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Despite problems, Ukrainians favor unity

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, right, walk to a news conference at the Kremlin on May 7. Putin called on separatists in east Ukraine to postpone a referendum on independence for the mostly Russian-speaking region and said Moscow had withdrawn troops from the border with Ukraine. (Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday morning’s news cycle was dominated by a series of confusing and perhaps contradictory announcements coming out of Ukraine.

On Wednesday, news media reported that Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that he had ordered Russian troops pulled back from the Ukrainian border and — in a departure from the Crimea playbook — had called for the postponement of a referendum in southern and eastern Ukraine on autonomy that local separatists had planned to hold on Sunday.

However, on Thursday morning we learned that the separatists plan to go ahead with the referendum, despite Putin’s recommendation.  Although what this says both about Putin’s evolving goals (e.g., the Russian stock market rose significantly following Putin’s announcement) and Russia’s ability to control events on the ground in southern and eastern Ukraine are important topics in their own right, I want to use this post to share some interesting new survey data about the views of Ukrainian and Russian citizens that may help us understand both the demands and constraints their leaders face.

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project released new survey data Thursday based on surveys taken in both Russia and Ukraine during April (see p.24 of the report for complete details on the survey methods).  Here’s the most important headline result:

Source: Per Research Center
Source: Per Research Center

So despite everything that has happened in the past months, substantial majorities of Ukrainians want Ukraine’s borders to remain the same.  Crucially, this includes majorities of both eastern Ukrainians (70 percent) and Russian-speaking Ukrainians (58 percent). Indeed, only slightly more than a quarter of Russian-speaking Ukrainians — the people one would expect to be most amenable to additional secessionist demands — favor allowing regimes to secede.

But lest the authorities in Kiev see this as a blanket endorsement of the post-Yanukovych government from eastern Ukrainians, these next findings offer a cautionary warning:

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

Whereas western Ukrainians seem largely satisfied with the current government, two-thirds of eastern Ukrainians believe it is having a bad influence on current developments.  Ominously, this number jumps to 82 percent of Russian speakers.

A logical next question to ask is whether dissatisfaction with Kiev implies more satisfaction with Russia’s influence on developments in Ukraine. Interestingly, the answer to this questions appears to be no:

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

From the bottom third of this table, we can see that even in eastern Ukraine, citizens think Russia is having a bad — as opposed to good — influence on Ukraine by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Indeed, not even a majority of Russian speakers in Ukraine think Russia is having a positive influence on developments in Ukraine. Furthermore, Pew also reports that confidence in Putin among Ukrainians has dropped from 56 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in the current survey.

What about Russian citizens? Here the data presents a starkly different picture. Fully 83 percent of Russian citizens believe Putin will do the right thing regarding world affairs, and 89 percent believe the Ukrainian government should recognize the Crimean referendum results and allow Crimea to join Russia. Interestingly, though, when asked if Russia’s handling of the situation in Ukraine had improved Russia’s image in the world, a more nuanced set of findings emerges:

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

For those looking for clues to Putin’s future behavior, however, perhaps the most important result is that a majority of Russians currently either completely or mostly agree that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to Russia”:

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

So herein lies the most serious tension: Large majorities of Ukrainians believe their borders should be left as is, and a majority of Russians believe that there is territory in other countries that should be part of Russia. While in a normal state of affairs, this might not actually lead to on the ground development — I’m guessing we could find similar numbers of Chinese citizens answering this question in the affirmative — Putin is now in a situation where (a) annexation has become a legitimate policy option for the Russian state and (b) there are local actors now vehemently calling for secession from Ukraine.

Much has been written about both the extent to which Russian state propaganda has enhanced the emergence (and salience) of these views in Russia and how much of a role Russia has played in encouraging the secessionist demands in Ukraine, but for now the most important question may be the extent to which both of these factors may be constraining Russia’s current policy options.  The data above suggests that Russia may be stuck between being associated with policies (e.g., secessionist referenda) that are likely to be unpopular even with their most likely supporters within Ukraine and abandoning a foreign policy position towards Ukraine that — to date — has been remarkably popular with the domestic population.

In an earlier post, I laid out a number of possible explanations for Putin’s Ukraine policy, one of which was an attempt to play to a more conservative and nationalist base of supporters in Russia.  Interestingly, Wednesday’s New York Times’ analysis of Putin’s announced pull back of troops suggested that one possible explanation for this was that “some of the concerns of Russian businessmen may finally be getting through to the tight circle around Mr. Putin.”  The data above suggests that there are still substantial numbers of Russians that may have different preferences regarding Russian foreign policy than the business community; the coming days may reveal if there is a shift in which of these audiences appears to concern Putin the most.


Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here.  Recent posts include:

Kimberly Marten: Ukraine and the problem of local warlords

Dmitry Gorenburg: Opposition in Ukraine: A tale of two maps

Joshua Tucker: What would make Southeast Ukrainians take up arms?

Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff: The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene

M. Steven Fish: The end of the Putin mystique

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.



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