The character of Ukrainian-Russian relations may seem glaringly obvious, with Ukrainians holding deeply and irrevocably negative sentiments toward Russians. This sombre reality of the ongoing war is evident in a country where virtually every family in Ukraine has been affected by sacrifices made as a result of Russia’s actions. In response to Kremlin's propagandist denial of Ukrainian identity (especially in the eastern regions of Ukraine), a discourse rejecting anything 'Russian' has developed in Ukraine. This sentiment persists irrespective of political affiliations or attitudes toward the war, permeating various layers of Russian society.
However, despite the construction of an enemy image, it is difficult to overlook the existence of millions of Russians who oppose the war. Contemplating the allocation of resources for victory and post-war reconstruction in Ukraine opens up the possibility for interaction with the 'right' individuals, namely, anti-war Russians. Is such interaction possible? And, beyond the perspectives of the Ukrainian authorities, what do Ukrainians themselves think about this possibility?
According to the results of surveys conducted in November 2022 and July 2023, there is a diversity of opinions among Ukrainian respondents regarding the responsibility for the war in Ukraine. The majority of those surveyed (60%) believe that the entire Russian nation bears responsibility for the war. For these Ukrainians, the debate over whether it is the people or the government to blame is considered irrelevant and, notably, these figures have shown remarkable stability over time.
There are notable disparities between the opinions of respondents from different regions of Ukraine, particularly between those who chose to be interviewed in Ukrainian (82% in July) versus those who opted for Russian (14%). However, it is worth noting that, among Ukrainian-speaking respondents and those from the Western regions, approximately 30% are willing to acknowledge the existence of Russians who are not responsible for the war their country unleashed.
On the other hand, 50% of respondents from Eastern Ukraine and 35% of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine attribute responsibility for the war to the entire Russian nation.
The survey conducted in November 2022 revealed a significant emotional impact resulting from the treacherous invasion. Over the course of 30 years of post-Soviet research, an astonishing imbalance had been observed: Ukrainians generally held more positive views toward Russians than the reverse. However, this perception began to shift in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea and Russia's invasion of Donbas. Despite these events, Ukrainians demonstrated patience. In June 2022, respondents were asked to send virtual 'telegrams' to Russia, addressed to 'ordinary citizens, not the government or the military.' Surprisingly, only a quarter of the Ukrainian 'telegrams' expressed negativity, hatred, and rejection. The majority of the remaining messages called for reflection, acknowledging the historical closeness between Ukrainians and Russians. They also urged people to stop believing in biassed media, advocated for the overthrow of Putin, and implored for an end to the war.
Ukrainians have valid reasons for holding the population of the aggressor country accountable. At the end of 2022, 42% of Ukrainians ceased communication with their relatives in Russia, while only around 25% maintained such contacts. 60% of Ukrainians criticised Russians for their inaction and expressed confidence that mass anti-war protests could occur in Russia. 70% condemned Russians who left the country, believing they should have fought against Putin's regime. Ukrainians had hoped for support from Russians within Russia, believing it could apply pressure on the regime to put an end to the war. However, this anticipated pressure did not materialise.
Additionally, there was a lack of belief among Ukrainians in the possibility of positive changes within Russia. Responses to a question about the likelihood of a change in Russian leadership (and political course) asked in November 2022 reflected the lack of faith in internal changes in Russia. Sixty-six percent of respondents expressed doubt: 32% did not expect any change in course even after Putin's death, while 34% believed that only Ukraine's victory could lead to such changes.
In both November 2022 and July 2023, we posed two additional questions: one regarding the potential for dialogue with a hypothetical new leadership in Russia and another concerning the benefits of cooperation between Ukrainians and ordinary Russians in anti-war efforts. The responses to these questions revealed a highly significant shift between November 2022 and July 2023.
When it came to the first question, in November 2022, opponents of dialogue outnumbered proponents, but within the seven-month period, the situation reversed: the indicator the number of people considering engaging in dialogue with the new leadership in Russia increased from 39% to 52%.
The willingness to engage in hypothetical dialogue varied by region of residence: the July figures were significantly higher in the eastern regions (63%) and lower in the western regions (47%). However, the overall dynamics from November to July demonstrated an increase in the readiness for dialogue with a 'non-Putin' Russia across all regions; in fact, it was slightly higher in the west than in other regions of Ukraine. Moreover, the readiness for dialogue depended on the fundamental view of who is responsible for the war. Those who believed that only the segment of the Russian population supporting the war was to blame showed a greater willingness (66%) to consider contacts with the new leadership in Russia, in contrast to those who held all Russians responsible (where only 46% were open to dialogue).
The shift in perspective regarding the possibility of collaborating with Russians in the fight against the war was even more pronounced. The percentage of those who deemed such cooperation appropriate increased from 49% in July to 67% in October. The 'post-Soviet' generation, respondents aged under 40, showed less enthusiasm for cooperation than those over 50. Younger individuals, not burdened by the experience of coexistence with Russia, seemed to approach the idea of collaboration more cautiously. Tolerance was notably lower among women. As life and research data show, women perceive the war much more acutely and emotionally and tend to reject its 'source' more vehemently.
However, the surge in support for 'cooperation' has been evident across all groups over the past few months, and in November it appeared to be even more significant among those who held more radical views. In November, 43% of women and 56% of men agreed with the idea of cooperation. The same pattern emerges when respondents’ answers are examined based on language and region. Among Ukrainian-speakers, the willingness to collaborate in anti-war efforts with ordinary Russians rose from 46% in November to 66% in July (an increase of 20 percentage points), and among the Russian-speaking population, it grew from 67% to 75% (an increase of 8 percentage points). In Western Ukraine, this indicator rose from 38% to 61%, and in Eastern Ukraine, from 62% to 73%. While differences persist, they seem to have been somewhat smoothed out: the gap between these two groups within Ukraine has narrowed from 21-24 percentage points to 9-11.
The same disparities concerning the acceptance of 'righteous,' anti-war Russians persist when analysing respondents' political leanings. We relied on a 'map' of respondents' self-identifications, which is commonly used by our Ukrainian colleagues. Evidently, those who identify themselves as 'nationalists' are less tolerant toward contact with a hypothetical 'new leadership' in Russia and toward cooperation with anti-war Russians, while 'liberals' and 'social democrats,' display greater tolerance towards both.
Apparently, this difference in attitudes (which aligns with the previously mentioned 'West-East' and 'Ukrainian language-Russian language' axes) is likely to become one of the key factors on the political front in post-war Ukraine, largely determining competing 'political platforms.' However, in the context of engaging with ordinary Russians for anti-war activities, individuals from all ideologies and societal groups in Ukraine are now willing to cooperate. This distinction marks a noteworthy change from what we observed seven months ago.
The available data does not allow for a definitive conclusion regarding the factors responsible for the substantial shift we have observed in favour of cooperation with 'anti-war' Russia and increased tolerance towards anti-war Russians. This transformation is evident across all socio-demographic groups, and it is even more pronounced among those who were initially less inclined towards such cooperation.
Surprisingly, the extent of suffering caused by the war does not appear to significantly influence the level of tolerance towards 'anti-war' Russians. According to the research of our Ukrainian colleagues, forced displacement, hunger, occupation, and the loss of health and loved ones have eroded the remnants of positive attitudes towards Russian citizens. However, this has had little impact on the tolerance towards 'anti-war' Russians. In the November survey, the range of responses between those who endured more severe impacts of the war and those who were less affected is within 10 percentage points. As we have seen, the variations in responses related to the 'West-East' axis and language and political attitudes appears to be more profound. Evidently, these responses appeal to a pragmatic level of perception rather than being driven by moral and evaluative considerations.
The heightened tolerance towards Russians might stem from a form of emotional adaptation to the war, which has occurred following the initial shock of betrayal and treachery. Generally speaking, political, economic, and even military optimism seem to have little impact on these attitudes. The more optimistic Ukrainians are about the future, the less inclined they are to cooperate with the 'other' Russia. Conversely, war fatigue seems to lead to a greater willingness to cooperate with Russian opponents of the war, and this willingness appears to be largely pragmatic in nature.
In March 2023, Vladimir Paniotto, the President of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, highlighted the fact that 'there is a problem with regards to Russians who are opponents of Putin. We do not consider whether they are useful for our victory or not, but we pick out what we do not like in what they say and criticise them. Strategically, this trend is bad, because even after our victory, we will not have a stable peace. Peace will come when Russia is led by a non-aggressive government. It is important for us to support those who are fighting against Putin, who potentially can make their state safe.'
In one way or another, the acceptance or rejection of the 'right,' 'anti-war' Russians is bound to become a significant element on the Ukrainian political agenda. Political forces will have to identify their positions and find their niches, appealing to the emotions of voters, and this issue — whether in its negative form (emotional mobilisation) or positive form (pragmatic tolerance) — will also need to be explored. Focusing on the hunting of 'Russian witches' may impact the views of different electoral groups. However, based on the results of the ExtremeScan survey, it appears that 'pragmatic tolerance' is currently the prevailing attitude among Ukrainians.
Moreover, according to the July survey, cooperation with 'ordinary' 'anti-war' Russians appears to be a point of consensus among Ukrainians (72%), while the idea of collaboration with a hypothetical 'anti-war' Russian government is supported by a hesitant majority (52%), which has emerged in recent months. The combination of attributing responsibility for the war to the entire Russian population and the unwillingness to cooperate with 'ordinary' Russians in anti-war efforts leaves only a small group of radicals, comprising 17% of those polled. In contrast, even among those Ukrainians who believe that the entire Russian nation bears responsibility for the war, 63% still consider such cooperation appropriate (38% of the total population).
This indicates that there is potential for constructive engagement. At the present moment, the primary goal for Ukrainians is to stop the war (on Ukrainian terms). They view interaction with 'righteous' Russians as an additional resource that they consider acceptable for achieving this objective. And only afterward, will they be able to address the personal, collective, and criminal responsibility of Russian citizens. These developments are encouraging news for 'righteous' Russians.