What do Ukrainian Youth Think about Russian Aggression in Ukraine?

The nationwide poll “Youth of Ukraine 2017” conducted by the New Europe Center and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in cooperation with the sociological company GfK Ukraine is one of the most comprehensive attempts to understand and assess the sentiments of Ukrainian youth not only in recent years, but perhaps also for the entire period of Ukraine’s independence.

The events of recent years that affected a part of Ukrainian youth personally, such as the Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, the anti-terrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine, and forced relocation due to military actions in Donbas, could not but influence their perception of relations with Russia. The opinion poll, analyzed by the New Europe Center, reflects the sentiments that are already affecting and will further influence domestic and foreign policy priorities of Ukraine.

Below we present key findings of the survey on youth perception of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Ukrainian-Russian relations. This list, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, as the nuances and detailed analysis are contained in the report.

The armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine is one of the five major issues that concern Ukrainian youth today, along with such challenges as the state of economy (63%), general decline in living standards (60%), problems with employment (52%), corruption, and incompetence of the authorities (51%).

Evidently, such factor as the conflict between the two countries has and will have a great influence on the formation of political guides of the younger part of Ukrainian society. Moreover, this part is quite numerous: our poll covers citizens of Ukraine aged 14 to 29, and as of January 1, 2017, there were almost 8 million of them, which is a fifth of the country’s population.

Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine

Ukrainian youth discover Russia through the contrasting phenomena or events: while some people are affected by communication with relatives in the neighboring country, others are on the front line of the conflict in Donbas, while the rest are influenced by both. Probably, that is the reason why about a third of the respondents chose the neutral or middle options and avoided absolute support or absolute negative attitude when answering most of the questions.

This opinion poll shows how complex the picture of the attitudes of Ukrainian youth is: such simplistic notion as “the East and the South are pro-Russian, while the West is pro-European and pro-American” is not confirmed by our research. There are, certainly, differences between Ukrainians from various regions in certain issues, but they are not dramatic enough to assume any public split in the society. Moreover, some of the questions concerning relations between Ukraine and Russia combine the positions of the East and the West, and the general critical attitude toward Russian aggression and, in particular, to the annexation of Crimea, is the common denominator.

Ten years ago, sociologists stated that Ukrainian society still have not lost the feeling of “belonging to the former Soviet state”. Researchers assumed that the release from this feeling would occur along with the change of generations. Our research may show that young people are increasingly relieved of the burden of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. While nationwide polls show that a significant number of Ukrainians over 35 still regret the collapse of the USSR, surveys conducted among the youth show an opposite trend. For instance, a poll conducted by Sociological Rating Group in 2017 demonstrated that every third respondent from the age group of 36–50 regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rate of nostalgic respondents among the group of over 50 was even higher, almost a half (49%).

Our poll shows that only 13% of young people have negative feelings about the collapse of the USSR, which is consistent with the results obtained by the Rating Group, where 14% of the age group of 18–35 stated that they regret the collapse of the USSR. There is another, even more interesting trend: the younger the respondent was, the harder it was to express their position in relation to the historical event of 1991.

However, this poll revealed a trend of avoiding the answer, which is especially typical for respondents from the South, and even more for participants from the Eastern region. For example, in the East, almost 60% did not answer the question: “Who is responsible for the current military conflict in the East of Ukraine to the most extent?” This phenomenon has been previously encountered by researchers who conducted a poll among internally displaced persons.

The displaced persons are silent, since they want to merge with the new environment faster and not to feel their difference. To achieve that, they are ready to suppress their dignity, sacrifice their own views and their system of values. However, this does not mean that people sacrifice it forever. This is a “delayed action” situation,” the sociologists conclude.

It is likely that respondents are afraid to answer due to certain reasons, despite the anonymous nature of the poll. Sociologists who organized the poll noted that the trend of silence in Eastern and Southern regions started manifesting itself long ago. In their opinion, people could really be afraid to talk on political topics (one of the potential reasons is anxiety due to proximity to the front line: “What if there will be an invasion?” or “What if Russia occupies other territories, and my words are recorded somehow?”).

Damages caused by the war in East Ukraine, July 2016. Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Sociologists explain that in Eastern and Southern regions the greatest polarization of opinions is observed, and therefore people can evade discussing certain topics to avoid conflicts. Certainly, silence could be also provoked by simple confusion: people have long been sympathetic to Russia and do not know how to behave after the events of recent years.

KEY FINDINGS

Most young Ukrainians (65%) are confident that Ukraine and Russia are at war.

An absolute minority of respondents consider sanctions against Russia futile or groundless: the option that “sanctions should have been lifted long ago” has been selected by 2%, while the option that “sanctions should have not been introduced at all” is shared by only 3% of the respondents.

Almost every tenth (12%) young Ukrainian believes that sanctions could be lifted according to the Minsk Process, i.e. when Russia complies with the relevant requirements for settling the situation in Donbas. Similarly, nearly every tenth respondent (11%) admits that sanctions could be lifted after Putin resigns. 7% are convinced that sanctions should not be lifted until Moscow returns Crimea.

In Eastern and Southern regions, we observe the largest rate of negative attitudes toward the sanctions against Russia; however, the number of those respondents is extremely low, since only 3% in the Southern region believe that sanctions should have been lifted long ago and 10% of respondents in the East believe that sanctions should have not been introduced at all.

60% of Ukrainian youth believe that Russia’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine cannot be justified.

Most young Ukrainians believe that Russia is responsible for escalation of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine (61%). Ukraine is blamed by only 5%.

Most young Ukrainians (56%) believe that the conflict with Russia can only be settled if Russia returns Crimea and withdraws the military forces from Donbas.

Most young people do not feel sympathy for those who are fighting against the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Eastern Ukraine. Overall, 62% of respondents do not support their cause.

Only 8% agreed that Russia is making sufficient efforts to settle the conflict with Ukraine. 58% of young Ukrainians do not agree with this statement.

Only 15% of young Ukrainians believe that the West makes sufficient efforts to settle the conflict, while 38% of respondents are more critical of the role of the Western states.

Only 13% of young people have negative attitudes toward the collapse of the USSR. Moreover, there is a noticeable trend on approval of this event, as 34% regard this fact as positive, while neutral option has been chosen by 19%.

58% of respondents from the Eastern region were not able to answer who has greater responsibility for triggering an armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Of those who responded, 22% named Russia and 13% blamed Ukraine.

Respondents from different regions displayed a peculiar unity when evaluating the statement that only politicians are responsible for triggering the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, while the ordinary citizens are innocent. Overall, from 41% in the West to 84% in Kyiv support this statement; the same version of the origins of the conflict is shared by 45% of respondents in the East, 52% in the Center, 59% in the South, and 62% in the North.

CONCLUSIONS

Among the opinions of the younger generation, we observe a rather broad plurality of views regarding various issues concerning relations between Ukraine and Russia. Virtually a third of young Ukrainians responded to various questions with the middle option (“3”). This fact, probably, emphasizes the respondents’ willingness to avoid polarization. However, there are noticeable regional differences in the perception of events around the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Frontline near the northern outskirts of Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine, May 2016. Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Sometimes, the youth of the West and the East demonstrate a unique unity: for example, when blaming politicians for triggering the conflict between the two countries. Among the explanations of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the most popular option is financial interests of political elites of the two states. We also observe regional unity in evaluation of the efforts of various actors to settle the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

The youth of the East and the West are unanimous in very negative assessment of Russia’s efforts to end the conflict. Furthermore, Ukrainians of both the East and the West have negative attitudes regarding the annexation of Crimea On the other hand, the East and the South set records on the “silence” camp, i.e. “don’t know” and “no answer” options. We could assume that respondents (in certain cases, over 50%) have not yet processed the recent changes, have difficulty accepting the new reality, and therefore are still formulating their assessments.

There is also an opinion that respondents do not want to demonstrate their views, fearing the unfavorable reaction of their environment. In the East, one can equally fear to express opinions if they sympathize with Russia (as it does not correspond with the “official line” of the state), as well as if they are critical of Moscow’s actions (as such an opinion may go against the supposedly pro-Russian discourse of the East). Overall, we observed a high level of distrust and frustration: frustration regarding the powerlessness of Ukraine in defending the national interests, and distrust toward the politicians and the media that inform about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Author: Sergiy Solodkyy

The poll was conducted in July-August 2017 by GfK Ukraine. The sample consisted of 2,000 respondents aged 14–29 and represented the population of Ukraine of this age group by gender, age, region of residence, and size of the settlement (excluding population of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and uncontrolled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions). The poll was conducted via personal interviews at respondents’ homes. The theoretical error does not exceed 2.2%. In addition to the quantitative poll, four focus groups with youth aged 18–29 were conducted in Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv in October 2017

This article is a part of extensive research “ Ukrainian “Generation Z”: Attitudes and Values”.

This project is implemented by the New Europe Center together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The contents are those of the New Europe Center and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.