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Resilient Ukraine

Opinion polls conducted in Ukraine in recent years, up to and including the period of the Russian invasion, show remarkable changes in responses to a number of important questions.

Something to fight for: the Kyiv Founders Monument at sunrise. Image: Gannusia / Alamy

One tribute to Ukrainian resilience in the face of Russia’s war is that it is still possible to conduct opinion polls in (most of) the country. I am involved with colleagues from Norway, the US and Ukraine in a new project generously funded by the Research Council of Norway, called National Values and Political Reforms in post-Maidan Ukraine (VALREF). Even before the Russian invasion began in February, our aim was to look at consolidation and resilience in Ukraine. In academic terms, we are charting Ukraine’s progress from the oligarchic corruption of what Douglass North called a Limited Access Order to a more EU-friendly Open Access Order, as well as issues of state performance, national and regional nation-building policies, and horizontal and vertical social cohesion. Ukraine is traditionally thought to be good at horizontal cohesion, with a strong civil society and social help networks; but relations between society and the country’s corrupt political class are notoriously weak.

Since February 2022, these issues matter more than ever. As much as military outcomes and international outcomes, they will determine what type of post-war Ukraine is possible. So, when Info-Sapiens conducted its regular national survey in late April, we added some questions of our own. First, on the war itself. In December 2021, two months before the invasion, a poll by the KIIS agency had found that 50.2% of Ukrainians declared they would resist Russian aggression, 33.3% with arms. Two months after the invasion, Info-Sapiens asked ‘Would you be prepared to take up arms to defend Ukraine?’ Over 70% answered positively, including 4.2% who said ‘I already do’, 35.8% who were ‘completely prepared’, and 34.4% who were ‘more or less prepared’. When asked if they would support ‘their nearest’ (family or friends) in bearing arms, 58.9% said they would ‘absolutely support’ them and 26.7% ‘more or less’. In answer to the question, ‘Would you help the army to defend Ukraine?’, 27% said ‘I already do’, 38.6% were ‘completely prepared’, and 28.4% were ‘more or less prepared’. When asked ‘Would you undertake military training to defend Ukraine?’, the figures were 5.1% for ‘I already do’, 36.5% for ‘completely prepared’ and 24.1% for ‘more or less prepared’.

These are high numbers when the armed forces are taking such losses. Ukraine’s tradition of peaceful revolution produced the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the early stages of Euromaidan in 2013. The latter subsequently became the Revolution of Dignity, leading to the sacrifice of over a hundred protestors in February 2014. But the ‘Maidan’ tradition of civil resistance is still manifest. When asked if they would ‘peacefully demonstrate against occupants’, Ukrainians answered 0.8% for ‘I already do’ (only a minority of Ukrainian territory is occupied or under such a threat), with 63.4% ‘completely prepared’ and 21.7% ‘more or less prepared’ – covering almost all respondents.

Ukraine and Russia are now very different societies; Ukraine does not share Vladimir Putin’s complexes about the last 30 years

When asked ‘Should Ukraine continue fighting […]?’, 73.4% backed the option ‘As long as it takes, to victory’, while 18.3% chose ‘Till we can get compromises, a peace agreement’, and 6.1% ‘It depends how many losses we suffer’. When asked if Russia had attacked because it feared a ‘strong and independent’ Ukraine, 70.6% completely agreed and 16.6% more or less. On the other hand, only 3.4% thought Ukraine could fight ‘On its own, without foreign support’, while 61.4% thought ‘Mainly on its own, but needs foreign support’ and 34% ‘Ukraine cannot fight on its own without foreign support’.

Other polls, some available online in English but not all, have confirmed that Ukraine is fighting a whole-of-society war against Russia’s ‘special military operation’. Ukrainian society is, if not martial, then in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s words, becoming more securitised – ‘a big Israel, with its own face’. A series of polls by Rating Group show that Ukraine and Russia are now very different societies. Ukraine does not share Vladimir Putin’s complexes about the last 30 years. Over the last decade, positive answers to the question ‘Do you regret the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?’ have been on a rising trend in Russia, up from 55% in 2010 to 63% in 2022. In Ukraine, the number was not too far behind in 2010, at 46%; but it is now only 11%. Moreover, under Zelensky and his predecessor, President Petro Poroshenko (2014–19), Ukraine has successfully shifted to a ‘more European’ way of commemorating the Second World War. In contrast to Putin’s pobedobesie (‘victory frenzy’, the obsession with 1945), 80% of Ukrainian respondents defined 9 May as a day for ‘remembrance of war victims’ in 2022, while only 15% saw it as ‘Victory Day’. In 2012, the figures were the other way around in Ukraine: only 18% referred to remembrance, while 74% still thought of victory. Victory in ‘World War Two’, rather than the Great Patriotic War – the Soviet framing – is also placed in a broader and more national context. All historical ‘fighters for independence’ are now placed in the same pantheon, including not only nation-building stalwarts like the Cossack hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, but also previously more controversial figures like Ivan Mazepa, who lost the Battle of Poltava in 1709 (up from 44% in 2012 to 76% in 2022); Symon Petliura, the controversial leader of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918–19, who allied with Poland and whose supporters committed pogroms (up from 26% in 2012 to 49% in 2022); and even the interwar nationalist leader Stepan Bandera (up from 22% in 2012 to 74% in 2022).

Ukrainians place themselves and the current struggle in this spectrum. Rating Group also ask a standard question on whether the country is headed in the right or the wrong direction. Ukrainians have traditionally been gloomy on this subject, particularly as the question was also a proxy for assessing Ukraine’s generally poor political leadership. In December 2021, 67% thought the country was headed in the wrong direction; the figures had barely shifted for years, apart from brief surges of optimism after the Maidan protests in 2014 and after Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019. In March 2022, the figures flipped completely; 76% now said the country was headed in the right direction. This was clearly not an economic or security assessment. The 76% can be taken as an existential statement: that Ukraine was doing the right thing by fighting.

A premature or partial peace is seen by Ukrainians as likely to make things worse, and to leave Ukraine vulnerable to a third Russian attack with rebuilt resources

A poll undertaken by the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology on 19–24 May showed no appetite for concessions. 82% agreed that ‘Under no circumstances should Ukraine relinquish any of its territories, even if this prolongs the war and threatens its independence’. Only 14.9% backed ‘reaching an immediate ceasefire by both sides with conditions and starting intensive negotiations’. In terms of territory, 8.6% wanted to ‘continue opposing Russian aggression until the territory occupied by Russia since February 24, 2022 is liberated’. 12.2% were for ‘continuing opposing Russian aggression until all Ukrainian territory except Crimea is liberated’. But the largest number by far – 61% – wanted to ‘continue opposing Russian aggression until all of Ukraine, including Crimea, is under Kyiv control’.

As of July 2022, Ukraine is suffering huge losses of men and material in Donbas. It is running out of ammunition. The polls quoted above were taken earlier; but there is every indication that the Ukrainian mood is defiant. A premature or partial peace is seen by Ukrainians as likely to make things worse, and to leave Ukraine vulnerable to a third Russian attack with rebuilt resources.

(For the survey on 27 April 2022, Info-Sapiens sampled 1,000 respondents aged 18 and older in all oblasts, except for the temporarily occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas, representative by age, sex and type of settlement. The survey method was Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews. The margin of error with a confidence level of 0.95 was 3.1%.)

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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