20.10.23 Analytics

Fighting Exhaustion: Cracks in Ukrainian public opinion will demand new strategies from the country’s political leadership

A 'war of attrition' implies not only the depletion of human and military resources but also of the mobilisation potential of society. For Ukraine, the victim of Russia’s full-scale invasion, this issue is more acute than it is for the aggressor — authoritarian and oil-rich Russia. The Ukrainian public still demonstrates a strong determination to fight for victory, which, for more than half of the population, means the return of all territories, including Crimea. However, the gap in resolve between the northwestern regions and the war-affected southeastern regions of the country is becoming increasingly pronounced. The Ukrainian public is stoically bearing the economic hardships of the war, with recent surveys showing no deterioration of assessments in this area in recent months. At the same time, there are signs that the 'rally around the flag' effect is weakening and that trust in the political leadership is being eroded. This is not so much a decline in the ratings of President Zelensky as it is a broader erosion of trust in political institutions against the backdrop of extremely high trust in the army. According to recent surveys, a third of respondents believe that there are conflicts and disagreements between the civilian and military leadership of Ukraine. Some researchers suggest that during direct military aggression the 'rally around the flag' effect may last for about a year and a half. Nonetheless, the 'war of attrition' will require new strategies from Ukraine's political leadership to maintain Ukrainian unity, different from those that were effective last year.

Public opinion in Ukraine continues to display remarkable cohesion, support for national authorities, and a determination to resist the aggressor. Despite the hardships and deprivations of war, almost half of Ukrainians surveyed in September-October 2023 believe that events in Ukraine are moving in the right direction. Re:Russia has previously analysed the state of public opinion in Ukraine, based on survey data conducted by Ukrainian sociological and marketing services, and noted that war fatigue is being felt but does not seem to be the prevailing mood. New polling data largely confirms these observations, but also highlights an increasing trend towards war fatigue.

War to Victory: Northwest vs southeast 

A recent Gallup poll has revealed that 60% of Ukrainians still want Ukraine to continue fighting until it achieves victory, which is twice the number of people who are willing to negotiate to end the war as soon as possible (31%). The proportion of staunch supporters of victory has decreased by 10 percentage points (it was 70% at that time) compared to September 2022, but the proportion of those who support negotiations has only increased by 5 percentage points. There is striking consensus on the definition of victory: 91% of those who support continuing the fight until victory (54% of those surveyed) understand it as the return of all territories, including Crimea.

While the Gallup survey mainly addresses 'victory' and 'negotiations to end the war' without mentioning territorial concessions, a very recent (conducted early October) telephone survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) directly asked Ukrainian residents whether they concessions should be made to achieve peace or whether under no circumstances concessions should be made. With this question formulation, the proportion of firm 'resistance' to negotiations increases to 80%. The proportion of those who 'consent' remains at only 14% (a 10% increase since May 2023).

However, as has been seen in the results of previous surveys, the situation becomes more polarised when it comes to regional differences in attitudes towards the war. Here, the division follows the 'northwest vs southeast' axis that has been typical for Ukrainian public opinion in the post-Soviet era. Nevertheless, the researchers note that this geographic divide was even more pronounced before the start of the military conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. On the other hand, the war has added new meaning to this division: the southeast of the country is now a frontline area, where the impact of the war is far more acute.

As a result, about half of the respondents in the south (45%) and east (52%) support continuing the war until victory is achieved, while about 40% in both regions support ending it through negotiations. In contrast, in northern Ukraine, including Kyiv, and in the west, 71-72% of those surveyed are in favour of negotiations. The KIIS data also show a significant increase in support for making territorial concessions to end the war among residents of both the southern regions (from 8% in May 2023 to 21% in October) and the eastern regions (from 13% to 28%). Russian-speaking citizens demonstrate a slightly more pronounced willingness to make territorial concessions (27%) than those who use Ukrainian and Russian equally (15%) or only speak Ukrainian (11%). However, a majority of all those polled, including among exclusively Russian-speaking individuals, opposes territorial concessions, with 65% holding this view.

Economic Perception Rally

As Re:Russia has previously reported, the 'rally around the flag' effect, which fosters societal unity in the face of external threats, is somewhat on the decline in Ukraine but nonetheless remains quite robust. According to some researchers, a year and a half is the expected duration of this effect under conditions of direct military aggression. According to a survey by the Razumkov Centre, at the end of September (just as in August), 49% of Ukrainians surveyed believed that Ukraine was moving in the right direction. Prior to the war, only 20% of those surveyed shared this opinion, and at the peak of military mobilisation in late 2022 and early 2023, this peaked at 60%.

In September 2023, 56% of those surveyed considered the economic situation in the country to be 'very bad' or 'quite bad'. This is pretty much the same result as recorded by a survey conducted in February-March 2023 (55%). However, when compared to the early autumn of 2022 when this figure was 64%, assessments have actually improved. Prior to the full-scale invasion, a staggering 72% of those surveyed gave negative assessments of the economic situation. Similar trends can be observed in assessments of personal economic well-being. In September-October 2022, 39% of respondents rated this as 'poor,' while in September 2023, it was 34% (before the war, in May 2021, it was 36%). However, prospective assessments have become more pessimistic. At the beginning of the year, 49% of those surveyed were confident that Ukraine would overcome its current difficulties and problems within the next few years, but now only 38% hold that belief. Before the war, only 18% of respondents answered this question positively.

Thus, on one hand, we can see people adjusting their assessments of the economic situation and their personal circumstances in the context of the war (the 'rally' effect), while on the other hand, the data does not provide any evidence that the Ukrainian public’s perceptions of the economic situation have deteriorated in recent months.

Political Cracks: Civilian vs military

At the same time, there are noticeable but not critical signs of the weakening of the 'rally' effect in the political sphere. In the absence of normal public competition in times of war and mobilisation, political preferences gradually start to be distributed not between openly competing parties but among different factions within the government. One of the current topics in Ukrainian political discourse is the juxtaposition of political (civilian) and military authorities. This hidden competition is evident in, among other things, high levels of trust in the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and the military in general. Simultaneously, the investigation of cases of corruption within paramilitary structures and the reasons for the successful advancement of Russian forces in the south of Ukraine at the beginning of the war — sometimes referred to as the 'Zaluzhny case' — are being discussed in the media.

According to the telephone survey conducted in September by KIIS, over the past year, the proportion of those who believe that there are serious conflicts between the political leadership and military command has increased from 10% to 32%. However, although a majority of those surveyed (54%) currently believe that the political leadership and military command act in a coordinated manner, this figure is down from 70% in September 2022.

The deterioration of relations between the political and military leadership is often linked to poor progress or the end of the war. In such situations, both factions seek to shift the blame onto each other. KIIS asked respondents if they believe that the political authorities would make unacceptable compromises with Russia, to which only 12% expressed concern that this might happen, while 80% firmly answered 'no'. This suggests that there is no genuine division or a desire to mutually shift responsibility within society. Instead, analysts at KIIS note that Ukrainians are concerned that Western partners may compel them to make 'unacceptable concessions'. In any case, the proportion of Ukrainians surveyed who suspect that the West is tired of supporting them has increased from 15% in December 2022 to 30% in early October.

At the same time, it is evident that the authority of military authorities is higher and less susceptible to erosion of trust than that of civilian authorities. According to Gallup, 95% of Ukrainians trust the armed forces, which is also a clear effect of the ongoing 'rally'. A similar figure has been reported by the Razumkov Centre, where 93% of those surveyed responded that they trust the armed forces, while trust in the presidency (as an institution, not Zelensky personally) stands at 72%, which is lower than the levels of trust in volunteer organisations (84%) or the National Guard (81%) and a significant decrease from the figure recorded in July (80%). Gallup found that President Zelensky's personal trust rating is 81%, while this was 75% in the results of the Razumkov Centre survey. Notably, the Razumkov Centre does not provide the trust rating of Valeriy Zaluzhny.

When asked if they could see themselves trusting the existing political forces with power after the war, 27% responded positively in September, down from 39% in July. In response to the question of where such political forces might come from, 51% of respondents pointed to the military (the same as in July). However, since July, there has been a slight increase in hopes for political forces to emerge from the 'volunteer community' (from 24% to 30%) and from the country’s community of intellectuals and specialists (from 17% to 25%), and there has been a slight decrease in hopes for these to come from 'existing political parties' (23% instead of 26%). High levels of trust in the military is a result of mobilisation, not a political effect. In reality, Ukrainians do not know if the military is up to the task of civic-political affairs, and in this sense, it mainly reflects a certain erosion of trust in 'civilian' authorities.

However, the results of the Razumkov Centre's survey demonstrate a fairly united position among Ukrainians when it comes to the possibility of holding presidential elections: 64% reject this idea, only 15% support it, and 21% are undecided. The main explanation provided by respondents was the organisational difficulties and costs of such an exercise. But it is clear that the issue has not become divisive for Ukrainian society.

A ‘war of attrition’ implies the exhaustion not only of human, military, and economic resources but also the exhaustion of mobilisation sentiments within society, in other words, the depletion of this 'rally' effect. Fatigue is a factor in Russia as well, but it is in a much more comfortable socio-economic state and has a wide range of repressive institutions that help to mitigate this factor. In Ukraine, countering 'exhaustion' against the backdrop of a lack of clear military successes becomes a complex political task that is distinct from the task of extreme mobilisation that the Ukrainian leadership successfully managed to undertake during the first year of the full-scale Russian invasion.