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Support for separatism in southern and eastern Ukraine is lower than you think

A pro-Russian rebel guards a captured former Ukrainian Army checkpoint outside Vuhlehirsk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Vadim Braydov)

The following is a guest post from Oxford University political scientists Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield.


Explanations for the recent escalation of fighting in the Donetsk region have focused on the territorial objectives of the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic.  Heavy fighting in and around the strategically important areas of Debaltseve and Mariupol is understood in terms of establishing the Donetsk People’s Republic as a viable entity, which could sustain the type of frozen conflict that we have witnessed in other parts of the former Soviet Union over the last 20 years.

If the rebels are successful, the question then arises: will the rebels seek to expand territorial control into the neighboring regions in the south and east of Ukraine?  Recent bomb attacks in eastern regions such as Kharkiv have been interpreted as the start of a campaign of insurrection.  Yet, questions remain about the credibility of the “Novorossiya” project, which would result in the separation of large areas of southern and eastern Ukraine.  Even the former prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, has remarked in recent weeks that Novorossiya is not a realistic prospect at the moment.

It is also not clear whether the rebels command sufficient support in neighboring regions at both the elite and mass levels.  Attitudinal surveys that we conducted across Ukraine in December of last year provides one basis for assessing likely levels of mass support for separatism.  Supported by the Fell Fund of the University of Oxford, this survey covered almost 900 respondents in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine outside of the rebel-held areas.  We also conducted comparable surveys in all other Ukrainian regions, including the rebel-held areas, as well as in Crimea and Russia.  In this post, we only report data that pertain to southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

The results of our surveys find little support for separatism.  Figure 1 summarizes responses to a question about the ideal government arrangement for Ukraine.  As you can see, fewer than 5 percent of respondents favored moves that would lead to the breakup of the country.  Also, contrary to the preferred outcome of the Russian government, the option of a federal system with powerful regions was the second least popular.  The majority of respondents favored maintaining the unitary system, albeit with more respondents supporting greater devolution. A sizeable number of respondents (18 percent) supported a federal solution to accommodate ethnic differences, but only if it preserved a strong central government.

Similar attitudes were expressed on the specific question of the solution to the crisis in Donetsk and Luhansk.  Figure 2 shows responses to a question about the ideal status of both regions.  Once again, these data provide little support for separatism.  As few as 6 percent and 4 percent of respondents believed that the rebel territories ought to be granted independence or join the Russian Federation.  There was again significant support for greater autonomy, but the large majority of respondents were in favor of retaining the status of both regions within Ukraine.

Furthermore, when asked about the Ukrainian government and what it ought to do in response to the demands of the rebels for independence, the option of separation was the least popular.  As Figure 3 shows, most respondents preferred the options of using greater military force or conceding more power to the occupied areas in preference to the two occupied territories splitting from Ukraine.

Therefore, our analysis of these survey data provides insubstantial evidence of support for separatism.  Interestingly, these patterns are replicated in those parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that are currently not controlled by the rebels and are the target of fighting.  In both regions, respondents were more likely to choose greater autonomy over separation, and this preference was particularly strong in Luhansk.  Hence any attempt to extend the conflict beyond the occupied zones will carry significant risks for the rebels.  Despite the deep and serious problems facing the Ukrainian government, there appears to be little support for the separatist option.