A Decade of Dramatic Change in Ukrainian Society

The Euromaidan revolution was the start of a process of profound change in Ukrainian identity. Russian aggression has completed this turn to a pro-Western, anti-Russian orientation.

By Oxana Shevel, Associate Professor of comparative politics at Department of Political Science at Tufts University

In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation”—the official euphemism for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The goal of the invasion was to overthrow the Ukrainian government and establish Russian control over the country. Expectations of a quick victory were based not just on Russia’s military superiority, but on the belief of Putin and others among the Russian elite that there would be little resistance from Ukrainians.

Save for a small minority of “radical nationalists,” Putin seemingly believed, Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops “liberating” them from the “neo-Nazi junta” that allegedly seized power in Kyiv following the 2014 Euromaidan uprising. If Ukrainians were “one nation” with the Russians, as Putin repeatedly claimed, Ukrainians’ true preferences must be aligned with Russia’s. Opinion polls to the contrary could be dismissed as either outright fakes or skewed by Ukrainians’ fear of revealing pro-Russian views. Putin himself dismissed polling data from Ukraine in this very manner when he was asked about it during the 2021 Valdai Club conference.

Social science broadly rejects assertions that nations have authentic or fake collective identities and preferences. Research consistently has shown that rather than being immutable, set in the distant past, social identities—including national and ethnic identities—are constructed and reconstructed, influenced by social and political realities as well as state policies and institutions. This process of identity formation could be gradual, unfolding over decades or even centuries, but it may also accelerate around “critical junctures”—major events and circumstances that can profoundly influence group identities.

Ukraine has experienced several such critical junctures in recent years, which fostered consolidation of a coherent, distinct, and ultimately anti-Russian Ukrainian identity. These defining events were the 2014 Euromaidan protests, the start of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine the same year, and most recently the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion.

Ironically, Putin’s own actions were a key contributing factor in bringing about the very reality—an “anti-Russian Ukraine”—that he wanted to prevent. As one recent commentary summed it up, Putin has proved to be the greatest contributor to Ukrainian nationalism since the nineteenth-century Ukrainian bard Taras Shevchenko.

The Euromaidan protests—known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity—started in response to the last-minute decision of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, pressured and bribed by Russia, to refrain from signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. The protests prevented Yanukovych from pivoting Ukraine away from Europe and anchoring it to Russia. But Euromaidan itself did not decidedly transform Ukrainian society. The protests had a regionally skewed basis of support.

In January 2014, according to a Razumkov Center poll, 80 percent of respondents in the western region and 63 percent in the central region supported Euromaidan, compared with just 20 percent in the south and 30 percent in the east. The post-Euromaidan government was likewise unpopular in the south and east, and views on issues such as NATO membership or relations with Russia did not immediately shift.

In March 2014, according to a Rating Group poll, 43 percent of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO; 34 percent were in favor. A March 2014 DIF and Razumkov Center poll found that 45 percent supported membership in the EU (compared with 42 percent in May 2013), and 22 percent supported membership in the Russia-led Customs Union (versus 30 percent in 2013). Another 20 percent were against joining either the EU or the Customs Union, and 13 percent did not answer the question.

In February 2014, 66 percent of Ukrainians wanted Ukraine and Russia to be friendly neighbors with open borders, and 78 percent had an overall positive attitude toward Russia, according to a KIIS poll. Had Russia not turned to aggression, the next electoral cycle likely would have again produced a legislature divided between supporters of a pro-Western course and advocates of closer ties with Russia; presidents representing either approach would have continued alternating in power. The evolution of Ukrainian identity and society would have been gradual and incremental.

The Creation of ‘Anti-Russia’

As the Yanukovych regime crumbled in the final days of Euromaidan, Putin made a fateful decision to annex Crimea and foster separatism in southeastern Ukraine. Ultimately, this “Russian spring” project, intended to constrain the central government in Kyiv, failed everywhere except in parts of the eastern region of Donbas. There, insurgents supported by Russia established the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” and fought Ukrainian forces.

The Donbas war and the Crimea annexation set in motion dramatic changes in Ukrainian society. First, some 12 percent of Ukraine’s most pro-Russian electorate was cut off from participating in national elections, making it difficult for pro-Russian parties and candidates to gain substantial support. Second, popular attitudes and identities quickly evolved in the very direction that Putin had sought to block—away from Russia and toward the West geopolitically, and toward a more coherent and distinctly Ukrainian identity domestically. These trends strengthened with each passing year and accelerated dramatically following the full-scale February 2022 invasion. Today, Ukrainian society is starkly different from what it was in 2014.

Today, Ukrainian society is starkly different from what it was in 2014.

As of July 2023, support for EU membership stood at 85 percent among all Ukrainians surveyed, with similar majorities in each of the four macro-regions. Support for membership in a Russia-led union dropped from 22 percent in March 2014 to just 1 percent in February 2023, according to a Rating Group poll.

On the issue of NATO membership, the shift is even more dramatic. In 2013, just 18 percent supported joining the alliance; on the eve of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, according to Rating Group polling, 62 percent did. For the first time, support for membership exceeded opposition not only in the west and center, but also in the south; even in the east, support increased to 36 percent of the population, though 54 percent remained opposed. By June 2023, a KIIS poll showed a nationwide consensus: 89 percent of all citizens, with majorities ranging from 79 percent to 93 percent in the four macro-regions, want Ukraine to be in NATO.

Another major change has been an expansion and hardening of distinctly Ukrainian identities, paralleled by a decline in the ambiguous identities that had long persisted, especially among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Even though the percentage of Russian-speakers—those who used Russian as their main or primary language of convenience—did not change much between 2014 and 2022, the identities of Russian-speaking Ukrainians changed substantially. By the end of 2022, KIIS polling showed the share of self-identified Russians dropping to just 2 percent of the population (another 1 percent self-identified as both Ukrainian and Russian), leading some scholars to conclude that Ukraine had ceased to be a multiethnic country. In a 2017 KIIS poll, the corresponding numbers had been 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively; in the 2001 census, 17.3 percent of the population identified as ethnically Russian.

Support for measures long cast as “anti-Russian” by Moscow—allegedly “falsifying common history” and creating an “unnatural” separation of Ukrainians from Russians—also rapidly increased. As of November 2022, according to a Rating Group poll, 93 percent of respondents supported characterizing the 1932–33 famine as a genocide of the Ukrainian people. In May 2022, another Rating Group poll found that only 11 percent regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union (compared with 63 percent in Russia); 78 percent and 84 percent viewed Lenin and Stalin, respectively, in negative terms (up 27 and 26 percentage points since 2018). Meanwhile, 80 percent (up from 47 percent in 2019) supported recognizing interwar Ukrainian nationalist groups, demonized in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Russia, as fighters for Ukrainian state independence.

The latter shift may appear concerning, given the violent history of Ukrainian interwar nationalism, but changing public perceptions of these groups do not indicate a rise in support for today’s radical nationalism. Far-right parties and candidates have done very poorly in both local and national elections since Euromaidan. Instead, recognition of interwar nationalists as Ukrainian independence fighters signifies rejection of the Moscow-endorsed framing that presents Ukrainians and Russians as destined to be together, now and in the past, and casts anyone opposing this unity as the enemy. Remarkably, even in the south and the east, majorities now view interwar nationalists positively—an outcome few would have imagined before Russia’s aggression made it a reality.

Other recent manifestations of a decisive rejection of any and all Russian influences include increased support not just for decommunization but also for de-Russification of public spaces—removal of monuments and place names associated with Russian historical, cultural, and literary figures, now seen as symbols and conduits of imperialism. In May 2022, 71 percent supported such measures.

Support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate—canonically linked with the Russian Orthodox Church—has also dropped sharply. The church has been a key institution for channeling the “Russian world” ideology into Ukraine. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians now reject its message of spiritual unity—of Ukrainian and Russians together constituting one “holy Rus’.” Currently only 4 percent of self-identified Orthodox believers associate themselves with the Moscow Patriarchate church, according to a July 2022 KIIS survey, down from 18 percent in 2021 and 28 percent in 2013. In June 2023, KIIS found that 66 percent of respondents—a 12 point increase since December—wanted the government to ban the church outright.

Yet another indication of a decisive turn away from anything Russian is an increase in the number of people who report switching to speaking Ukrainian. This linguistic shift has followed rather than preceded changes in political attitudes in Ukraine: research shows that here, too, the 2022 invasion was a catalyst. The brutalities of the occupation and the destruction of lives and livelihoods in southern and eastern Ukraine by the Russian military, purportedly “liberating” Russian-speakers in these areas, led many Russian-speakers not only to decisively identify as Ukrainians but also to change their language practices.

In an October 2022 survey by Gradus, 57 percent of respondents reported speaking more Ukrainian; 42 percent said they were doing so while continuing to use Russian, and 14 percent had switched to speaking Ukrainian only. Russia’s invasion jump-started this change in historically Russian-speaking southeastern regions. As one resident of Kherson explained in a television interview after the city was liberated, “We learned Ukrainian under occupation.”

Democratic Opportunity

Consolidation of a distinct Ukrainian identity has aided the war effort and societal resilience in the face of Russian aggression. In March 2022, a Rating Group poll found the share of those who thought the country was going in the right direction to be seven times the share of those who held the opposite view (78 percent to 11 percent), and in December 2022 it was higher still (82 percent). As of March 2023, according to a Razumkov Center poll, 93 percent remained confident in a Ukrainian victory. A June 2023 KIIS poll found 84 percent prepared to withstand war’s hardships until Ukraine regains all of its internationally recognized territory.

Can such unity be sustained over the long term? National unity during wartime is usually followed by the renewal of societal division and political competition after war ends. But Ukraine’s postwar divisions will not mirror its pre-2022 or pre-2014 cleavages. A more consolidated Ukrainian national identity is now a reality. The Russia-leaning segment of Ukrainian society has shrunk since 2014, and political competition is unlikely to break along the east–west divide, as it did before 2014. This new reality holds both opportunities and challenges for democratic consolidation.

One important opportunity is the formation of more traditional right–left party cleavages characteristic of political competition in stable democracies. Ukrainian political competition has long revolved around identity-centered cleavages: parties and candidates distinguished themselves primarily along the pro-Russian vs. pro-Western geopolitical axis and the “pro-Ukrainian” vs. “pro-Russian” identity agendas. Russia’s war of aggression and its weaponization of history, language, religion, and identity have made any pro-Russian agenda—whether in foreign policy or domestic politics—politically toxic and electorally hopeless in Ukraine.

This creates an opening for Ukrainian political parties to finally differentiate themselves on issues such as economic and social policies, anti-corruption reforms, and democratic governance. Over time, such party differentiation, in concert with the growing robustness of civil society since Euromaidan, could foster more stable and less polarizing democratic competition. Ukraine now has a chance to develop the more traditional foundations of a stable democracy.

A risk to Ukrainian democracy could come from the need to balance national security concerns against protection of civil and political rights, including minority rights. The good news is that the Russian-speaking minority does not feel itself to be facing discrimination. Most Russian speakers support “Ukrainization” policy measures and see them as strengthening the state against Russian aggression. In a June 2023 KIIS poll, only 12 percent of Russian-speakers held the opinion that Russian-speakers are discriminated against. But even though the “pro-Russian” share of the population has shrunk decisively, it has not disappeared, and it could grow again after the war if Ukraine recaptures territories that Russia has occupied since 2014. The Ukrainian government will have to decide how to accommodate this segment of the population.

As long as Putin or a similarly imperialist and revisionist autocrat holds power in Moscow, Russia will continue to weaponize language, identity, history, and religion. This will keep the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine politicized and securitized to a substantially higher degree than the rights of any other minority. Ukraine will have a legitimate need to safeguard national security and its information space against the threats posed by Russian imperialism.

This reality needs to be recognized by critics of nationalism and advocates of minority rights, yet it does not give the Ukrainian government carte blanche to reject all calls for group rights for Russians or Russian-speakers. Ukraine must adhere to principles of proportionality and nondiscrimination enshrined in international legal instruments on minority rights, which will necessitate honest effort and nuanced policy solutions on the part of the state. Ukraine’s newly acquired EU candidate status could foster this process. The government will need to craft legislation compliant with EU standards in order to advance toward membership.

Ukraine continues to fight for its survival. But it is clear that changes brought about by the Euromaidan revolution and the response to Russia’s war of aggression have produced a society united by civic national duty, commitment to state independence, and greater complementarity between civic and ethnocultural identities. Victory in the war may take time, but there are reasons to look with optimism toward Ukraine’s postwar democratic future.

(This post is republished from University of California Press.)

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