So where is Ukraine on the geopolitical map? Is it an in-between country, caught between Europe and Russia — or is it definitely in the West? We asked Ukrainians this important question in a December 2019 nationally representative survey.
Which way is Ukraine leaning?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO and Russia have sought to pull Ukraine into their orbit. More than a decade ago, NATO announced that Ukraine would one day join the alliance (an offer that remains valid). Fear of Ukraine drifting toward NATO partially explains Russia’s dramatic responses to the ouster of the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych in March 2014, as well as Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea and foment war in the Donbas.
In response to Russia’s attack on its territorial integrity, the Ukrainian government of Petro Poroshenko made membership in NATO and the European Union strategic goals, enshrining these aspirations in multiple laws and in the country’s constitution. Through the NATO-Ukraine Commission, Ukraine has aligned its security and defense sectors with NATO norms. U.S. money has modernized Ukrainian naval facilities and provided weapons and materiel, too. The Ukrainian military is a regular partner with NATO on military exercises, and Ukraine recently joined NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, enabling direct defense-related purchases from NATO suppliers.
Although support for NATO among most Ukrainian political elites appears solid, our recent survey shows that people in Ukraine (excluding Crimea and separatist-controlled parts of the Donbas) have mixed feelings about NATO and Russia. Where Ukrainians see their country depends on where Ukrainians live. Crucially, despite the Russian seizure of Crimea and years of war in the Donbas, most Ukrainians want their country to be neutral, not militarily aligned with Russia or NATO.
Good relations? Yes. Foreign bases? No.
For a survey of 2,212 respondents, conducted for us by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), we created a three-point scale to measure the intensity and reach of respondent attitudes to both Russia and NATO as potential military partners. This means that instead of the normal one or two binary questions, we asked six questions in all.
The first set of questions asked simply whether respondents agreed that their country should develop good and positive relations with Russia (or NATO). The second asked whether respondents agreed that their country should engage in military cooperation with Russia (or join NATO). The final set asked whether respondents agreed that their country should allow the stationing of Russian (or NATO) “troops and bases on your national territory?” This assessed the degree to which respondents agreed with the implications of their country belonging to a military alliance.
Here’s what we found
Our results show that Ukrainians want good relations with NATO and Russia. Joining a military alliance with either is a minority position, but only slightly so for NATO, as shown in the figure below. Similarly, most Ukrainians do not agree that their country should host foreign troops and military bases. On this last point, Ukrainians we surveyed have a stronger aversion to Russian troops and bases, an understandable position given that Russia annexed Crimea and actively shapes the military standoff in the Donbas.
The survey results clearly indicate a divided Ukraine. Only a plurality of Ukrainian adults (44 percent) support NATO membership, and only a quarter want to allow NATO troops and bases on Ukrainian territory. By comparison, 26 percent want military cooperation with Russia — but only 4 percent would allow Russian troops and bases.
Many academics and pundits have concentrated on differences in attitudes between citizens of Ukrainian and Russian nationality — our survey sample includes 9 percent who identify as Russian — but we found that Ukraine’s macro-regional differences were much more noticeable. Our results show that the regional differences in Russian and NATO military cooperation and doubts about the full implications of such cooperation are remarkably consistent in both the west and east regions.
Survey participants in the east and south regions are more skeptical about NATO membership, while the west and center (including the capital, Kyiv) are about three times (60 percent vs. 20 percent in the other regions) more positive about NATO ties. A similar regional divide is evident in responses about Russian military cooperation — and even about allowing NATO troops and bases.
Neutrality or alliance?
Results from other geopolitical questions in the survey amplify these findings. On the proposition “It is best for our country to take a neutral position, not to join any military alliance,” a slight majority (50.4 percent) of respondents agreed, 32.6 percent said no and 17 percent did not provide an answer.
We also noticed a 10-point gap on multiple questions between people of Ukrainian and Russian nationality — so 49 percent to 58 percent, respectively, on support for the proposition of neutrality. But there was a much wider regional gap on this question: From the west (30 percent) to center/Kyiv (42 percent) to east (62 percent) and south (72 percent), Ukrainians held widely divergent views on this question about neutrality.
Ukraine continues to be a backdrop for U.S. domestic political dramas, a cockpit for scandal-mongering or a divine mission for “freedom’s front line.” Lost in this fracas are the internal complexities of this large European country. Most Ukrainians refuse the either/or terms of the Russia-West antagonism. Despite losing people and territory to Russia, Ukraine’s geographic divergences endure. And most of its citizens demonstrate an aspiration to get along with both Russia and the West.
Gerard Toal, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the ENMISA Distinguished Book Award in 2019.
John O’Loughlin, college professor of distinction at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a political geographer with research interests in the human outcomes of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and in the geopolitical orientations of people in post-Soviet states.
Kristin M. Bakke is a professor of political science and international relations at University College London and associate research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her current research focuses on postwar state-building and wartime legacies, as well as geopolitical orientations in post-Soviet states.
The authors acknowledge funding for this work from a joint National Science Foundation/Research Council UK grant (NSF award #1759645; ESRC award # ES/S005919/1).