06.09.23 Review

Ukrainian Resilience: Fatigue and frustration are on the rise, but the will to resist remains strong, polls show

Is Ukrainian public opinion ready for a war of attrition in the latter half of the second year of the war? This is one of the crucial questions that will shape coming political developments. Observers have noted that the lack of clear and visible successes in the Ukrainian counteroffensive has intensified public frustration. Opinion polls also indicate growing war fatigue, but this is by no means the dominant mood at this point. Surveys do not show any shifts when it comes to the key political issue either – the readiness of Ukrainians to make territorial concessions for the sake of ending the war. However, the powerful 'rally around the flag' effect observed during the first year of the war is significantly waning, manifested in a decline in trust in the central authorities and the core of the political elite. Under these conditions, the upcoming presidential elections, which observers believe will inevitably become a referendum on confidence in Zelensky, may have a mobilising effect on society.

Ukraine's counteroffensive has not been as successful as observers had long hoped. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not managed to reclaim any major population centres yet, but they have liberated over a dozen small villages, and progress has been made in the Zaporizhzhia region in recent days. Against this backdrop, Russian media is continuously proclaiming the failure of the Ukrainian operation, while authorities in Kyiv emphasise that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are constantly advancing despite all the challenges.

In addition to competition for available resources, the Kremlin's current strategy for the war revolves around counting on societal 'fatigue' – both in the West and within Ukraine itself. During the first year of the war, Ukrainian society exhibited an exceptionally high level of mobilisation, fueled by the failures of the Russian army and its apparent unpreparedness for real resistance from Ukraine. However, against the backdrop of growing and natural fatigue, the lack of any clear successes by the Ukrainian counteroffensive creates conditions for a psychological shift in public attitudes. The Economist recently wrote about the growing sense of stagnation in Ukrainian society and among its elites. The question of how prepared Ukrainians are for another year of resistance and hardships is one of the key factors in understanding likely political developments.

There is not a wealth of sociological data available to shed light on this issue, but the data that is publicly accessible provides a general overview of the main public opinion trends. First and foremost, surveys show that people, much like in Russia, increasingly expect a protracted war. In December 2022, the majority of Ukrainian respondents (50%) hoped for a war lasting six months to a year, but by June 2023, the most common expectation (42%) was 'more than a year,' according to data from the 'Ukrainian Society' sociological monitoring project by the Institute of Sociology of Ukraine.

War fatigue is undeniably present, but it by no means appears to be the dominant mood in Ukraine-wide surveys. For example, in a survey conducted from August 4th to 10th by the New Image Marketing Group on behalf of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, respondents were asked the question, 'Do you agree with the idea that citizens are “tired of the war” and are providing less support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF)?' 12% of those surveyed were in complete agreement with this assertion, while 38% were 'somewhat in agreement.' Disagreement was voiced by 39% (with 14% of those polled strongly disagreeing). Thus, when faced with an indirect question about societal fatigue, the ratio of those who agreed and disagreed with the notion stood at 50 to 40, which appears to be a somewhat favourable result for the 18th month of the war. It is indicative of the fact that the idea of resistance against aggression remains a mobilising force within Ukrainian society. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that 77% of those surveyed by the New Image Marketing Group supported reallocating funds from local budgets from infrastructure and civilian projects to military needs.

In the same survey, however, Ukrainians did express concerns about the deterioration of their 'psycho-emotional' (40%) and physical (33%) well-being over the past month. The assessment of 'psycho-emotional' well-being on a five-point scale in August averaged 2.88 points compared to 3.0 in May, while physical well-being averaged 3.13, down from 3.3.

Despite the setbacks during the counteroffensive, respondents stand firm on key political issues according to sociologists. Over 90% of those surveyed would not be willing to make territorial concessions for the sake of ending the war (only 5% would be willing), according to the results of the August survey conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Center's sociological service. 18% of Ukrainians would find it acceptable to renounce NATO membership for this purpose. In eastern Ukraine, however, that figure stands at 38%, while in western Ukraine, it is 8%. Additionally, in the Ukraine-wide sample, 18% of those surveyed would be willing to grant the Russian language official status for the sake of peace (in eastern Ukraine, this figure is 36%, while in the west, it's 2%).

In the same survey, 42% stated that Ukraine should continue to fight even if Russia intensifies its missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, leading to an increase in civilian casualties. 21% of respondents believe that, in such a case, the conflict should be frozen without making concessions to Russia, while 23% chose the option to 'begin negotiations to end the war.' In the south and east of the country, 39% and 32% respectively responded with the latter option. Thus, against the backdrop of fairly steadfast public opinion, the differences in attitudes between the front-line regions and more Russified areas on one hand, and western Ukraine on the other, appear quite significant.

In general, in August, nearly half of Ukrainians surveyed by Democratic Initiatives and the Razumkov Center (49%) believed that events in Ukraine were heading in the right direction, while about a third (32%) thought they were heading in the wrong direction (even in the south, the balance of assessments is leaning positive: 39% versus 35%). In December of last year, however, figures regarding this issue stood at 59% and 24% respectively. Both the December and August responses reflect the effect of national mobilisation in the face of external aggression ('rally around the flag'): the only time that positive assessments predominated over negative ones was in 2019, after the presidential and parliamentary elections. Therefore, while the 'rally' effect has somewhat diminished in the polls over the past eight months, it has not disappeared entirely.

The weakening of the 'rally' effect as the war becomes protracted was also observed in a monitoring survey conducted in June by 'Ukrainian Society.' For example, prior to the war, in October 2021, when asked if there were political leaders in Ukraine capable of effectively governing the country, only 26% of respondents answered positively. One year later, in December 2022, that figure rose to 60%, but by June 2023, it had dropped to 44%. In another question from the same survey ('How do you assess the effectiveness of the Ukrainian state at this stage?'), in October 2021, only 5% agreed that 'central government bodies are fulfilling their duties.' By May 2022, after the start of the war, the proportion of such responses had surged to 54%. In December 2022, it had dropped to 41%, and in June 2023, it fell further to 20%.

Signs of public frustration are pushing the office of the Ukrainian president towards the idea of holding presidential elections in early 2024 and, as The Economist writes, under the current circumstances, these elections would essentially serve as a referendum on public confidence in Zelensky. In the aforementioned New Image Marketing Group survey, 76% of respondents stated that presidential elections should be postponed until Ukraine wins the war (which is in line with the Ukrainian Constitution, which prohibits holding elections during martial law). However, this question was posed in early August, before the topic of elections began to be actively discussed by the president's office and political circles. In this sense, the consolidated opinion of Ukrainians when it comes to the need to postpone elections should be seen as a sign of trust in the incumbent president. President Zelensky announced his readiness to run for re-election at the end of August, and in the near future, the reaction of Ukrainian society will determine whether the presidential administration can turn the campaign for his re-election into a mobilising marathon for a weary yet still resilient society.