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Russians and Ukrainians Prefer to Remain Independent States

Running Numbers by Emily Sullivan and Dina Smeltz
Reuters
A man prepares barriers made of sandbags as members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces guard in central Kyiv

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, new public opinion data shows that the conflict likely came as a surprise to many on both sides.

Both in action and attitude, Ukrainians have shown resolve in defending their country’s independence from the Russian invasion, which many in Ukraine and Russia did not see coming. Public opinion data from recent months illustrate that there was no groundswell of public support for a change in Ukraine’s sovereignty, suggesting that this fight may have been completely avoidable. Publics in both Ukraine and Russia favor the two countries remaining as independent states. 

The recent Russian incursion into Ukraine must have come as a surprise to many in both countries. As recently as February 17-21, just days before the invasion began, a Levada Center survey in Russia found that 45 percent of Russians thought it was inevitable (5%) or very likely (40%) that the tensions in eastern Ukraine would boil over into a war between Russia and Ukraine (49% thought it was not very likely or very unlikely). A CNN/Savanta ComRes poll conducted  February 7-15 found that 42 percent of Ukrainians and 13 percent of Russians thought it was likely that Russia would initiate military action towards Ukraine in the near future. Russians were likely influenced by the messaging being pushed by state-run media that Russia did not want a war with Ukraine and would not initiate one. In fact, when the Levada Center most recently asked about who is responsible for instigating the situation in Eastern Ukraine, Russians were more likely to blame the United States and NATO countries (60%, up from 50% in November 2021) than Russia (3%), Ukraine (14%), or the republics themselves (3%).  

Ukrainian Resolve to Resist Invasion   

With the Russian military buildup on its borders, Ukrainians seemed to be growing more inclined to resist Russian pressure. The Ukrainian polling organization Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) conducted a survey February 5-13, and found that support for active resistance in the event of a Russian armed invasion had grown from 50 to 58 percent. When asked in a follow up question how they would resist, 37 percent said they would take part in an armed resistance, and 25 percent said they would participate in civil resistance such as demonstrations, protests, marches, strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. About two in 10 said they would relocate, either abroad (8%) or to a safer region of Ukraine (12%). The survey was based on a random sample of mobile telephone numbers in Ukraine (excluding Crimea and some districts in Donestsk and Luhansk that were not controlled by Ukraine).  

Ukrainians Would Prefer Alignment with West, Unacceptable to Russians 

The most recent polling by Sociological Group “Rating” for the International Republican Institute (November 6-15, 2021) suggests that, if given the option, Ukrainians would prefer to align their country with the West both politically and economically. If an immediate referendum were held on joining NATO, 54 percent said they would vote to become part of the alliance, while 28 percent would vote against it, and the rest would not vote or were unsure. Ukrainians seemed to have similar preferences in the economic realm. If Ukraine could only enter one international economic union, 58 percent would prefer to join the European Union, while only 21 percent would pick a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made it clear that this type of Ukrainian alignment with the West, particularly Ukraine joining NATO, would be unacceptable to Russia. To some extent, the Russian public seems to agree. The CNN/Savanta ComRes poll finds that twice as many Russians think it would be justifiable to use military force to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO (50%) as think doing so would be wrong (25%). The other quarter of Russians are unsure (25%). 

Russians See Themselves and Ukrainians as "One People." Ukrainians Disagree 

CNN polling finds that Russians and Ukrainians have fundamentally different views of how their identities relate to each other. Two-thirds of Russians (64%) agree with the statement that they and the Ukrainians are “one people,” harkening back to the Soviet line on Ukraine. Ukrainians express the mirror opposite view, with two-thirds of Ukrainians (66%) disagreeing that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.”  

Polling also shows that neither Ukrainians nor Russians support uniting the two countries. In the CNN poll, a slim majority of Russians (54%) say that Russia and Ukraine should be two separate countries. An even greater majority of Ukrainians (85%) feel this way. Only 36 percent of Russians and 13 percent of Ukrainians think it would be justified for Russia to use force “to reunite Russia and Ukraine.”  

According to the vast majority of Ukrainians, Ukraine and Russia must be independent states. Slightly more prefer an arrangement where both countries are independent with open borders with no visas or customs procedures (48%) than with closed borders with visas and customs (44%). But the percentage preferring open borders has dropped dramatically since KIIS first asked this question in April 2008 (from 67% to 48%). By contrast, the percentage supporting closed borders has increased four-fold since April 2008 (from 10% to 44% in February 2022).  Just five percent believe that Ukraine and Russia should unite into a single state.  

The Levada Center asked the same question of the Russian public in their November 2021 poll, and found similar preferences. A bare majority of 51 percent of Russians thought that Russia and Ukraine should be independent, but friendly states with open borders without visas and customs. Only 18 percent thought that Russia and Ukraine should unite into one state.  

 

In a December 2021 survey, the Levada Center asked what borders respondents would like to see Russia have in the future. Again, a narrow majority of 52 percent say that they would like to see Russia within its current borders. About a third of Russians would like to see Russian borders expand to some option that includes Ukraine (34%).  

 

Asked specifically about the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the most recent February 17-21 Levada survey, only 25 percent of Russians thought these republics should become part of Russia. The majority thought they should be either independent states (33%), autonomous republics within Ukraine (17%), or return as oblasts within Ukraine (15%).  

These data indicate that many Ukrainians and Russians were probably caught off guard by the Russian military action in Ukraine. While hundreds of Russians have been detained in recent days for protesting the war, many remain uninformed about the actual events on the ground since they get their news from state-controlled media sources. As for Ukrainian feelings toward Russians, the New York Times describes their bitter hatred for both Vladimir Putin and for the Russian people whom they view as complicit in their government’s war effort. But another observer, writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, praised the Ukrainian leadership for avoiding hatred as an organizing emotion for the war effort. Either way, this war has only hardened Ukrainian convictions to maintain their country’s independence—and it is on full display for the entire world to see.  

About the Authors
Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.
Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz