for the West (which does have a shortage of raw minerals) to force Russia into a position where it either interferes in Ukraine or loses even more of its former standing. (the classical "the war was provoked by the West" argument)

Please note again what the question asked: what do those people believe who support the Russian side. It was not about whether you agree with their views or not. Please keep this in mind when voting or commenting.

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    @Obie2.0 : my only point with that was that people holding these positions are not necessarily doing it out of sheer evilness. About kindness: I've heard many who were genuinely concerned about so many people dying in vain for what they think are frivolous causes (e.g. reconquering Crimea). Still, even my disclaimers at the beginning and the end didn't stop some serial downvoters. How dare I present opposing views as they are, instead of presenting them as always chaotic evil strawmen?
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 4:16
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    @Obie2.0 : "nor consider that the interested behavior of others could justify the same" - it doesn't mean they agree with Putin or think all his actions were justified. It's just that they don't view him as the only guilty party, or that they believe (whether they're mistaken or not) that Ukraine conceding the disputed territories would be a net benefit for mankind in general (or just be a lesser of two evils), in contrast with continuing the war with possible further escalation. We are free to agree or disagree with them, but that's beyond the point of this question and answer.
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 4:20
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    I wonder if "no intelligent and kind person could disagree with me" has ever been true Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 22:23
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    @Obie2.0 If someone is genuinely concerned about lives lost in the process of Ukraine trying to reconquer Crimea, I would not call that as advocating cruelty. And if someone claims that not trying to conquer Crimea would result in less lives lost than trying to conquer Crimea, I don't see where that would be "easily-debunked misinformation". You might personally believe that Ukraine has the moral right to conquer Crimea and forcibly assimilate its population, and you are free to believe that, but saying that those who disagree are doing it because they're cruel or misinformed, is another thing
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 6:22
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    @bharring : It is indeed a complex (and loaded) terminology. Usually if people support the military action, they call it "liberation", if they oppose it, they call it "conquer". I try to use the more practical approach: do the people living there want it? If yes, liberation. If no, then conquest. When the Russians' approach from the North at the beginning of the war failed, and Ukraine retook those territories, it was definitely a liberation. But in case of Crimea for example, as the local population doesn't really want the Ukrainian army to enter there, it's a bit different story.
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 24, 2023 at 11:34
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The war in the Ukraine can easily be seen as another Proxy war, like Vietnam, Korea or Afghanistan.

I chat regularly with a friend in Ukraine, who is as gung-ho as anybody in favor of her country fighting and winning the war. She was hit by Russian artillery in Kherson a few months ago working as a volunteer aid worker; two friends of hers in the group died there, and she survived barely, so her hate for Russia and patriotism for Ukraine is as strong as anyone. I mentioned the term Proxy war to her, and she was not too happy to think about the aid from NATO in those terms. We had a little argument about it.

So, I am thinking that a lot of people are not happy to support the war against Russia, when they think it is another Proxy war of the United States. I personally think this is the most golden opportunity to contain Russia that we have ever had, but I can certainly see how many people would oppose it if they just see it as that, especially in countries that already have a bias against the United States like China, North Korea, Middle Eastern countries, many ex-Soviet Bloc countries, etc.

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    Proxy war is a bit too much maybe. At least one party (Russia) is directly involved and started the war. I mean, how would you differentiate between a proxy war and genuine support of Ukraine then? But I guess you had that argument with your friend already. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 6:34
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    If you see the war as a "most golden opportunity" then your support is not fully genuine, as you believe you are getting something in exchange.
    – alamar
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 19:17
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution it probably meets the wikipedia definition of proxy war, which only requires one party (in this case Ukraine) to be a proxy: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_war Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 6:27
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    It's hard to argue that a nation being invaded is a proxy. Their options are to defend or surrender. To argue they'd rather surrender seems hard to swallow. They clearly have agency here.
    – bharring
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 13:00
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    @bharring look at the list of proxy wars on wiki. I'd be willing to bet that every combatant in each of those wars had agency. So what? A proxy war is just a type of conflict. It doesn't involve a moral judgement on the individual actors Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 3:29
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Half a century ago, repressive governments held power by preventing people from being exposed to the truth. As they've lost that ability, they've developed a new technique: convincing people that only bigots present moral absolutes. Such conditioning causes people who would view various atrocities as unimaginable to be not only blind to them when they actually occur, but also to view negatively the people who would present evidence of them. Meanwhile, people who push the narrative "we'll never really know what happened" are viewed as less bigoted, even if in reality they know precisely what happened because of their deliberate involvement in making it happen. People who keep changing their stories are perceived as having a morally sophisticated ability to "see all sides of an issue", while those who consistently articulate an unchanging truth are perceived as morally simplistic. Evildoers don't need to hide, because they've blinded a critical mass of people to their existence.

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Seems like I have to be the one to say it: The most obvious and straight-forward answer is that yes, as incredible as it may sound to some, every story has two sides to it, dehumanizing and demonizing one side does not capture the full truth of the matter, and people realize that - and this war is no exception.

Thus, some people simply sympathize more with the Russian position all things considered, as opposed to the NATO position. And yes, make no mistake, this is obviously not only a Russia-Ukraine conflict, but a Russia-NATO conflict (aka Proxy-war) in truth.

As others have also mentioned, enough countries on this planet earth don't exactly have the fondest of historic and recent memories from certain NATO members.

So the real question is, how can some people fail to recognize the simple reality described above?

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    What truth? The only truth I see here is that many people indeed fall into this "two side" simplification and the "enemy of my enemy must be my friend" fallacy.
    – Zeus
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 0:46
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    @Zeus What's your objection precisely? Also, the "enemy of my enemy must be my friend" is not a fallacy but a political reality. Recognizing this also helps one understand the partisan dynamics of this conflict. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 9:21
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    In other words, when a sheep accepts the "political reality" of helping a wolf fight a lion, it should not complain when it becomes dinner.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 23:40
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    And even less so when the sheep tells the other sheep that they have nothing to worry about while the wolf is attacking one of them, because the wolf occasionally attacks the lion.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 0:18
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    @Obie2.0 "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is not just a saying, it alludes to a reality. Whether that is a good diplomatic strategy is besides the point. This answer is about understanding why some people hold certain positions, in this case pro-Russian ones. Why are you framing it as an "ought/must" discussion when it's about the "is"? What's your answer even, that all the Russian-supporters are simply dumb/demons/delusional for rejecting the Western world order? Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 7:43
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Few possible perspective gives reason to why people support russia in this war.

Lack of information -

Need to say no more, people believe in what they believe instead of fact or let's say their perception of fact is easily manipulated by government. For the lack of better word, propaganda goes brrrrrr. Russia is winning big etc etc.

Progressive supporter at war ending condition -

These may look similar to the earlier but no. Even the information suggest that russia is not good enough to take hold ukraine in short period of time. They still consider russia victory condition of total conquest is more easily achieve then ukraine defense victory condition. Even though its morally incorrect to support russia victory. They can use such reason to bend to moral high ground and motivate ukraine surrender to progressively enter the war ending condition they dreamt about.

Ideaology similarities -

Pure supporter of darwinism, winner takes it all believer. No need to mention more. These are the people that should enter the war instead.

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Views are deeply entrenched, because of propaganda from both sides. In the West, people believe that the war was unprovoked, but realists such as professor John Mearsheimer believe that the war was provoked by NATO by expanding into Russia's sphere of influence and that this was seen as a real treat to Russia geopolitical interests and security. This is partly why many people in Russia believe that the war was justified.

https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/05/myths-and-misconceptions-debate-russia/myth-03-russia-was-promised-nato-would-not-enlarge

In 2014 a US academic, John Mearsheimer, traced Russia’s aggression in Ukraine back to the Clinton administration’s drive to enlarge NATO. Mearsheimer repeated the argument of opponents of the policy at the time: there was no need to contain ‘a declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy’.33 The inference is that NATO countries unnecessarily provoked Moscow and that it would otherwise have behaved benignly towards its neighbours.

The other reason why Russians may feel the war was justified was because there was a sizable amount of pro-Russian people on Ukraine wanted to secede from Ukraine in the Donbas region, and the Russians seized the opportunity to wage a proxy war there. As a result, a lot of people died, and Russians felt that a direct intervention was justified.

Following the revolution, counter-revolutionary and pro-Russian protests began in parts of the Donbas. A national survey held in March–April 2014 found that 58% of respondents in the Donbas wanted autonomy within Ukraine, while 31% wanted the region to separate from Ukraine.[67]

Pro-Russian protesters occupied the Donetsk Regional State Administration Building from 1 to 6 March 2014, before being removed by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).[68] Pavel Gubarev, a member of the neo-Nazi group Russian National Unity, was proclaimed "people's governor" of Donetsk Oblast.[69]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Donbas

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