A new survey of Ukrainians shows a broad majority, including in the East, reject the boldest moves against their country, belying notions that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be winning the fight through propaganda and military aid to separatists.

speaker with map

In a survey of more than 1,000 Ukrainians, including in the separatist-held areas, 85 percent prefer to see Ukraine remain one nation, according to results released yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The poll was conducted Feb. 13-24 by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, with the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

“It is clear that Vladimir Putin is the big loser.” -- Catherine Kelleher

Even in the country’s East, two-thirds favor a united status for Ukraine, with one-third preferring greater autonomy for regions in the war-torn Donbas area.  And in locations controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, half of respondents still favor maintaining Ukraine as a single country; secession is the preference for only 40 percent, a finding that is particularly striking considering many civilians who oppose the separatists likely were among the 1.5 million Ukrainians who have fled the violence.

The poll also shows that 47 percent of respondents nationwide would opt for stronger relations with the European Union, while only 13 percent favor strengthening ties with Russia. An additional 34 percent want equally strong connections with both. Survey takers also asked respondents to say whether any of those three options are acceptable, “just tolerable,” or unacceptable, in an effort to gauge whether there is some flexibility short of direct preferences. To those questions, 72 percent of Ukrainians overall find moving closer to the EU to be acceptable (54 percent) or tolerable (18 percent), compared with 20 percent who say closer connections with Russia are acceptable and 14 percent who see that prospect as tolerable.

Almost nine in 10 (87 percent) of respondents overall reject Putin’s 2014 statement that Russia has the right to intervene in another country to protect Russian citizens and Russian speakers, the foundation of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine’s east.  Even in the rebel-held areas, only 42 percent of respondents grant Russia that brief, while 41 percent reject the argument. 

What do Ukrainians want?

The conclusions are clear, said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, who now serves as acting executive vice president of USIP.

“Ukraine has decided that its future is in Europe,” Taylor told an audience at USIP in a panel discussion accompanying release of the results. “Ukraine is more united than ever in the face of Russian aggression.”

The poll results might help address a frequent conundrum of U.S. and European leaders in dealing with the crisis – the question of what long-divided Ukraine would accept and what might bring stability to the region. The crisis began when former President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a plan to sign an association agreement with the EU in late 2013. That sparked protests in Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan. Violence broke out with a police crackdown in early 2014.

As European diplomats sought to facilitate a negotiated settlement in February 2014, Yanukovych fled Ukraine to Russia. Putin swiftly took over the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine’s south, and Russian military forces began amassing near Ukraine’s eastern border.  Since then, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have repeatedly reported major flows of Russian military equipment and personnel to separatist militants  across the border who have wrested control of large swaths of territory in Ukraine’s East.

More than 6,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the fighting, and some 1.5 million have been forced from their homes, according to the United Nations.  Diplomatic efforts have led to the current ceasefire, as the U.S. and Europe have pressured Russia with several rounds of economic and financial sanctions. Still, in the days before the negotiated ceasefire took effect last month, Russian-backed separatists captured more territory by running Ukrainian government forces out of the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve

“In Ukraine, it’s really the people that are taking the brunt of this conflict,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation and the study’s primary investigator. “So it seemed to me worthwhile to hear what the Ukrainian people have to say.”

The prospect of joining NATO is deemed acceptable or tolerable to 51 percent overall in the poll, though it is found not acceptable by 68 percent in the country’s East, which includes the separatist-held areas. Nevertheless, the poll indicates support for NATO membership has increased significantly, Taylor said. He recalls it was more in the range of 25 percent when he served as ambassador in 2006-2009.

Risk of backlash

Still, the poll results show enough resistance in the country’s East to a closer alignment with the EU that pressing the point too strongly in that direction could spark greater backlash and polarization, said Kull, who is a senior research scholar in the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). Moves by Ukraine’s leadership to draw closer to the EU have “provoked a reaction in the eastern part of the country that Russia has effectively exploited,” he said.  But the resistance is strong enough that it’s likely rooted in unease that predated the conflict.

Kull said he sees neutrality as a point of consensus among Ukrainians on the questions of the country’s alignment with the EU or Russia. Almost two-thirds of respondents find it at least tolerable for Ukraine to take a neutral stance between the EU and Russia, including a large majority of 67 percent in the separatist-held areas. The poll included an oversample of 403 interviews in the Donbas region and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent for the country as a whole.

The poll’s findings were largely consistent with previous surveys, according to the full report. In May 2014, a few months after Yanukovych fled, the same Ukrainian polling firm that partnered with Kull this time found a plurality of 47 percent favoring joining the EU, and 27 percent preferring the Russian-originated Eurasian Customs Union.

Catherine Kelleher, a professor at the University of Maryland and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Clinton administration, said she was struck by the new poll’s evidence of pragmatism on the part of Ukrainians, but also by their strong belief that Ukraine should be restored to its pre-conflict borders.

“Even after all the things that have happened, there is a sense that Ukrainians belong together,” Kelleher told the USIP audience.  “It’s clear that Vladimir Putin is the big loser.”

Restoring Crimea

Responses in the survey related to Crimea are a case in point. The poll found that 82 percent of all Ukrainians want to keep Crimea, including 51 percent who say that, while they don’t accept the annexation, restoring control over the territory can’t be a top priority right now. The results demonstrate that Ukrainians are remarkably clear-eyed about the conflict, Kelleher said.

“They have a clear understanding about Ukraine and its independence,” said Kelleher, who teaches international security and American defense policy at Maryland.  “They reject at every point, however the question is asked and whatever the topic is, that Russia has … some way to make a decision for the Ukrainians.”

Putin this week acknowledged that he made the decision to take Crimea weeks before a March 16, 2014, referendum of voters on the peninsula that he previously cited as the basis of the annexation, according to the New York Times.

“Ukrainians have not forgotten Crimea, and we shouldn’t either,” Taylor said.

Respondents are more divided over how to handle the conflict and on their assessment of the new government of President Petro Poroshenko, who since has signed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and embarked on reforms required by that accord and to win emergency financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Less than half of Ukrainians approve of the government using military force to try to regain territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, including a large majority in the East. But a slight majority favors the U.S. providing weapons and military equipment to the Ukrainian government forces, an issue still being debated in the Obama administration.

The current Ukrainian government generally gets better marks on corruption than that of Yanukovych, but still scores 7.7 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning extremely corrupt. Yanukovych’s former government gets a rating of 9.5.

Foreign powers are hardly popular, and their handling of the crisis gets lukewarm reviews. President Barack Obama gets an approval rating of 31 percent in handling of the Ukraine conflict, while 32 percent disapprove. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wins 40 percent approval and 20 percent disapproval. French President Francois Holland and the EU generally score similar ratings. The parties are rated higher on the question of whether their influence is mainly positive, with 57 percent rating the EU’s influence that way and only 10 percent rating its influence as a negative.

But Russia was rated far lower. Asked to assess Putin’s handling of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, fully 79 percent disapprove overall, and 53 percent disapprove in the East. Only in the separatist-held area of the Donbass does he rate higher, with 58 percent approving. More broadly, three in five Ukrainians feel Russia’s influence in the world is mainly negative. Even in the East, only 35 percent graded Russia’s influence as positive, 38 percent as negative.

Russia is viewed as a positive factor only in the separatist-controlled areas – 67 percent. That result demonstrates the effect of Russian propaganda via Moscow’s monopoly over Russian-language television even in Ukraine.

“For Russian speakers who were already discontented, this has been a study in how television” affects attitudes, Kelleher said. “Their view of the world is a constant, 24-hour bath in Russian information policies.”

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