As recent events have shown, Vladimir Putin views himself as a rebuilder of the USSR. According to his worldview, Vladimir The Restorer collects former Russian territories into a newly created Russian Union. But despite the recent show of strength from pro-Soviet protesters in Ukraine’s east, the Kremlin’s recent aggressions in Ukraine have actually united the country in its opposition to Putin and his worldview.
The story behind this worldview starts with Ukraine. Kremlin elites don’t believe in a Ukrainian nation, and Putin personally views Ukraine as a largely artificial entity built of random parts of Russia and Eastern Europe. In his speech on March 18, following the Crimea referendum, Putin stated: “after the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks … turned significant historic territories of southern Russia into the Ukrainian republic. This was done without considering the national composition of residents, and today it’s contemporary southeastern Ukraine.” Earlier in March, Putin told Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev that Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union was not quite legal. In his private talks, Putin is even more straightforward. According to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, during the 2008 closed council meeting between NATO and Russia, Putin said to George W. Bush that Ukraine “was not even a state.”
Recently, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a vice chairman of the Russian parliament who often voices the Kremlin’s position, sent a letter to the governments of Poland, Romania, and Hungary suggesting they hold referendums on incorporating western Ukrainian lands into their territory. Kremlin puppets rarely act on their own discretion, and such a bold deed would be unlikely without some high-level approval. Amusingly, Zhirinovsky’s proposal found some support in last week’s session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)—from the representative of Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik. (The Jobbik speech was followed by applause from the Russian delegation.)
However, rather than splitting Ukraine, the Kremlin’s actions are fostering Ukrainian unity. Euromaidan and Putin’s engagement in Ukraine’s politics have significantly intensified the value convergence between the different parts of the country.
First, the Euromaidan protests became a kind of “melting pot” that brought together Ukrainians from across the country. By no means was the effect of Euromaidan limited to western Ukraine: Of the non-Kiev participants, half came from western regions; the remaining half were from central and southeastern Ukraine. Among the protest victims killed during the clashes with police were people from the southeast—Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, and Donetsk (the birthplace of Yanukovych). Euromaidan really was a countrywide phenomenon.
Moreover, the 2014 protest fostered national unity. The Euromaidan protest was more rational than the emotional 2004 protests, and a protest based on values rather than charisma is more likely to unite people. In 2014, Ukrainian citizens voted not for a specific personality, but for ideas (against corruption, for democracy and European integration). Although many people in southeastern Ukraine didn’t support Euromaidan, the southeast is itself split along generational lines: Young people in the east of Ukraine are committed to Europe, and their values are closer to the western regions of Ukraine. Some sociologists estimate that current cross-regional differences will fade in as little as ten years. Furthermore, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has significantly diminished the interregional divide. An external threat always plays a powerful role in the formation of a nation. (See, for example, the role that Chinese aggression played in fostering the formation of a unique Taiwanese identity.) This is what has been going on in Ukraine.
Many recent surveys indicate that the convergence on issues of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity have substantively accelerated following the Crimea invasion. According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, a majority of Ukrainians—in all regions—condemn the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine (93 percent of people in the west and center held this opinion, 73 percent in the South, and 68 percent in the East). A study by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that Russian-speaking Ukrainians in all regions do not experience significant infringement of their rights and actively oppose Russia sending troops to Ukraine to protect them (67 percent in the south and 61 percent in east of Ukraine). Similarly, the majority of respondents in all regions believe the Crimean referendum was a threat to Ukraine’s integrity, support Ukraine’s independence, and the autonomous status of Crimea within Ukrainian borders; 64 percent of Ukrainians support a unitary Ukrainian state, and only 14 percent prefer federalization—a plan to give greater authority to the regions of Ukraine. (Russian media presents a very different picture.) In general, the majority in all regions opposes federalization; and even in the eastern regions of Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporozhye, Lugansk, and Kharkiv only a minority supports it (26 percent, as opposed to 45 percent supporters of the unitary status of Ukraine). The surveys show that the number of federalization supporters did not increase despite its massive promotion by pro-Russian media. Within Donetsk region alone—where the seizure of administrative buildings by pro-Russian activists took place last week—the majority (just over 50 percent) support a unitary Ukrainian state, while only 15.5 percent support federalization, and 18.2 percent support joining Russia. Overall, the data suggests that the activity of pro-Russian activists does not correspond to the actual preferences of the broader population.
Moreover, Putin has fostered pro-European sentiment across all of Ukraine. As a result of Russian aggression, the support for European integration rose by 10 percent to 52 percent from February to March 2014. (It remained constant at 40 percent throughout all of 2013.) Likewise, the number of people supporting participation in Russia’s Custom Union dramatically decreased. Based on a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey conducted from March 14 to 19, in the eastern regions, the number of Custom Union supporters fell from 72 percent in February to 55 percent in March 2014; in the south, the number fell from 56 percent in February to 32 percent in March 2014. According to Svitlana Khutka, a Researcher at the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the number of supporters of the European Union has significantly increased, primarily due to an increase of support among the residents of Ukraine’s southeast, who have changed their position on this issue due to the aggressive and hostile stance that Russia has illustrated with relation to Ukraine.
As the surveys clearly illustrate, the Crimean events have encouraged consensus regarding the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, and the agreement on its further European integration. Vladimir Putin should be given credit for strengthening Ukraine’s national identity—the very existence of which he has so persistently denied.
Maria Snegovaya is a Ph.D. student in political science at Columbia University, and a columnist at Vedomosti.