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Ukraine war: What do Russian speakers in Germany think?

April 28, 2023

More Russian speakers in Germany blame the Kremlin than Kyiv for the war in Ukraine, a DW-commissioned poll has found. Experts say the survey shows how heterogeneous Germany's Russian-speaking diaspora is.

Destroyed houses in Bakhmut
According to the survey, Vladimir Putin's image has suffered massively among Russian speakers in GermanyImage: Libkos/AP Photo/picture alliance

How Russian speakers in Germany feel about the Ukraine war

Russia is to blame for the war in Ukraine. That's the opinion of just under 40% of Russian speakers in Germany surveyed by the dimap research institute on behalf of DW; 15% believe Ukraine is to blame, while 27% think both are responsible.

For the purposes of the survey, "Russian speakers" refers to native speakers with a migration history in Russia or another former republic of the Soviet Union. In other words, they were either born there or have or had at least one parent who emigrated from there to Germany.

Opinions differ as to how many such people live in Germany in total. A 2020 study by the immigration research group Mediendienst Integration put the number at around 3.5 million, most of whom have roots in Russia, Kazakhstan or Ukraine. However, only 61% of those are native Russian speakers — the group dimap researchers focused on for the current survey.

Putin's image has suffered

Almost two-thirds of the 420 respondents, who were surveyed in April 2023, and who dimap said represent a "good cross-section" of Germany's Russian-speaking population, said they had a worse opinion of Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine began last February.

Some 22% said their image of Russia's president has changed "fairly negatively" in the past 14 months, and nearly twice as many answered "strongly negatively," putting the total percentage at 65% whose opinion of Putin has turned for the worse.

"In my private and professional environment, I have seen that people are horrified by Russian atrocities spread on social and mainstream media," said Edwin Warkentin, head of the cultural department for Russian Germans at the Museum for Russian-German Cultural History in Detmold, western Germany.

This, he argued, explains why Putin is viewed so negatively here: "People who live in Germany have access to sources of information that show the atrocities and name them as such," Warkentin told DW. "This is in complete contrast to those who live in Russia and are only supplied with information by state propaganda."

Moreover, German citizens with post-Soviet migration backgrounds make a distinction between Putin and Russia as a country, or they otherwise come from countries generally critical of Moscow.

The DW survey also reveals a great deal of concern over the war: Almost 80% describe themselves as either "very concerned" or "rather concerned." That is probably in part due to one in five respondents having family members or acquaintances serving in the war as soldiers, though the survey does not reveal on which side.

Older people are particularly worried

Those over 40 are particularly worried, while younger people are less so. "I believe that it is a general generation-specific phenomenon," explains Warkentin, who himself came to Germany in the 1990s as a late repatriate from Kazakhstan. After all, he said, when you're 40 or over, you have a family, you've built a life, and you worry more about the future than younger people.

In addition, older generations generally identify more strongly with their country of origin, partly because they spent their youth and childhood in countries of the former Soviet Union. "They have friendships that they still maintain or even still have relatives in Russia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan, and they feel more emotionally touched by this conflict than younger generations who were socialized, grew up and were perhaps even born here in Germany," said Warkentin. "To that extent, they are going through this war much more emotionally."

Almost half of the respondents, 45%, believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have a negative impact on the relationship between Germans and Russians, though that opinion is much more widespread among 18-to 39-year-olds (56%) than among those over 60 (31%).

Majority in favor of stronger cooperation with Russia

When it comes to Germany's dealings with the two warring parties, more Russian speakers in Germany favor working more closely with Russia again, rather than offering Ukraine greater support.

The DW poll found 44% wanted Germany to pick up its ties with Russia again, while just under a third favored greater support for Ukraine.

According to Warkentin, the majority opinion among the general German population would be similar. "I think an intensification or a return to normal dealings with Russia is what people would like to see in principle, but under different conditions, probably a different government, with a different system," the researcher said.

But Warkentin was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that a third of the respondents think Germany should offer stronger support for Ukraine. "I could not have imagined this result before February 24, 2022." Such a statement could illustrate solidarity with Ukraine, he said. He added that the issue of aid provided by Russian speakers for Ukrainian refugees or aid convoys to Ukraine had been missing from public debate in Germany last year.

Half of Russian speakers in Germany could imagine demonstrating for an immediate halt to the war, with some 17% prepared to take to the streets in support of Ukraine. Only around half as many (9%) said they would demonstrate to support Russia, and even fewer, 4%, said they would participate in a pro-Putin demonstration. Some 20% said they would protest against him.

A pessimistic majority

Meanwhile, most Russian speakers in Germany are pessimistic about the outcome of the war. Just under half expect that there will be no long-term peace, just under a fifth expect a diplomatic solution, while 11% expect a Russian military victory, and 9% a Ukrainian victory.

Warkentin thinks German politicians should take a closer look at surveys and statistical results like this, so that people understand that the post-Soviet community in Germany is a very heterogeneous group, the majority of whom are well-integrated in Western, German-European society.

"That would be very important," said Warkentin, "so that the impression is not created that there is a diaspora here that might hold different views on this war and may have a conflict of loyalties." 

Warkentin believes the DW-dimap survey provided the "important insight" that respondents' attitudes toward Russia's war in Ukraine, though more emotionally affected, are more in line with those of the majority society than might be suspected. "In this respect, I think that results of this kind can also relax and harmonize coexistence in a migration society."

This article was originally written in German.

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