A survey by the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev shows division in Ukrainian society over the possibility of abandoning the goal of NATO membership and an outright rejection of ceding territory to Russia

Ukraine: divided over NATO and against ceding territory to Russia

REUTERS/MARKO DJURICA - The International Institute of Sociology in Kiev (IISK) has published its first poll since the beginning of the invasion of Russia

The International Institute of Sociology of Kiev (IISK), one of the oldest and most prestigious pollsters in Ukraine, has published its first survey since the beginning of the Russian invasion on 24 February.  

This poll has brought home to Ukrainian citizens two central issues regarding a potential diplomatic agreement, as they are at the core of what have been the main Ukrainian and Russian demands respectively: security guarantees to Kiev in exchange for renouncing NATO and the ceding of territories to Moscow. 

Although negotiations, so far conducted in Turkey and Belarus, have not been successful and have been frozen for weeks, these issues are likely to dominate any attempt to resolve the conflict unless one of the two sides manages to prevail on the battlefield.  

The questions were asked of 2,000 Ukrainian adults, not including responses from the millions of citizens displaced abroad or from the territories occupied by Russia before 24 February (Sevastopol, Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts). But it did take into account the responses of citizens of territories recently overrun by Russia.

Divisions vis-à-vis NATO

First, the IISK asked about the readiness to renounce NATO membership (a principle enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution) in exchange for security guarantees, following the formula proposed by Kiev in negotiations with Moscow. Here, the government headed by Volodymir Zelensky proposed that a number of countries, including the United States, Britain, France, China, Turkey, Israel and Russia itself, make a legal commitment to assist Ukraine militarily in the event of an armed attack. 

As many as 42 % of respondents were in favour of the proposal, while 39 % said that the goal of NATO membership should not be abandoned. At the regional level, while only 35% of respondents in the west of the country (the traditionally more "pro-Western" region) were in favour, this percentage rose to 50% in the east (the traditionally more "pro-Russian" region), where only 25% were against.

AP/OLIVIER MATTHYS  - Sede de la OTAN en Bruselas

Meanwhile, among Ukrainians in recently occupied territories, 37% are in favour of the proposal, compared to 39% against, while among Ukrainians in the now occupied territories who fled to government-controlled areas, 33% and 43% respectively are in favour and 43% against. 

While it is not clear that the countries in question would be willing to grant such guarantees or that Russia would agree, a slight majority of Ukrainians would support President Zelenski's proposal and would be willing to consequently renounce NATO membership, one of the central issues of the 2014 Euromaidan protests that has nonetheless always been strongly divisive in the country.

AFP/MAXIM GUCHEK  -   Conversaciones entre las delegaciones de Ucrania y Rusia en la región bielorrusa de Brest el 7 de marzo de 2022
Against ceding territory

Second, the IISK sounded out the Ukrainians on their willingness to make territorial concessions to Russia in the interest of ending the war as soon as possible and preserving the country's independence. 

In previous negotiations, one of the main Russian demands, in addition to neutrality, 'denazification' and demilitarisation of Ukraine, concerned Kiev's recognition of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics on their 'constitutional borders', i.e. the entire homonymous oblasts, which are still divided between Kiev and Moscow. 

AP/ALEXEI ALEXANDROV - La gente ondea banderas nacionales rusas celebrando el reconocimiento de la independencia en el centro de Donetsk, el territorio controlado por militantes prorrusos, en el este de Ucrania, a última hora del lunes 21 de febrero de 2022

In recent weeks, however, Russian irredentism seems to have been on the rise, taking steps to annex those territories it has occupied beyond the Donbas, in the oblasts of Kharkov, Kherson and Zaporiyia. 

Here, as many as 82 % of those polled reject ceding Ukrainian territories to Russia, even if it means prolonging the war and threatening their independence, compared to 10 % who would be willing to do so. This opinion is clearly in the majority throughout the country's geography, reaching 83% in the south and 68% in the east, the regions that Russian nationalists would like to annex.

AP/VADIM GHIRDA  -   Un agente de Policía ucraniano con un rifle de asalto camina por un andén rodeado de gente que espera un tren con destino a Kiev en Kostiantynivka, región de Donetsk, este de Ucrania, el jueves 24 de febrero de 2022

In the occupied territories, up to 77% hold this view, which reveals a rejection of the Russian presence that has taken the form of protests in cities such as Kherson and Melitopol and an incipient partisan movement, the extent of which, however, is difficult to ascertain.  

This percentage rises to 82% among citizens of occupied territories displaced to areas under Kiev's control, among whom only 5% would be willing to accept the cession of territory.

This rejection on the margins could make a diplomatic solution to the crisis more difficult, as Russia not only seems unwilling to give up its territorial claims, but to a large extent is increasing them day by day, while Ukrainian public opinion seems to be completely against giving up its sovereign territory, reducing Kiev's room for manoeuvre.

AP/OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK  -   Militares ucranianos caminan junto a los fragmentos de un avión derribado en Kiev, Ucrania, el viernes 25 de febrero de 2022

Historian and Russia expert Sergey Radchenko is of this opinion, stating on his Twitter account that "for an elected politician like Zelensky, it is certainly worth paying attention to these numbers [82% rejection of ceding territory]. The bottom line is that we are likely to see a lot more fighting on the ground before any political discussion can begin. The Korean scenario [a ceasefire whereby the country is de facto divided, but without a peace agreement] is looking increasingly likely.

Survey limitations

IISK Deputy Director Anton Hrushetskyi points out that the invasion imposes important methodological limitations on the survey. The non-inclusion of citizens who have left the country, up to 10% of Ukrainian adults according to IISK data (among whom there is probably an over-dimension of women and Ukrainians from the southeast), as well as the enormous difficulty of interviewing citizens in occupied territories or in areas under combat, reduce the representativeness of the survey. Moreover, according to Hrushetskyi, these polls would have a "pro-Ukrainian" bias of 4-6%, given the reluctance of citizens with "pro-Russian" sentiments to say in public what they really think given the wartime circumstances.

AFP PHOTO / Ukrainian presidential press service  -   El presidente ucraniano Volodímir Zelenski pronuncia un discurso en vídeo en Kiev el 15 de marzo de 2022

Nevertheless, Hrushetskyi says that these polls still make it possible to study trends in public opinion in the country. "The results are still highly representative and allow us to analyse the mood of the population," concludes the Ukrainian sociologist.