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Russians Want Crimea; Prefer Luhansk and Donetsk Independent

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Stepan Goncharov and Denis Volkov
Russian flag.
Dmitry Dzhus

Findings from this Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey show that Russians believe eastern areas of Ukraine should be independent states.

Introduction

Findings from a new binational survey, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center, show that a plurality of Russians believe these eastern areas of Ukraine should be independent states. And a majority of Russians continue to say that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has brought the country more good than harm.

Key Findings

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine remains unresolved and—after five years—it does not appear to be reaching a resolution any time soon. The ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces supported by Moscow not only degrades the relationship between Kiev and Moscow but also contributes to the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.1 This particular regional conflict has become an important destabilizing factor for international security. Findings from a new binational survey, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center, show that a plurality of Russians believe these eastern areas of Ukraine should be independent states.2   And a majority of Russians continue to say that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has brought the country more good than harm.

  • A majority of Russians (62%) continue to support Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but only three in ten (29%) would like the same for Donetsk and Luhansk. A plurality think these self-declared republics should be independent states (46%).
  • Majorities of Russians say Moscow’s recent international actions have worsened the economy (58%), standards of living (64%), and relations with the United States (78%). Yet, majorities also see improvements in Russia’s defense forces (83%) and international influence (62%).
  • Despite the negative consequences of Russia’s recent foreign policy, seven in ten Russians (70%) think that playing an active role in world affairs is better for their country.

Tradeoffs for Action in Crimea, Ukraine

Continued fighting between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics is a double-edged sword for the Kremlin. On one hand, an ongoing conflict in Ukraine serves as a barrier to Ukrainian ambitions to join NATO and the European Union, something Russia has long opposed. On the other hand, Russia’s involvement in that ongoing conflict provides little room for improvement in Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States.

While Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the catalyst for its isolation from much of the international community, Russians see both positive and negative impacts from their government’s recent actions abroad. A majority of Russians believe Russia’s foreign policy negatively affected the country’s economy and standards of living. However, those who think that the annexation of Crimea brought more good are also more positive about the effects of Russia’s international policy on its economy (40% vs. 31% in general) and standards of living (32% vs. 25%).

Russian opinion is more divided on the effect of the Kremlin’s foreign policy on Russia’s image abroad, but they also see several upsides. A majority are convinced Moscow's foreign policy has improved the country’s international influence and the state of their country’s military forces. They also describe their country as a rising (83%) military power.3

Russians Generally Positive on Crimean Annexation

The West took umbrage to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which Barack Obama, then the US president, likened to “dark tactics of the 20th century.”4   However, according to a March 2019 Levada Center poll, 71 percent of Russians do not see the annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law. The public rejects what it sees as the Western narrative that the annexation was illegitimate.5   Instead, they find legitimacy in the results of the 2014 referendum in which 96 percent of Crimeans voted to become part of Russia.6  Still, the number of Russians who think Russia violated international agreements by annexing Crimea has risen slightly since 2016 (from 9% to 17%).

Despite the economic consequences of the annexation, Russians remain positive about the effects of the Crimean annexation. Today, 62 percent of Russians think the annexation of Crimea has brought more good than harm to Russia. Sixteen percent believe Russian actions brought more harm than good, and a similar proportion says they brought neither good nor harm. Since 2015, the results have been relatively stable, with between six and seven in ten Russians saying the annexation has brought more good than harm.

What Donetsk and Luhansk Will and Should Be

In contrast to their views on Crimea, Russians are mixed on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk possibly because a resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine is far less straightforward. The terms agreed upon by Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany under the Minsk II agreement for the re-integration of the rebel republics in Ukraine do not seem realistic.7 Russia insists on the Ukrainian government’s decentralization, which Ukraine has little interest in implementing. In certain ways, the Russian public’s mixed view on re-integration of the republics mirrors that of the leaders attempting to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

Levada surveys have shown a decline in interest among Russians to absorb these Ukrainian regions.8   In April 2014, one-third of Russians thought Donetsk and Luhansk should be a part of Russia in the near future (35%) while a quarter of Russians welcomed the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk (25%). Yet once the military clashes between separatist and government forces in eastern Ukraine broke into open warfare and Western sanctions against Russia were introduced, the public became less enthusiastic towards the idea that these republics would become part of Russia. After 2015, when the tensest phase of the conflict ended, the number of Russians in favor of seeing eastern Ukraine become a part of Russia started increasing again.

Which of the following options would you like more?

  Apr 14 May 14 Aug 14 Jan 15 Feb 15 Jun 15 May 16 Apr 17
Eastern Ukraine should become a part of Russia. 35% 26% 21% 19% 15% 19% 22% 21%
Eastern Ukraine should be independent states. 25% 36% 40% 43% 41% 39% 38% 37%
Eastern Ukraine should be a part of Ukraine but more independent from Kiev. 21% 17% 18% 17% 21% 24% 20% 21%
Eastern Ukraine should be a part of Ukraine on the same principles as before the conflict. 6% 6% 6% 4% 7% 4% 6% 7%
Hard to say. 13% 15% 16% 17% 16% 15% 15% 14%

Table provided by the Levada-Analytical Center.

The recent Council-Levada survey—asking a slightly different question—finds that almost half of Russians (46%) believe that Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine should be independent states, up from 25 percent in April 2014. Three in ten (29%) think they should be a part of Russia (similar to 2014) while only 13 percent think they should be a part of Ukraine.9

This survey finds little difference between what Russians prefer and what they expect the outcome will be. Asked what Luhansk and Donetsk will be in ten years, 37 percent think they will be independent states, slightly more the than those who predict Donetsk and Luhansk will become a part of Russia (29%) and 10 percent think they will remain part of Ukraine.

The Fate of Luhansk and Donetsk

  Should the Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk Be: Ten Years From Now, Do You Think the Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk Will Be:
A part of Ukraine. 13% 10%
A part of Russia. 29% 29%
Independent States. 46% 37%
Hard to say. 13% 25%

Feb. 14-20,2019 | n=1613. Table provided by the Levada-Analytical Center.

Methodology

The analysis in this report is based on data from a joint Chicago Council-Levada Analytical Center survey on Russian and American Attitudes conducted in February 2019.

The US survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs using their national online omnibus service, KnowledgePanel™, between February 22-24, 2019 among a weighted national sample of 1,016 American adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

The Russia survey was conducted between February 14-20, 2019 by the Levada-Center (Levada Analytical Center) with face-to-face interviews conducted among a representative sample of 1,613 persons aged 18 years and older, living in eight federal districts of the Russian Federation. Inside each district, the sample is distributed among five strata of settlements proportionally to the number of population living in them, 18 years of age or older. The margin of error is ±3.4 percentage points.

About the Authors
Stepan Goncharov
Sociologist, Levada Analytical Center
Stepan Goncharov
Stepan Goncharov is a senior research fellow at the Levada Center. Goncharov’s field of expertise and research interests include public opinion on international relations, use of media, and modern social processes in Russia. He is a regular contributor for ridl.io (Riddle), an online-journal on Russian affairs. Gonhcarov holds a Specialist degree in Political Science from Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) and has broad experience in qualitative studies.
Stepan Goncharov
Denis Volkov
Deputy Director of the Levada Analytical Center
Deputy Director of the Levada Analytical Center