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What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?

Pro-Russian separatists stand guard at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash, near the village of Hrabove in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

The following is a guest post from Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa. A more detailed version of this analysis will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington.


A Malaysia Airlines plane with nearly 300 people aboard that was likely shot down by separatists with a “Buk” antiaircraft system in Donbas brought worldwide attention to the violent conflict in this region of Ukraine and signified the escalation. The second-largest country in Europe is now formally in a state of civil war, since the battle-related casualties exceed 1,000, a mark that political scientists and conflict studies scholars often use to formally classify an armed conflict as a civil war. About 1,500 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine turned deadly in January. The number of people killed in Donbas has reached more than 1,300. In addition to 298 passengers of the Malaysian Boeing 777 from 11 countries, mostly the Netherlands, the casualties in the conflict include more than 500 local residents, at least 300 members of the Ukrainian forces and no less than a few hundred armed separatists. These estimates are based on Ukrainian officials’ reports concerning casualties among the security forces and civilians, projected casualties of separatists, and analyses of news reports and videos of consequences of various attacks.

A survey, which was conducted for my research project by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in Ukraine, except Crimea, from April 29 to May 11, shows that the representation of separatism in Donbas by the Ukrainian and the Western governments and the media as small groups of Russian military intelligence agents and local “terrorists” or “rebels” who lack popular backing in this region and, therefore, can be easily defeated by force is unfounded. Most residents of Donbas supported different forms of separatism (54 percent).  This survey also confirms that the lack of central government legitimacy in Donbas was a key reason for a single-digit voter turnout in the presidential election on May 25. About 70 percent of the respondents either did not plan to vote or did not know which candidate to support. Just 5 percent of residents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions intended to vote for Petro Poroshenko, who won the election with 55 percent of the national vote.

The survey results also show that views expressed by the Russian government and media concerning widespread popular support for separatism in all of eastern and southern Ukraine are unfounded. Crimea and Donbas do not represent the entire southeast, because they have much larger ethnic Russian populations and a history of separatism. Minorities of residents of three eastern regions neighboring Donbas (15 percent) and in the south (10 percent) support separatism. Ethnic Russians, who are concentrated mostly in the east and the south, are split on the issue of separatism. Some 44 percent of ethnic Russians support different separatist options, including joining Russia (18 percent), while 40 percent favor preservation of the current unitary system, mostly with expanded powers. Among Russian speakers, who include many ethnic Ukrainians, 24 percent favor secession from Ukraine or regional autonomy in federal Ukraine.

This survey shows that separatist attitudes do not necessarily mean preference for outright secession from Ukraine and the formation of an independent state or joining another state, which basically means Russia. In Donbas, 23 percent of the respondents preferred autonomy for their region within federal Ukraine, compared to 8 percent supporting independence, and 23 percent favoring joining Russia. Many separatists and the Russian government at the time of the survey supported federalism and regional autonomy in Ukraine, while the government of Ukraine rejected federalism by associating it with separatism and making outright separatism a criminal offense.

In trying to solve the conflict in Donbas, the Ukrainian government continues to rely on its military force and special police battalions formed with the involvement of far-right parties and organizations, such as the Right Sector and the Social National Assembly. Separatists also refused to participate in  video negotiations announced by Germany on July 15. Their armed formations, primarily based in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and in neighboring locations, include several thousand fighters. The majority of the separatist leaders and armed men are from Donbas and, to a lesser extent, other regions of Ukraine, including Crimea. A significant portion of the separatist leadership and members of armed formations are Russian nationalists and other volunteers from Russia. The Russian government has provided support for separatists by allowing volunteers and weapons to cross the border from Russia. Moreover, the Russian government is likely to be involved in the recruitment and training of these volunteers, in additional to supplying their weapons. The possibility of Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine declined significantly after March, but such a possibility still remains.

The tumult in Ukraine is not only a civil war but also a major international conflict between Western countries, particularly the United States, and Russia. The Western governments supported the “anti-terrorist operation” in Donbas and showed little interest in international investigations of previous mass killings in Donbas, Odessa and on the Maidan in Kiev. In contrast, the Russian government backed pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine by annexing Crimea, supporting separatists in Donbas and denying or turning a blind eye to their likely involvement in the killing of the passengers on Flight 17.

Some political scientists specializing in Ukraine warned before or at the start of the conflict about possibilities of civil war and the breakup of the country, but such expert conclusions went unheeded. Now, civil war and a de facto breakup of Ukraine have taken place. Attempts to solve the conflict in Donbas by force will lead to mounting casualties among civilians, Ukrainian forces and armed separatists. Even a military defeat of separatists is unlikely to end the conflict because it reflects significant regional divisions since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, including a history of separatism in Crimea and Donbas. And Russia, with significant military, political, and economic leverage over Ukraine, is there to stay.

An internationally mediated negotiated settlement — which would include international investigations of the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane and other mass killings — could preserve Donbas as a part of Ukraine. An example of one such peaceful resolution of an armed conflict between separatists and the central government is in Macedonia, in the former Yugoslavia. A negotiated settlement can also stop an escalation of the civil war in Ukraine and the growing conflict between the West and Russia. But such a peaceful resolution in Ukraine is not very likely to happen.


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

Oxana Shevel: Will the Malaysia Airlines tragedy change the trajectory of events in Ukraine?

Austin Long: Was the downing of the Malaysian Air flight accidental?

Henry Farrell: Europe may get a lot tougher on Russia sanctions

Sergiy Kudelia: Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election result is unlikely to be repeated