The perception of Russia and the understanding of Ukrainian identity among Ukrainians began to change after the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. While, according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) surveys, in 2012-2013 about 80% of Ukrainians had positive feelings towards Russia, and in 2014-2015 their share decreased by half. In 2008-2009, every fifth in Ukraine believed that the two countries should unite into one state, but since the annexation of Crimea, support for such a political prospect has fallen to 5%. Along with this, the number of Ukrainians believing that Ukraine should join the Western military and economic alliances was growing and reached its peak in the autumn of 2022: 86% of the respondents supported Ukraine's accession to the European Union, and 83% were in favor of joining NATO.
However, we are talking not only about a change in attitude toward a "dangerous" neighbor here, but also a change in the stereotypes of Ukrainian identity, says Vladimir Kulika, a senior researcher at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, in a study based on KIIS data. In his opinion, Ukrainians have indeed become less negative about nationalism, and a previously important distinction between "good" patriotism and "bad" nationalism has lost its significance. At the same time, civic and local identities are still influential in Ukraine, but the idea of nationality as a quality that cannot be lost with a change of citizenship and residence has become much more powerful.
This corresponds with a considerable change in attitudes toward the most prominent nationalist organisations of the past — the underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its partisan unit, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought against Polish, Nazi, and Soviet regimes from the 1930s to the early 1950s. Attitudes toward them remain ambiguous but gradually become more and more positive. Surveys show that the share of positive assessments of their activities has doubled (from 22% to 43% of respondents), but more importantly, the proportion of definitely negative evaluations has fallen from 42% to 8%. Therefore, the Soviet stereotype of the unambiguous association of these organisations with "accomplices of fascism" was destroyed in the first place. Stepan Bandera is now well regarded by 74% of Ukrainian respondents, while in 2021 he was perceived as a positive historical figure only by 34% of Ukrainians. This is quite natural: the idea of defending Ukrainian independence from invasion attempts becomes the foundation of Ukrainian identity.
A similar inversion can be observed in the question of the Russian language's status. The Kremlin has been exaggerating the problem of its "oppression" for propaganda purposes, using it to create traditional narratives to justify the invasion. In fact, in 2019, 56% of Ukrainian respondents believed that Russian should be taught in schools as the first foreign language or even on par with Ukrainian. Now the influence and position of the Russian language in the linguistic environment are rapidly shrinking, and the Ukrainian language is becoming a much greater attribute of the Ukrainian identity. The proportion of those who claim to use only Russian in their households has more than halved from 2012 to 2022 (from 37% to 15%), and the share of those who state to use both Ukrainian and Russian has increased from 21% to 33%, and those who say they use only Ukrainian has grown from 41% to 51%. After Russia's military aggression, the Ukrainian language began to spread even in those areas where Russian was historically prevalent. For example, Ukrainian Jewish communities, which were traditionally predominantly Russian-speaking, are massively switching to Ukrainian and have even begun to work on the first-ever Ukrainian translation of the Torah.
These tendencies of Ukrainianization, reconsideration of the Ukrainian identity, and cultural and historical concepts can be observed even in the more "Russified" eastern and southern regions. The Ukrainian language is now called native by 68% of respondents in the South and 53% — in the East. Contrary to Putin's opinion, the proportion of those who support joining Russia in these regions has always been small — from 22% in the Lugansk Region to 11% in the Kherson Region. After the war started, the residents of the South-Eastern part of Ukraine began to support the accession more actively — however, not to Russia, but to NATO: up to 69% in the East and 81% in the South. A poll conducted by the sociologists on the eve of the Russian invasion recorded much lower rates of this support: 36% in the East and 48% in the South.
"Such a shift in public sentiment leaves no room for political projects betting on a special South-Eastern identity and makes anything related to Russia toxic," says Konstantin Skorkin, a Carnegie Foundation expert and researcher of political life in the Donbas. He notes that the war has not only critically reduced support for Russia among Ukrainians but also destroyed the possibility of developing pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine, which are now either forced to join the common national policy and abandon their previous positions or completely vanish from the political landscape.
"The political project of 'Russian-speaking Ukraine' has failed. Its representatives failed to formulate an attractive alternative to the Euro-Atlantic course within the framework of the nation-state. Paradoxically, the Kremlin itself dealt the main blow to the positions of pro-Russian forces by unleashing its military machine on historically loyal regions. Under current circumstances, the Ukrainian government has done away with the remnants of pro-Russian parties while agreeing with the majority of society," Skorkin summarises.