Alexey Navalny, the head of what remains of Russia’s opposition movement, recently commissioned a fascinating poll on the political attitudes of Ukrainians living in Kharkov and Odessa oblasts. For those unfamiliar with the finer points of Ukrainian geography, Kharkov and Odessa oblasts contain, respectively, the country’s second and third largest cities and are known as regions with significant numbers of Russian speakers. More relevant to recent events, both regions are technically part of "Novorossia,” an 18th century name southeastern Ukraine that was dusted off by the Russian leadership in the early stages of the recent conflict (which is currently paused but which could re-ignite at any moment).
The general idea of the poll was to get an idea about what the residents of Novorossia, who in Russian state-run media are frequently presented as desperate for "protection” from the "fascist junta” in Kiev, actually think. Many of the results are pretty much the opposite of what the Russians have been claiming. Few respondents had any understanding of what Novorossia even was (43% didn’t know or refused to comment, only 4% correctly recognized it as a historical term), a huge majority (87%) wanted their regions to remain part of Ukraine, a smaller majority (56%) had a negative impression of Vladimir Putin, and a slightly smaller majority (52%) said that Russian troops were directly engaged in the recent fighting.
As noted previously, these results are all direct contradictions of the Russian government position, which holds that "Novorossia” has broad popular support, that many people want to separate from Kiev entirely, that Russian troops aren’t doing any fighting, and that Russian-speakers look to Putin as a strong, reliable leader. These positions have some popular support, of course, but in most cases it’s a rump minority of somewhere between 15 and 20%. Put simply, a huge majority of the population supports the political status quo.
So, at first glance, the poll appears to be a sharp and even humiliating rebuke of the Russians. Once you dig a little deeper, though, it becomes clear that the story is a lot more complicated. The consensus Western story is that Russia’s abhorrent treatment of Ukraine has fundamentally transformed public opinion there. As former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted in an August op-ed for the New York Times:
Ukrainian outrage over Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea has consolidated Ukraine’s national identity, and it now looks to the West for prosperity and security
The general idea that McFaul is advancing, and that is the default position among most Western analysts, is that after seeing the true nature of Russian "influence,” the Ukrainians have decided that they need to become a part of both the EU and NATO. And this is not merely some random invention of the State Department. High-ranking Ukrainian politicians like president Petro Poroshenko and prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have repeatedly and publicly advocated for Ukraine’s inclusion in the US-led alliance. Indeed NATO membership was a major policy goal of Viktor Yushenko’s pro-Western government which was brought to power through the Orange Revolution. NATO membership has been a significant political issue in Ukraine for more than a decade, and it is not at all crazy to think that Russia’s recent use of military force has made the alliance a lot more popular.
The complicating factor is that the residents of Odessa and Kharkov have very little interest: a mere 26% of the respondents think that Ukraine should join NATO versus 48% who think that it shouldn’t.
Additional questions in the poll also cast doubt on the idea that Ukrainians are suddenly unified in pro-Western sentiments. Only 41% of the respondents reacted positively to the demands of the "Maidan” movement, and 43% of respondents said that their attitude towards the Ukrainian government had actually gotten worse over the past year. There is still, of course, a substantial level of support for the anti-Yanukovych uprising, but the poll hardly shows the tidal wave of pro-Western feeling that has often been presented in the media. Indeed the residents of both Odessa and Kharkov seem to be decidedly wary of virtually all political forces currently competing for power: when asked which party they would vote for in the parliamentary elections that are little more than a month away, 72% indicated that they hadn’t yet decided.
As noted previously, there is very little in the poll results that vindicates Russia’s position: only tiny minorities express a desire to either declare independence from Kiev or join the Russian Federation. A sizable majority (58%) of respondents said that their impressions of Russia had worsened over the past year, versus just 3% that said they had improved. At the same time, though, the people who are most at risk of renewed Russian aggression, the people who inhabit "Novorossia,” express extremely little support for NATO and muted levels of enthusiasm for their country’s recent political changes.
Polls like Navalny’s are why I think it’s so important to push back against the idea that "Ukraine is more united than ever:” virtually every poll that has come out over the past 6 months has shown that the huge cleavages that have characterized Ukrainian public opinion ever since its independence from the Soviet Union remain in place. For comparison’s sake, support for NATO membership in the Western parts of Ukraine runs as high as 65 or 70%, a forty point gap compared to Odessa and Kharkov which are, as the poll very clearly demonstrates, hardly hotbeds of pro-Russian sentiment. Ukrainians agree that their country should remain independent and that it shouldn’t forfeit any of its territory. Outside of that, though, consensus on other political issues remains persistently elusive.
Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk can, of course, try to chart a course towards NATO membership. But should they do so we should all keep in mind that there appears to be little enthusiasm for that policy among its supposed beneficiaries.