Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ukrainians Are Holding Strong as Some in West Falter

Ukrainian identity has been fundamentally changed by invasion.

By , professor emeritus of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Natalia Pevnevy celebrates atop her car in Liberty Square following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky's surprise visit in Kherson, Ukraine.
Natalia Pevnevy celebrates atop her car in Liberty Square following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky's surprise visit in Kherson, Ukraine.
Natalia Pevnevy celebrates atop her car in Liberty Square following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky's surprise visit in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

With the approach of winter and the likelihood of a prolonged stalemate on the battlefield, senior U.S. officials think it prudent that Ukraine eventually consider talks with Russia. At the same time, overt pressure for negotiations is building among some political elites in the West, as well as segments of the public in the United States and Europe. Given this political environment, will Kyiv contemplate significant concessions to end the loss of life and destruction in Ukraine? The answer will ultimately depend on the long-term resolve of Ukraine and the West to resist Russian aggression. The evidence suggests that while this commitment remains strong in Ukraine, it is eroding among its Western partners.

Ukraine’s successful resistance to Russia’s invasion relies on government leadership, military skill and determination, and robust support from the West. Yet the resolve of Ukrainian society is perhaps the decisive factor. Over a week after the start of the Russian invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the central point of a lengthy article published under his name the previous summer, that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. In that article, Putin also castigates former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for creating a Ukrainian socialist republic in the new Soviet state that stimulated Ukrainian nationalism and eventual demands for independence. But Putin himself has profoundly strengthened Ukrainian nationalism. According to Ukrainian and Russian scholars, the trauma of Putin’s invasion has fundamentally strengthened a unified Ukrainian identity defined around opposition to Russia.

In July 2021, about a year before the invasion, only 55 percent of respondents in a survey said “no” to the question: “Do you agree that Russians and Ukrainians are one people?” Less than two months after the invasion, 91 percent of respondents overall disagreed with Putin’s assertion that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people.” Ninety-seven percent in the European-leaning west of Ukraine felt this way, and 70 percent in the Russophone east. Similarly, while authoritative surveys have long found that most Ukrainians want their country to remain unitedin August 2021 only 49 percent of respondents in a survey expressed a very strong attachment to being a citizen of Ukraine.   Two months after the invasion, 90 percent of respondents felt this way.

With the approach of winter and the likelihood of a prolonged stalemate on the battlefield, senior U.S. officials think it prudent that Ukraine eventually consider talks with Russia. At the same time, overt pressure for negotiations is building among some political elites in the West, as well as segments of the public in the United States and Europe. Given this political environment, will Kyiv contemplate significant concessions to end the loss of life and destruction in Ukraine? The answer will ultimately depend on the long-term resolve of Ukraine and the West to resist Russian aggression. The evidence suggests that while this commitment remains strong in Ukraine, it is eroding among its Western partners.

Ukraine’s successful resistance to Russia’s invasion relies on government leadership, military skill and determination, and robust support from the West. Yet the resolve of Ukrainian society is perhaps the decisive factor. Over a week after the start of the Russian invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the central point of a lengthy article published under his name the previous summer, that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. In that article, Putin also castigates former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for creating a Ukrainian socialist republic in the new Soviet state that stimulated Ukrainian nationalism and eventual demands for independence. But Putin himself has profoundly strengthened Ukrainian nationalism. According to Ukrainian and Russian scholars, the trauma of Putin’s invasion has fundamentally strengthened a unified Ukrainian identity defined around opposition to Russia.

In July 2021, about a year before the invasion, only 55 percent of respondents in a survey said “no” to the question: “Do you agree that Russians and Ukrainians are one people?” Less than two months after the invasion, 91 percent of respondents overall disagreed with Putin’s assertion that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people.” Ninety-seven percent in the European-leaning west of Ukraine felt this way, and 70 percent in the Russophone east. Similarly, while authoritative surveys have long found that most Ukrainians want their country to remain unitedin August 2021 only 49 percent of respondents in a survey expressed a very strong attachment to being a citizen of Ukraine.   Two months after the invasion, 90 percent of respondents felt this way.

Nationalism has often been a malign force, particularly when manipulated by political actors to mobilize society for aggressive behavior against domestic opponents or external targets, including other states. But the causal arrow may be reversed: War, or the threat of war, strengthens nationalism to unify and protect a group. For political scientist Jeffrey Herbst, external threats generate nationalism as “people realize in a profound manner that they are under threat because of who they are as a nation; they are forced to recognize that it is only as a nation that they can successfully defeat the threat.” This realization can produce dramatic cultural changes that defend against that threat and go far beyond often ephemeral nationalistic effects produced by interstate tension and conflict. Powerful symbolic linkages are created within society, and between society and the state, that temper previous divisions and bind society and the state. War can deeply fracture a divided society, as it did in France in 1940, or it can promote societal cohesion, as it has done in Ukraine.

The Russian invasion has not only decisively strengthened Ukrainian nationalism but also harmonized a Westernized identity throughout the country. Ukraine is now strongly oriented toward Europe, bridging long-standing regional divides. Fifty-two percent of Ukrainians overall—but 63 percent in Ukraine’s west and only 26 percent in the east—wanted to join the European Union immediately after the Euromaidan demonstrations in early 2014. But by September 2022, 86 percent overall expressed this opinion, including 79 percent in the east. Eighty-three percent overall also supported entry into NATO, including a remarkable 69 percent in the east. In a survey just seven years earlier, in 2015, only 15 percent in the east said they would vote to join NATO in a hypothetical referendum. According to a prominent Ukrainian sociologist, the war accomplished what  “Ukraine could not do in 30 years of its independent existence.”

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have argued that much of eastern Europe was able to navigate the socioeconomic and political turmoil of the post-communist transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s because society believed it was moving toward a market democracy embedded in Western institutions, above all the EU and NATO. Such hope was largely absent in Ukraine at that time but exists now, despite widespread loss of life and socioeconomic devastation. Importantly, polls registered this optimism in the future (which is three times higher than in the immediate prewar period), even during August 2022, a time of exhausting deadlock on the battlefield.

Attitudes toward Russia have sharpened. Representations of Russia are now almost entirely negative, wiping out the significant reserves of soft power enjoyed by Moscow before the war among segments of Ukrainian society. Today, Russia defines for most Ukrainians what Ukraine is not and what their nation stands against. A survey in April 2022 measured how many Ukrainians perceive the Russian threat as existential: Eighty-nine percent of respondents overall believed that Russian troops have committed genocide against the Ukrainian people. This perspective ranged in strength from 92 percent in the west of the country to 85 percent in the south. Even among Ukrainians who only spoke Russian, the percentage was 80 percent.

Survey data from late October suggest these sentiments bolster Ukrainian resolve to fight. Asked whether Ukraine should support negotiations with Russia and possible concessions to end Russia’s invasion or instead continue armed resistance, 86 percent of respondents overall favored armed resistance. Sixty-nine percent of respondents in Ukraine’s devastated east selected this response, as did 66 percent of Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

But while Ukrainian will to fight remains strong, recent surveys point to growing fissures in public opinion in the United States and elsewhere. There’s still a desire to support Ukraine, but also a growing awareness of the costs—and a sharper partisan division. A Morning Consult poll dated Nov. 14 found that only 42 percent of respondents felt that Washington has a responsibility to protect Ukraine from Russian invaders. Democrats were much more likely (54 percent) to acknowledge such responsibility than Republicans (33 percent). Partisan divisions are also evident on the question of economic pain associated with the war. While 46 percent of Democrats support sanctions against Russia even if they cause inflation, only 35 percent of Republicans felt the same way.

Other polls reveal the increasing disenchantment of Republicans with extending aid to Ukraine: A late October Wall Street Journal survey found that 48 percent of Republicans believe the administration is doing too much to help Ukraine, up from single digits at the start of the war. And while 81 percent of Democrats support additional financial aid for Ukraine, only 35 percent of Republicans were in agreement. Fifty-seven percent of respondents overall were in favor of sending more financial aid.

Despite elements of neo-isolationism in the Republican Party, the absence of a populist-fueled red wave in the midterm elections in November should offer some protection to proponents of aid for Ukraine in Congress, at least in the near term. Even in the run-up to the elections, some prominent Republicans sought to dispel concerns that a Republican victory at the polls would lead to the abandonment of Ukraine.

Yet the new Congress is likely to politicize aid to Ukraine. Republicans may oppose high levels of aid to undermine U.S. President Joe Biden on an issue that enhances his image as an effective leader. And if domestic economic conditions continue to decline due to inflation and other problems, it may be increasingly difficult for Congress to insulate itself from growing popular skepticism on economic and military assistance to Ukraine, particularly among Republican voters.

These obstacles to strong support for Ukraine can be reduced by greater efforts at inclusion on the part of Biden that bring like-minded Republicans from the new Congress into his administration’s deliberations with Ukrainian leaders as well as its decision-making on Ukrainian policy. A streamlined, transparent system for monitoring the disbursement of U.S. funding for Ukraine would also address numerous concerns in Washington over potential corruption and mismanagement in Ukraine.

Ironically, Ukraine’s recent success on the battlefield, including the retaking of Kherson, pose two different threats to longer-term Western support of Ukraine. According to survey data, Americans are less concerned now than in March that Russia could defeat Ukraine and have the conflict expand to other countries, perhaps involving the U.S. directly. This shift has enabled concerns over domestic economic problems to spike. Such attitudes, which still run largely along partisan lines, help explain the dramatic decline in strong support for Ukraine among Republicans.

Fear of escalation also remains high for broad segments of the public and elites in the West. Many are apprehensive that Ukrainian victories will stoke desperate brinkmanship by Russia, with potentially dire consequences for Ukraine and the West, including the risk of nuclear war. In Germany, an October 2022 survey found six in 10 respondents were afraid of World War III, while almost seven in 10 Italians expected a global conflict.

These separate groups—those who worry about a worsening domestic economy and those who fear Russia’s escalatory moves—are dubbed the peace camp given their desire to end the war, even at the cost of Ukrainian concessions. The opposing group in the West is often called the justice camp because of its goal to punish Russia through military defeat and other punitive measures. Although both camps blame Russia for the war, the friction between them rests on whether to support Ukraine’s definition of victory as the recovery of all territory lost to Russia since 2014 (including Crimea), reparations, and accountability for war crimes.

The G-7 issued a statement on Oct. 11 that expressed general support for these objectives. Kyiv had reportedly come to a tentative agreement with Moscow in April this year when conditions on the battlefield were fluid: Russia would revert to the status quo, remaining in control of Crimea and much of the Donbas; Ukraine would foreswear NATO membership and receive security guarantees from other countries. But given Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives, it is now unlikely that President Volodymyr Zelensky would consider similar conditions or be able to muster public support even if he did. Russian brutality and Moscow’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian provinces are also daunting obstacles to substantive negotiations.

And yet, many in Europe are eager for Kyiv to make concessions. An authoritative survey in Europe estimates that the peace camp now predominates in several leading countries, and that only four countries of 10 covered by the poll were in favor of increased defense spending. Although a majority of the population in the lynchpin state of Germany consistently expresses support for Ukraine and views the United States as its key security partner, almost 40 percent of respondents (nearly 60 percent in eastern Germany) in an October survey fully or partly agreed that NATO provoked Russia to invade Ukraine. A gulf could emerge between public and politicians.

Washington has encouraged Kyiv to dampen concerns of a prolonged, costly, and dangerous war by withdrawing its explicit refusal to negotiate with Putin’s Russia. Some high-level voices in the Biden administration now openly suggest that Kyiv should seriously consider talks with Moscow—but selling any talks, especially if concessions are involved, to an angry and emboldened Ukrainian public would be hard as well as divisive.

The national optimism bolstered by Ukraine’s recent military success now extends to fields beyond the conflict. In late 2021, on the eve of the war, just 41 percent of Ukrainians expected Ukraine to gain EU membership in the foreseeable future. By late October 2022, the overwhelming majority of survey respondents, 88 percent, believed their country would be a prosperous member of the EU in 10 years. Only 5 percent envisioned the alternative extreme for Ukraine of continued economic ruin and mass emigration.

This optimism would be sorely tested by a protracted war, but also by possible pressure on Kyiv from different forces in the West for concessions to Moscow. Contentious efforts at conflict resolution and socioeconomic reconstruction could threaten Ukraine with a return to the fractured, often corrupt, domestic politics of the past—and possibly with a rise in extremist groups that reject liberal democracy. Alongside success on the battlefield and national resilience, the strength among Ukrainians of a hopeful identity linked to the West will depend in great measure on whether the United States and Europe continue to perceive the robust support of Ukraine as an essential expression of their values and interests.

Thomas Sherlock is professor emeritus of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His writing does not represent the views of the U.S. government, the Department of the Army, or the U.S. Military Academy.

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