22.12.22 Review

In The Embrace Of Hate: the Kremlin's policy has radically altered the geopolitical orientation of Ukrainian society

Vladimir Putin has sought to explain the invasion of Ukraine by suggesting that anti-Russian forces have dug in there and seek to turn the country into a bridgehead for NATO. In reality, it is quite the opposite, as a retrospective analysis of public opinion dynamics shows: ten years ago, Ukrainian society was divided on the issue of European integration and was mostly against the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, while pro-Russian sentiments remained very strong. However, the desire to ‘drag’ Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence by force has pushed Ukrainian public opinion in the opposite direction. The Kremlin’s bet on the radicalisation of and division within Ukraine did not work, and as a result, has removed any idea of Ukrainian support for Russia, instead forcing Ukraine to become a part of the Western military-political alliance.

In the early 2010s, less than half of Ukrainians — 46% — were in favour of the country's accession to the EU (according to the polls conducted in 2012 by the Ilko Kucheriv ‘Democratic Initiatives’ Foundation). The majority of those who supported European integration were from Western Ukraine, while in the South-East of the country the idea of accession to Europe was popular only among young people (51%). On the other hand, more than 30% of Ukrainians were in favour of joining the Eurasian Economic Community's Customs Union, which was established in 2010 by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The two vectors of integration were in competition within Ukrainian politics and public opinion, according to the authors of the review by the Italian Institute for International Relations (IAI), which has constructed a holistic view of the dynamics of Putin's ‘fight for Ukraine’ in the context of Ukrainian public opinion (Re: Russia has recently written about the dynamics of Ukrainian public opinion regarding the popularity of pro-Ukrainian nationalist ideas).

The idea of joining NATO was extremely unpopular and did not receive mass support, even in Western Ukraine. In April 2012, only 12% of Ukrainians were in favour of membership of the alliance, with 38% in the West, 14% in Central Ukraine, 6% in the South, and only 1% in the East. At the same time, more than a quarter of the population supported membership of a military alliance with Russia and other CIS countries.

Ukrainian public opinion concerning NATO membership and other models of national security, 2012-2022, % of the number of respondents

However, after Euromaidan, Russia's first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian public opinion began to change radically. According to polls, as early as December 2014,  the proportion of those who supported joining the EU rose to 57% and the share of those who were in favour of accession to NATO increased to 44%. By contrast, the popularity of economic and military integration with Russia plummeted among the Ukrainian population. Yet, even at that point, the support for European integration was not unquestionably dominant among Ukrainians, and approval for NATO accession was not held by a majority. According to surveys conducted at that time, in 2016 10% of Ukrainians believed that there would be a normalisation of bilateral relations with Russia in the near future; 49% believed that it would still be possible but only in the distant future. The number of proponents for joining the Eurasian Customs Union (which replaced the Eurasian Economic Community Union in 2015) remained stable at around 13% until 2021.

Ukrainian public opinion concerning accession to the EU and involvement in other political alliances, 2013-2022, % of the number of respondents

Moscow’s popularity has declined with each new round of confrontation, while the idea of integration with the EU and accession to NATO has gained increasing support. The complete closure of the Azov Sea to Ukrainian vessels under the guise of military exercises (November 2018); the issuance of Russian passports in Donetsk and Luhansk regions (Putin issued a decree on this issue in July 2019, shortly after Zelensky was elected); and finally Russia's first demonstration of its readiness for a full-scale invasion in spring 2021, all led to the mobilisation of anti-Russian sentiment within Ukrainian public opinion. As early as May 2021, 71% of Ukrainians believed that Ukraine and Russia were at war. 

After the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24th, Ukraine started to become a part of the Western military and political alliance, which provided it with broad but limited support in confronting the aggression. In August 2022, according to polls by the ‘Rating’" Sociological Group, which is cited in the IAI survey, the support for possible membership of the EU and NATO has reached record levels, 86% and 83% respectively (the survey was conducted only in the Kyiv-controlled territories).

However, the authors of this study believe that the issue at hand is not only the level of support but also the radical change to the dominant narratives. The myths about the great shared Soviet past, the greatness of Russian culture, the ‘brotherhood’ of the East Slavic peoples, and their joint historical path have been radically undermined. While, in 2020, only 49% of Ukrainians viewed the collapse of the USSR as a positive event, and 34% of respondents explicitly condemned the Soviet regime, in the August 2022 opinion poll, 67% positively assessed the collapse of the USSR, while 59% condemned the Soviet regime as totalitarian. Almost half of the Ukrainian population now believes that World War II began because of the secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Therefore, a ‘rewriting of history’ and a radical change of direction has indeed happened within Ukrainian society, but all this has taken place in reaction to Russian aggression and the inability of Putin's Russia to implement its ‘soft power’ policy.

In addition, by August 2022, 64% of Ukrainians surveyed chose democracy as their preferred form of government, and only 14% agreed that authoritarianism might be better in some cases. This high level of support for democracy had not been seen in Ukraine for many years. In the polling conducted in 2014, less than 50% of the population favoured a democratic form of government, but in August 2022, 47% of Ukrainians surveyed were willing to put up with a worsening economic situation for the sake of freedom and civil rights. Only 31% of respondents were willing to yield some of their freedoms in exchange for an improvement to their material well-being.