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Europe-Russia Blog Series: Conflict and Foreign Policy Preferences: Examining Ukrainian Public Opinion from May 2014 to December 2015

The Europe-Russia Blog Series, EU, Russia, and Ukraine: Managing and Moving Beyond the Stalemate, disseminates research, analysis and commentary on issues relevant to contemporary EU-Russia and Ukraine relations. Launched in April 2016, the series publishes contributions by members of the Dahrendorf Russia and Ukraine Working Group, as well as guest contributions from academics and practitioners. In this post, Olga Onuch considers changes in Ukraines public opinion on foreign policy during the tumultuous period between May 2014 and December 2015.

Ukraine-Russian relations have been persistently strained since the annexation of Crimea and the escalation of separatist conflict in the Donbas [1] region in early 2014. This conflict has been exacerbated by the fact that Ukraine has also withered several political storms. An Oligarchic tug of war between former Governor of Dnipropetrovs’k Ihor Kolomoyskyi and President Petro Poroshenko and failed attempts at passing gravely needed constitutional amendments (which would allow for greater decentralization) precipitated the collapse of the ruling coalition earlier this year.  In April, a major cabinet shake-up saw the Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk  replaced with Poroshenko ally Volodymyr Hroisman and reformers like Natalie Jaresko leave office. Meanwhile, tensions with Russia continue to escalate as the conflict in the Donbas does not show any signs of easing. These developments have produced serious doubts in Brussels and Washington about the future of reforms in Ukraine.

One commonly hears that Ukraine’s citizens have been increasingly deeply divided in their attitudes towards conflict and Ukraine’s future relationship with the EU and Russia. This post addresses the following questions: How does the Ukrainian population view the on-going conflict? Where do their future foreign policy preferences lie? Based on  surveys conducted by the Ukraine Crisis Election Panel Survey (UCEPS)[2] and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) Omnibus over the past two years, I argue that Ukrainians show some surprising convergence on these issues.

The UCEPS survey took place over three ‘waves,’ re-interviewing the same individuals each time,  in May 16-24, 2014, (n= 2,015), June 24-July 13, 2014 (n=1,406), and November 29-December 28 (n=1,373). It was designed to be nationally representative (with the exception of Crimea, already annexed by Russia). The survey included the whole Donbas in the first wave, but a portion of respondents dropped out especially in the Luhans’k in later waves. The margin of error is no greater than 3.3 percent.

The ‘Opinions And Views Of Ukrainian People’ survey is part of the regular Omnibus surveying Ukrainian citizens, collected by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and was conducted between December 1-14, 2015. 2022 respondents were interviewed as part of a nationally representative sample (with the exception of Crimea). KIIS notes that in Luhans’k the survey was conducted only in areas controlled by the Ukrainian government. Whilst in Donets’k, the survey was conducted in both the occupied territories as well as, those controlled by the Ukrainian government. The margin of error of the survey is no greater than 3.3 percent.

The Conflict: Origins, Resolution and National Reconciliation

Views of the conflict have remained quite consistent over time with the majority of all Ukrainians seeing the conflict as brought on by Russian aggression. In December 2014 – January 2015, when UCEPS asked respondents which of the following statements best describes what occurred in eastern Ukraine after March 2014? 64.5% agreed that the conflict is in fact a war between Ukraine and Russia. Only 21% believed that the conflict in the East has a civil war component. When we break the respondents down by the four macro-regions[3] we see that while the majority of Ukrainians residing in the south, center and west all believe that Ukraine is at war with Russia, a slim plurality of east Ukrainians (45.3%) believe the conflict is a civil war. If we break these responses down by language use [4], a plurality of Russian speakers (49.6%), and the majority of Ukrainian (87.6%) and bilingual (68.1%) speakers believed that the country was at war with Russia.

(Click graph to enlarge)

ukraine data3

UCEPS findings also show that fewer Ukrainians in all regions believed that in order to resolve the current crisis, the government should not compromise with Russia in December 2014/January 2015, as compared to when hostilities first broke out in May 2014. As the conflict was beginning, 53.6% of Ukrainians strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that a comprise was required, but by winter 2014/2015 only 44.9% held this view. Interestingly, while the numbers of those who found it hard to say if Ukraine should compromise with Russia remain more or less unchanged across southern, western, and central Ukraine (13%-27%), the numbers of east Ukrainians choosing this option rose from 3.9% in May 2014 to 24.3% in December 2014/January 2015. This means that increasingly even east Ukrainians are less certain about the usefulness of compromising with Russia.

One year later, in December 2015, in a different survey KIIS asked if for the sake of peace, it is better to forget about what happened in Donbass in 2014-2015 and together think about the future, only a slim plurality (46.8%) of respondents agreed. What is most interesting here is that western (and to a lesser extent southern) Ukrainians are more willing to forget about what happened and think about a common future than respondents from other regions. At the same time fewer east (and central) Ukrainians are willing to forget about what happened in the Donbas. For some this finding may appear to be counter intuitive. Based on predictions regarding levels of ‘nationalism’ in the west and center of the country, we could assume that residents in these regions would be less willing to move on. Highlighting that perhaps, the assumed nature of regional tendencies should be called into question and further explored.

The Future: Russia or the EU?

UCEPS also found that a clear and consistent majority of Ukrainians (81% in wave one and 84% in wave three) in all regions disagreed that the Russian military should intervene to protect the rights of people in some regions of Ukraine. This trend also continues when we cross-tabulate for language use: 95.6% of all Ukrainian, 72.9% of all Russian, and 80.4% of all bi-lingual speakers disagreed with the notion that Russian military involvement can be justified to protect the rights of Ukrainians in different regions. Here we clearly see that one’s region of residence seems to have a potentially stronger effect than language (see graph below). Similarly, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (80%) disagreed that Ukraine and Russia should unite into a single state. In the eastern region, the numbers of those who believed that Ukraine should unite with Russia dropped from 29% in May 2015 to 17.9% in December 2014/January 2015. Although we cannot discount the possibility that the ‘pro-Russia’ respondents may have dropped out of the latter waves of the survey, the results show that the experience of conflict has created greater unity among all citizens who want to maintain Ukraine’s independence and boarders intact.

(Click graph to enlarge)

ukraine data

Although Ukrainians seem united in their attitudes towards the conflict and in their desire for a country free from Russian military involvement, their views on the future relationship Ukraine should have with Russia remain complex and diverse. For instance, the December 2015 KIIS survey demonstrates that Ukrainians residing in western (54.8%) and central (56.1%) regions prefer to have closed borders, requiring visas. Meanwhile, those residing in southern (51.5%) and eastern (62.5%) regions prefer that the relations between Ukraine and Russia are like those between independent, but friendly states with open borders and without visas. Thus, in terms of Ukraine’s relations with Russia, public opinion is in fact divided. However, the conflict seems to have increased the Ukrainians willingness to join the EU. In all of Ukraine, as well as in every region, more individuals believed Ukraine should join the EU in December 2014/ January 2015 (59.3%) than in May 2014 (50.9%). Even in the eastern region, where still a plurality of individuals believe that Ukraine should not join the EU, this number has dropped significantly. Whereas 70.5% of east Ukrainians disagreed with EU accession in May 2014, only 46% disagreed by the year’s end. We should note that of east Ukrainians those who were undecided rose (12% to 25%) as did the number that refuse to answer (0.2% to 6.2%). In the south, this number changed from a plurality disagreeing with EU accession in May 2014 (40.8%) to a majority (54.7%) agreeing that Ukraine should join in winter 2014/2015. While clear differences in policy preferences on the matter still remain,  especially among east Ukrainians, the trend is one of convergence.

(Click graph to enlarge)

ukraine data2

Both the UCEPS and the most recent KIIS survey show that since the commencement of the crisis there is more convergence rather than divergence among the Ukrainians when it comes to their views on the nature of the conflict and on the future relationship Ukraine should have with Russia and the EU. But at the same time a large number of Ukrainian citizens also state that it is too difficult to say what direction the country should take. Moreover, in the Donetsk region, people seem to be less willing to voice their opinions and refuse to answer certain questions. Also contradictory to expectations, west Ukrainians seem to be more willing to ‘forgive and forget’ calling into question some assumptions we have about nationalist tendencies in the certain regions. Of course, the possibility of escalation in the conflict coupled with the potential for further political destabilization in Ukraine can reverse the trend of public opinion convergence. But for now, we can say that more Ukrainians agree on the nature of conflict and the preferred future directions of the country than at the beginning of the conflict, highlighting that there is possibility for nation wide reconciliation in the future. On the other hand this seeming convergence also signifies that Ukrainians will not be satisfied if their government is seen as compromising with Russia or slows down its reforms process. This leaves Ukraine and its conflicting politicians in a precarious state of affairs.

[1] This includes Donets’k and Luhans’k regions.

[2] The Ukraine Crisis Election Panel Survey (UCEPS) was designed by H. Hale of George Washington University, N. Kravets of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, T. Colton of Harvard University and the author. UCEPS was funded by the U.S. NSF, the Ukraine Studies Fund, and the HURI and was implemented by KIIS.

[3] Using KIIS’ macro-regions. Western region: Volyns`ka, Zakarpats`ka, Ivano-Frankivs`ka, Lvivs`ka, Rivnens`ka, Ternopils`ka, Khmel`nytska, Chernivets`ka oblast`; Central region: Kyiv city, Kyivs`ka, Vynnyts`ka, Zhytomyrs`ka, Kirovograds`ka, Poltavs`ka, Sums`ka, Cherkas`ka, Chernihivs`ka oblast`; South region: Dnipropetrovs`ka, Zaporiz`ka, Mykolaivs`ka, Odes`ka, Khersons`ka oblast`; Eastern region: Kharkivs`ka, Donets`ka, Luhans`ka oblast`.

[4] Self declared language use in private life.

OLGA ONUCH holds a lectureship in Politics (Assistant Professor)at the University of Manchester and is an Associate Member in Politics at Nuffield College (University of Oxford). Her research is focused on the comparative study of protest politics, political behaviour and institutions, in democratizing states in Latin American and Eastern Europe.

The author thanks Henry Hale for comments on the analysis.


The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.