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A majority of Ukrainians support joining NATO. Does this matter?

Support has been growing across all parts of Ukraine — not just regions close to Europe

U.S. troops deploy for Europe on Feb. 3 from Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, N.C. (Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration sent additional U.S. troops to Eastern Europe this week, amid concerns that Russia — with more than 100,000 soldiers stationed along Ukraine’s border — is preparing to extend a possible invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. move comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Moscow would be forced into conflict with NATO if the alliance extends membership to Ukraine.

Since the 2000s, Ukrainian policymakers were well aware that if Ukrainians supported NATO membership at rates similar to those of their neighbors like Poland, Ukraine might have a clearer path to membership. Our team has followed Ukrainian public opinion in a series of 11 surveys over eight years (as part of the UCEPS, IBIF and MOBILISE projects, based in part at the University of Manchester). We present data from six of these surveys below.

Our survey, conducted in February 2021 — before the Russian military buildup — reveals that a majority of Ukrainians now supports joining NATO. For the first time, a plurality in each region agree on this point. This recent rise in support is most pronounced in the eastern and southern oblasts — closest to the ongoing conflict.

What explains the growing number of Ukrainians who favor NATO membership, and what does this support mean for ongoing negotiations?

In a show of solidarity, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met Feb. 4 on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The conflict over Ukraine is a conflict over international order. That makes it nearly impossible to resolve.

Ukraine has reason to be concerned about Russia

Following Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, while Russian-backed separatist forces occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.

Eight years later, fears of a full-scale Russian invasion have prompted a coordinated effort by the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States to stave off further Russian incursions. In recent negotiations, Putin has sought assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO. And the United States and other NATO members have made it equally clear the alliance stands behind its 2008 declaration welcoming Ukraine’s aspirations.

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asserted that not only does Ukraine aspire to join NATO, but also that no discussions on the matter should take place without Ukrainian diplomats in the room or on the call.

But what do ordinary Ukrainians think?

A major obstacle to past discussions of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations was the low rate of support among ordinary Ukrainians. And even though, as analysts point out, Ukraine’s NATO membership has never truly been on the table, in our surveys we asked Ukrainians a series of foreign policy questions, including this one: “Do you agree with the following statement: Ukraine should join NATO?” Other surveys have also asked how Ukrainians would vote if a referendum on NATO membership were to take place tomorrow.

For years, surveys found a minority (20 percent to 30 percent) of Ukrainians approved of Ukraine joining NATO. In our own survey from May 2014, conducted in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests and the annexation of Crimea, just 30 percent of Ukrainians were in favor of NATO membership (see figure below). Even after the July 2014 escalation to all-out war in parts of eastern Ukraine, this number rose to just 37 percent and hovered around 40 percent until recently. Our research finds that preferences shifted dramatically after 2019.

Survey responses from 2014 to 2021: Should Ukraine join NATO?

Just how high is support for NATO membership now?

Surveys by Ukrainian pollster KIIS from December suggest that support for NATO membership might now be as high as 59 percent. Of course, it’s possible this reflects a temporary shift in attitudes following months of escalation in Russian action and rhetoric. But our surveys from February 2021 show that 56 percent of respondents agreed that Ukraine should join NATO — and these surveys were taken before Russia began massing additional troops on the border.

Support for NATO membership is now an all-Ukrainian phenomenon

Further, we found support for NATO membership has been growing across all regions of Ukraine, not just among citizens in the western regions closer to the E.U. border. Our MOBILISE data show that between 2019 and 2021, support for NATO membership increased by 20 percent in central Ukraine. In regions with close historical ties to Russia, this support doubled: Our survey results show support for NATO rising from 15 percent to 31 percent in the south, and from 19 percent to 40 percent in the east.

If Russia invades Ukraine, what happens next?

Why is support for NATO membership rising?

In 2021, we found two interesting trends when we re-interviewed Ukrainians first surveyed in 2019. First, Ukrainians who voted for Zelensky’s party in 2019 were 19 percent more likely than others to have switched their view of NATO by 2021. In fact, most of the subsequent gains in support for NATO membership are among supporters of the president’s party and residents of the eastern and southern regions.

We interpret this as a “Zelensky effect” — a phenomenon our team first uncovered when studying support for E.U. membership. Political scientists note that when a politician with roots from a specific province or ethnic background moves to support a policy, the population from those regions or groups often follow suit. Since his April 2019 election, Zelensky — a Russian speaker from southeastern Ukraine — has been highly supportive of NATO.

Our analysis of his speeches also shows that Zelensky embraces a unifying approach — that all Ukrainians, regardless of which language they speak, share a goal common to the whole of Ukraine. Zelensky also uses this unifying frame when he mentions NATO — that he’s the first Ukrainian leader who is both Russophone and from the southeast to openly champion NATO membership. Ordinary Ukrainians from the east and south may be mirroring Zelensky’s support for membership in NATO.

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Ordinary Ukrainians are key to resolving the conflict

For now, the United States and other NATO members appear firmly resolved to support Ukraine and the nation’s NATO ambitions but stop short of a membership offer, given that this would further inflame the current tensions. But surveys that reveal rising support for NATO membership suggest Russia’s increasingly aggressive policy toward Ukraine may have backfired, and that Moscow has failed to divide Ukrainians along regional or ethnic lines. On the contrary, the escalation of tensions, coupled with Zelensky’s unifying leadership, is likely to only further increase anti-Russian and pro-NATO sentiment.

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Olga Onuch (@oonuch) is a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, where she specializes in the comparative study of protest in Eastern Europe and Latin America. She is the principal investigator of www.mobiliseproject.com and the author of “Mapping Mass Mobilizations” (Palgrave MacMillan 2014).

Javier Pérez Sandoval (@javierpsandoval) is stipendiary lecturer in politics at Pembroke College, Oxford University, and a postdoctoral research associate with the MOBILISE Project. He specializes in the comparative study of subnational regimes across Latin America.

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