Recent bombshell reports have revealed the Trump administration may have been attempting to coerce Ukraine into launching an investigation into political rival and Democratic primary frontrunner Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, by withholding $391 million in military aid. Though the White House eventually released the frozen aid to Ukraine amid bipartisan outcry, the allegation, which was later made public in a whistleblower complaint, touched off a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump. Lost in the shuffle of domestic concerns, however, is the related and oft-forgotten ongoing war in Ukraine.
Ukraine has been in a violent conflict with Russian-backed separatists in Donbass since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea. Attempts at a ceasefire, such as the 2014 Minsk Protocol, have failed to halt the bloodshed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States has remained a key western ally over the past five years, regularly giving military aid to the Ukrainian military to combat the rebellion.
An annual survey conducted by the Razumkov Centre throughout all of Ukraine (excluding war-afflicted areas) last winter found that Ukrainians expressed generally negative attitudes toward Russia and pessimism about future relations with their neighbor, though opinion varies significantly by region. Throughout the responses, it’s clear that closer proximity to Donbass and Russia correlates with more pro-Russia beliefs and ideologies. This is likely due to the fact that more ethnic Russians live in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine than elsewhere.
When asked about their attitudes toward Putin, overall opinion (71%) was broadly negative, but Ukrainians in the southern (57% negative) and eastern (38% negative) regions of the country were much less negative than their western (90%) and central (86%) counterparts. The same can be said for opinions on the Russian government as a whole – overall opinion (66%) was negative, but more so in the west (86%) and center (81%) than the south (52%) and east (34%).
When asked to assess the prospects of Russia-Ukraine relations in the near future, overall opinion remained pessimistic, as a third of Ukrainians believe prospects will deteriorate (33%) or remain the same (33%), respectively. Though these numbers are slightly down when compared to previous recent studies, they are still a far cry from pre-annexation optimism. For example, in 2012, 36 percent of Ukrainians believed relations with Russia would improve, as opposed to just 14 percent today.
It should be further noted that in 2019, southern (23%) and eastern (21%) Ukrainians were less pessimistic about relations with Russia than central (40%) and western (41%) Ukrainians.
Ukrainians across all regions have complicated views toward their reception of foreign assistance. Though a stable majority (67%) of Ukrainians believe effective resistance to the Russian threat is only possible through joint international efforts, a majority (54%) also believe that the West’s involvement in resolving the conflict in Donbass has been ineffective. Further, when asked whose contribution to Donbass conflict resolution is most effective, just 18 percent of respondents chose the US. This reaction is likely due to the United States taking a secondary role to its European allies in drafting the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II follow-up, as well as then-President Obama’s wavering on his “red line” in response to Russian aggression.
In the past several months since the survey was conducted, Ukraine has seen significant political changes, with the election of new president and former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky by a landslide in April and a snap Parliamentary election in July bringing new faces to Ukrainian leadership after a corruption-riddled past. Though it remains to be seen whether Zelensky and his Servant of the People party will drastically alter relations with Moscow, public opinion has been pessimistic about peace prospects in the immediate future, and US-Ukrainian relations have been strained by the allegation that the US President altered foreign policy for personal political gain.
For information on Russian public opinion regarding the conflict with Ukraine, read our April 3rd brief.