10.07.23 Review

Cracks in Public Opinion: Sustaining a high level of cohesion within Ukrainian society is becoming increasingly challenging amidst the protracted war and occupation of parts of the country’s territory

While Ukrainians do not trust most of the messaging of Russian propaganda, Ukrainian public opinion is far from being completely consolidated. Polls show that some of the talking points and narratives used by Russian propaganda to justify the war find noticeable resonance with Ukrainian public discourse. For instance, a quarter of Ukrainians agree that the West is using Ukraine for its own purposes, while about a third believe the messaging concerning the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church and the spread of 'neo-Nazi ideology' in the country. There also continues to be intense debate over how the 2014 Euromaidan events should be interpreted, with around 40% of respondents believing that the Ukrainian government is partly responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. In the first year of the full-scale Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government managed to achieve an impressive mobilisation of Ukrainian society. However, the prolonged conflict poses new challenges, with an increasing level of public criticism amid growing war fatigue, which has rekindled some of the identity dilemmas and ethno-political differences that have characterised the entire post-Soviet period of Ukrainian political history.

Most of the key assertions from Russian pro-war propaganda do not find support among Ukrainians. However, some of propagandistic messages do resonate to some extent with the Ukrainian audience, particularly among certain demographic groups, according to a mixed (online + phone) survey conducted by the CBR agency on behalf of Vox Ukraine in late May to early June. They surveyed 1,793 Ukrainians, 327 of whom were outside Ukraine at the time of the survey. Participants were asked to assess on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they believed nine pro-Russian and seven pro-Ukrainian narratives corresponded to reality. The responses were divided into three categories: positive, neutral (intermediate), and negative.

As it turned out, a noticeable difference in attitudes towards these talking points  exists between those who have left Ukraine and those who have remained. Paradoxically, those who have left are more receptive to certain pro-Russian assertions, while those who have stayed are more resistant to them. At the same time, those who have remained in Ukraine are somewhat more critical of the pro-Ukrainian narratives promoted by the Ukrainian authorities and the media. In addition to those who have left, residents of villages, particularly in the south and east of the country, as well as Ukrainians with lower levels of education and income, appear predictably more vulnerable to Russian propaganda.

When it comes to pro-Russian messaging, the absolute majority of Ukrainians do not believe that 'Ukraine is deliberately destroying cities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions,' that 'US military laboratories in Ukraine developed biological weapons and worked on spreading infectious diseases,' or that 'Russians and Ukrainians are brotherly nations or even one nation.' Negative reactions to these assertions were characteristic of 82-93% of the respondents. However, 16% of those surveyed believe that there is some truth to the stories about the laboratories, and 18% believe that Russians and Ukrainians are brotherly nations or even one nation.

The perception of Ukraine as a hostage in the confrontation between Russia and the West has a broader resonance in Ukrainian society. 80% of those in Ukraine and 70% of those who have left Ukraine disagreed with the statement that ‘NATO provoked Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine’, while 20% and 30% respectively believe that there is at least some truth to this statement. 25% of those surveyed in Ukraine and 29% outside Ukraine agreed with the stronger assertion that ‘the West is using Ukraine for its own purposes in the war with Russia’, while only 59% of Ukrainians unequivocally disagreed with this statement. The fact that the opinions of Ukrainians who have left align with the views of residents in the south and east of Ukraine may be related to the fact that it is largely refugees from these regions who have fled to Europe. 17% of residents in the southeast of the country believe that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was provoked by NATO, and up to 36% of those surveyed in eastern Ukraine believe that the West is using the war in Ukraine for its own purposes.

The question of the persecution of the Russian language and the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine remains highly contentious in Ukrainian society. While within the country itself, only 15% of respondents (23% in the south of the country) agree with the assertion that 'Russian speakers are persecuted in Ukraine,' and 7% partially agree, over a third of Ukrainians who have emigrated to Europe hold this view. At the same time, the problems of the Russian Orthodox Church seem alien to those who have left: only 7% agree that 'the ban on the UOC-MP in certain regions is a way to persecute the Church and its believers,' and 14% partially agree with this statement. However, in Ukraine, 35% of those surveyed in some way share this view: 22% are more inclined to agree (30% in the south), and 13% partially agree.

However, the most dangerous talking point for the Ukrainian government is the idea that it is 'causing a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.' In the conditions of a protracted war and increasing hardships, this message has a significant subversive power. Within Ukraine, 31% of the respondents agree with this idea, and 13% partially agree, while among those who have left Ukraine, 50% firmly disagree with it, with the rest being more inclined to agree (41%) or neutral (9%).

When it comes to the key pro-Ukrainian talking points, regardless of their current location, Ukrainians have no doubt that 'the mass killings in Bucha are war crimes committed by the Russian army' (95-98%) and that 'weapon deliveries from the West are contributing to Ukraine's victory' (92-95%). 95% of Ukrainians surveyed in Europe and 88% of those within Ukraine agree that 'Russian referendums in the occupied territories are illegal, and their results were falsified'. There is less support for the idea that 'the ban on pro-Russian parties and media is a struggle against collaborators who threaten Ukraine's national security'. Among those who have left, 87% agree with this statement, while 82% of those who have stayed agree.

However, there are other more contentious issues: only 63% of Ukrainians who have stayed in Ukraine agree that 'Western sanctions have caused more damage to the Russian economy than to Western countries.' Paradoxically, Ukrainians in Europe, i.e. those residing in the West, have a stronger belief in this statement (73%), while Ukrainians in Ukraine appear to be influenced by Russian economic optimism.

Contrary to popular perception, Ukrainian society’s assessments of the Euromaidan are more equivocal, and as a result, Russian propaganda plays a significant role in the debates surrounding this issue. According to the survey, 55% of respondents inside the country and 57% abroad are convinced that the 'Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2013-2014 was not a coup d'état.' Respectively, 35% and 29% are more inclined to disagree with this statement, while 9% and 16% could not give a definitive answer. Within Ukraine, residents of the country’s southern regions express the most active disagreement, at 48%.

Finally, the question of Ukrainian nationalism appears also to be highly sensitive. Among Ukrainians who have fled to Europe, 55% of those polled agree that 'Nazi and/or neo-Nazi ideology is not widespread in Ukraine,' while 36% are unsure of its 'limited prevalence.' Those who remain in Ukraine are almost evenly split on this issue: 46% agree that there is a limited prevalence of 'Nazism,' and 43% disagree. Among residents of villages and small towns, the framing influence of the Russian narrative is strongest, with 50% more inclined to disagree with this message.

In the first months following the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government managed to achieve impressive mobilisation of Ukrainian society and patriotic consolidation in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression. However, the prolonged conflict presents new challenges, increases public criticism towards the government amid growing war fatigue, and has rekindled some of the identity dilemmas and ethno-political differences that have characterised the entire post-Soviet period of Ukrainian political history.

Attitudes of Ukrainians towards pro-Russian claims, % of those polled

Attitudes of Ukrainians towards pro-Ukrainian claims, % of those polled