Roots of the Resistance: Understanding National Identity in Ukraine
Were Ukrainians sending signals to the world prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion that they believed, as Putin does, that they and Russians were part of “one people?” In the aftermath of the first stage of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, reporting has emerged that Russia expected to quickly win the war and consolidate its military victory by coopting local elected officials and citizens, who were expected to rejoice in or at least countenance Russian occupation. Social science research from a broad range of scholars conducted prior to Russia’s invasion, however, did not support Russia’s expectations and rather suggested that Ukrainians would strongly oppose Russian occupation and feel loyalty to Ukraine.
Why pro-Kremlin forces believed they could count on broad popular support in Ukraine has sparked speculation and debate among politicians and pundits alike. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with Russian television, accused Viktor Medvedchuk, a leader of the pro-Russian opposition in Ukraine, of encouraging Russian authorities to believe that there was widespread underlying support among Ukrainians for Russia’s purported liberation. Others have suggested that Putin was misled by oligarchs and “yes men” close to him. Yet another option is that Russia’s FSB security agency, which itself commissioned surveys in Ukraine, cherry-picked survey results that fit its narrative. They also potentially misunderstood how polling in a democracy is different than in an autocracy like Russia.
Regardless of who convinced Putin and his supporters, clearly, Russian decision-makers were severely misled about Ukrainian support for their military ambitions. Indeed, Ukrainian citizens have volunteered to take up arms en masse, and, overwhelmingly, support the war effort.
It is important to understand that the source of this resistance comes from the majority of Ukrainians’ civic identification with Ukraine and loyalty to the Ukrainian state, regardless of the language they speak or their ethnic heritage. Ukrainian patriotism is not a recent phenomenon and not predominantly a product of a rally round the flag. Moreover, it is important to highlight that social science research, including my own, provided strong evidence that Ukrainians did not support unification with or occupation by Russia prior to the invasion. Indeed, Ukrainian identity was already strong and likely getting stronger.
There existed, prior to Russia’s invasion, a large body of survey evidence that demonstrated that Ukrainians did not support a closer relationship with Russia. For example, the political scientists Graeme Robertson and Grigor Pop-Eleches, in examining changes before and after the Euromaidan revolution and ensuing Russian invasion that began in 2014, explicitly asked Ukrainian survey respondents at two points in time (2012 and 2015) whether they saw “Ukraine,” “Russia,” “the USSR,” or “a region of Ukraine” as their homeland. They found a vanishingly small percentage of people chose “Russia,” and this was true both in 2012 and 2015. Moreover, they found that between 2012 and 2015, the percentage that said “Ukraine” increased 11 percentage points from the already high 80 percent to 91 percent, mainly at the expense of those who had responded that the USSR was their homeland. This increase occurred despite the fact that the percentage of respondents who spoke Russian at home remained stable at approximately 30 percent over the same time period (with another 20 percent speaking both Ukrainian and Russian). The research also found a large drop in support between 2012 and 2015 for a customs union with Russia across both Ukraine’s linguistic and ethnic divides, suggesting that, when asked to state their explicit preference, most Ukrainians did not support closer ties with Russia after the invasion of Donbas in 2014. Indeed, as Siamak Tundra Naficy wrote recently, Putin may have “overlooked the utility of violence and war in remaking identities,” a process that has been at work in Ukraine for seven years now.
Despite this evidence, Russian policy-makers could potentially have argued that asking Ukrainians what they believed prior to the Russian invasion did not yield valid insight because Ukrainians may have been hiding their true opinions due to pressure from the West and its allies in Ukraine to hold certain beliefs. To investigate whether this explanation is realistic, it is necessary to introduce two terms used in survey research to explain the ways in which citizens’ stated beliefs may differ from their true beliefs and to examine whether these mechanisms were at play in Ukraine.
The first term is “preference falsification,” which the noted social scientist Timur Kuran developed to discuss citizens’ support for authoritarian regimes. Kuran distinguished between the views that citizens state in public and those they state in private. He argued that the prevailing mood of a country might lead citizens to say they supported the regime in public but privately state that they were opposed to it. In the case of Ukraine, if respondents were falsifying their preferences, they would state in public that they supported an independent Ukraine but in the privacy of their own homes might tell their neighbors or close friends that they supported reunification with Russia or the recreation of the USSR. If preference falsification was at play, then, as soon as Russia took over Ukrainian territory, these citizens would no longer need to falsify their preferences and could openly state they supported Russia’s occupation.
This theory of preference falsification, however, assumes an authoritarian (or at least non-pluralistic) state where survey respondents do not feel comfortable sharing their true policy positions in public due to fear of politically motivated repercussions. Given that Ukraine is a democracy where wide-ranging opinions, even about topics considered sensitive in North America, are often publicly shared, ample reason exists to question whether citizens would feel the need to falsify their publicly stated preferences. There are, of course, other reasons survey respondents might not share their private views with a survey interviewer. For example, respondents may want to give what they think is a socially desirable answer, even if they are not afraid of the political repercussions of stating their true opinion. But increasingly surveys in Ukraine and around the world are carried out online, which provides respondents more anonymity to share their opinions even if they may not be popular. Nevertheless, the concern about private and public preferences remains an important one.
Even if it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why respondents’ private preferences might differ from ones they publicly espouse on surveys, there exists a wide variety of techniques in the social sciences designed to elicit respondents’ true private preferences by shielding these responses from the survey interviewer. In several research projects I have conducted in Ukraine, I have used these techniques to examine respondents’ opinions across a wide variety of topics, such as corruption — a hot-button issue in Ukraine — or voting for female politicians. I have not found any evidence of Ukrainians hiding their privately held preferences. While these studies were not specifically about Ukrainians’ preferences regarding Russia, they do support the position that, unless given overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we should take Ukrainians at their word and not believe that preference falsification is at play when examining their expression of public opinion.
The second term is “dissociation.” According to this concept, individuals may implicitly (at a subconscious level) have an underlying predisposition for a policy or course of action even if they explicitly state support, be it publicly or privately, for a different policy. If this had been the case prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion, while Ukrainians might have explicitly stated that they did not support integration with Russia or the Russian occupation of Ukraine, their underlying subconscious processes might suggest that they would support such an outcome. Given the Russian-backed war in Donetsk and Luhansk starting in 2014, dissociation could potentially have become more salient because while subconsciously Ukrainians may have felt positively towards Russia, they may have felt the need to explicitly state a pro-Ukraine position because their government was fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.
Researchers in psychology have developed a range of tests to investigate these implicit preferences, and these tools have been increasingly used in the field of political science. In a study I recently published with Calvin Garner in the journal International Studies Quarterly, based on data primarily from 2015, we set out to empirically test the idea that Ukrainian citizens were dissociating between what they said explicitly and how they implicitly felt. We focused on running these studies in the east of the country in Kharkiv, Kherson, and Odesa, where attitudes towards Russia were particularly geopolitically important. We also conducted the study in Kyiv.
To get at Ukrainians’ implicit attitudes, we used a technique called the implicit association test, examples of which readers can take online. Implicit association tests ask respondents to associate many words with a given category (“Ukraine” or “Russia” in our study) or a given attribute (positive or negative in our study). In the test, a word that is associated either with a category or an attribute is shown in the middle of the screen, while the corresponding categories or attributes are shown in the upper two corners. For example, a user might see category word like “Suffering” in the middle of the screen, and “Russia or Negative” in the upper left and “Ukraine or Positive” in the upper right. (In other tasks “Russia” will be paired with “Positive” and Ukraine with “Negative”). The respondent is asked to use specific keys on the keyboard to associate the word in the middle of the screen with the relevant category-attribute combination as quickly as possible. The computer tracks the time respondents take to carry out each of the many association tasks, generating a metric referred to as the response latency. The validity of the implicit-association test comes from the fact that if a respondent does not associate the word in the middle with the combination of a category (e.g., Russia) in combination with the attribute (e.g., Negative) listed on the same side of the screen, then the respondent will be much slower in choosing the side of the screen to which the word in the middle belongs. In our example, respondents will be slower to associate “Suffering” from the middle of the screen with “Russia or Negative” if they view Russia positively. Each respondent’s implicit bias toward either Ukraine or Russia is the standardized performance difference (known as the “IAT d-score”) between that respondent’s response latencies on blocks where the negative attribute is paired with Ukraine and the positive attribute with Russia and blocks where the negative attribute is paired with Russia and positive attribute with Ukraine.
In addition to the implicit association test, we also asked respondents to explicitly tell us whether they felt positively or negatively toward Ukraine and Russia. Getting measurements of both explicit and implicit attitudes allows us to quantitatively measure whether pro-Russian dissociation was occurring. If we saw a lot of bias toward Russia on the implicit test, but heard little explicit support for Russia, that would suggest that Ukrainians either did not feel they could admit to “pro-Russian views” or were subconsciously predisposed toward Russia. But that is not what we found. Across all the cities in which we ran the study, we found that the majority of respondents were both implicitly and explicitly pro-Ukraine. And there was very little evidence of large-scale dissociation — that is, people’s explicit and implicit attitudes coincided. This study provides even more evidence that Ukrainians did not harbor underlying pro-Russian predispositions that Russians simply had to expose by invading the country.
In summary, Russia grossly mis-assessed the level of support a Russian invasion would receive from the Ukrainian population. Their assumptions were not supported by contemporary social science research, which has found that Ukrainians strongly supported their homeland before the Russian-backed war in Donbas, which started in 2014, and did so even more after 2014. Russia’s current invasion has only further strengthened Ukrainian national cohesion and sense of identity.
Ukrainian citizens’ strong rejection of the Russian occupation spotlights how Russia’s war in Ukraine is one of attempted imperial expansion and certainly not one of national reunification. And, while imperial powers can adopt different techniques to rule their conquered territories, Russia’s current rhetoric and actions suggest that any Ukrainians in territory conquered by Russia will be subject to Russian attempts to extirpate their Ukrainian identity. In this regard, the Russian occupiers are likely to go even further than they did in Donbas, where the teaching of Ukrainian language has almost been wiped out. Indeed, the banning of symbols of Ukrainian identity, outlawing of Ukrainian language instruction in schools, and the covering historical narratives in the media and in education that fit Putin’s distorted version of the facts are likely to compose key elements of Russian occupation.
This kind of authoritarian rule is exactly the type of scenario Timur Kuran envisioned when he developed the idea of preference falsification. Given the possibility of harsh repression or even death under Putin’s regime, Ukrainians who currently share their opinions freely with the world will likely be forced to falsify their preferences under Russian occupation if Putin is able to consolidate his rule.
Aaron Erlich is an assistant professor of political science at McGill University where he is a member of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship.