Ukraine and Russia: Together or Apart?

By Nadiya Kravets

Following the eruption of the Euromaidan protests across Ukraine in November 2013, the subsequent annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation in March 2014, and the ongoing Russia-backed insurgency in the eastern part of the Donbas region, the Ukrainian identity became the epicenter of public discussions worldwide. According to one narrative that has been predominantly emphasized among some scholars and especially in the mainstream public discourse, Ukraine is a divided country between Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers (Arel 1995; Charnysh 2013; Kulyk 2011); or ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars (Bremmer 1994; Hale 2008; Kulyk 2001); or those provinces of Ukraine that were historically part of the Russian empire and those who were part of the Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman Empire (Darden and Grzymala-Busse 2006; Peisakhin 2010; Himka 2015). Some or all of these cleavages are said to produce macro regions of Ukraine dividing it into two (West and East), four (West, Center, East, and South) or even eight regions that have explanatory power as an amalgamation of identity markers that overlap on these territories (Barrington and Herron 2004; Birch 2000; D'Anieri 2011). These divisions have been used by observers as explanations for voting behaviormass mobilization and now also for understanding the ongoing separatism in the Donbas region and the Crimea.

An alternative, although minority-held view about the role of national identity in Ukraine posits that ethno-linguistic, historical, or administrative divisions are important, but are only a component of the larger interactions in identity politics of the country. Just because identity differences exist and at times can become quite heated when used by politicians during the election time, they do not lead to the conclusion that, on the whole, the strength of the nation or its political and territorial viability are in question. Ethnic and regional divisions in Ukraine have actually contributed to the stability of the country, and civic identity is much stronger than competing ethnic identities (Shulman 2004; Sasse 2010a; Sasse 2010b). While ethnic nationalism focuses on identity markers such as language and ethnicity, civic nationalism in modern states measures: the desire of the people to live in a common territory, the belief in common political principles, and the consent to be part of the nation, among others. The civic nationalism approach helps us to understand the recent Euromaidan mass mobilization because the anti-regime protests have been an all-Ukrainian phenomenon, taking place in all administrative regions of Ukraine (albeit with different degrees of intensity), especially when compared to the earlier wave of mobilization, namely the Orange Revolution, which was much more a western and central Ukrainian phenomenon. It also could potentially help us to understand why Ukrainians have so strongly united against the ongoing Russian aggression and why surveys confirm that even residents of southern and eastern Ukraine reject separatism. Thus the strength and importance of civic nationalism in Ukraine has been a largely ignored subject. Our Independent Ukraine visualization project adds to the discussion on civic nationalism in Ukraine by examining one of its components, namely the evolution of the desire by Ukrainians to live in a territory separate from Ukraine's historical imperial center—Russia.

Ukraine and Russian flags

Ukraine and Russia: together or apart?

On December 1, 1991, 92.3 percent of the citizens of the newly established Ukrainian state (voter turnout was 84.18 percent) supported the Declaration of Independence, adopted a few months earlier by the Ukrainian parliament. These results included 83.86 and 83.90 percent of voters in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine supporting independence, from a total voter turnout of 80.65 and 76.73 percent respectively (in the Crimea 54.19 percent supported independence out of the 67.50 percent of those who voted). How has this allegiance to independent Ukraine changed over the last two-and-a-half decades? And, reflecting on the recent events, if separatism in the Crimea and the Donbas was and is a genuine grass-roots movement, then how and why have the popular preferences changed so radically since the 1991 vote? Unfortunately, no study has been carried out over the last two decades that traces these processes systematically and, even more crucially, examines the notion of belonging to Ukraine not by aggregating answers by administrative or macro regions (therefore producing subjective regional cleavages), but instead looking at sub-regional preferences and their change over time. One research team in Ukraine from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) has tried to track the degree of sovereignty that Ukrainians felt vis-à-vis the country's relations with Russia. We used their survey data to visualize how Ukrainians conceived their independence in regards to Russia, Ukraine's former imperial center, and found two macro-trends that we present in this illustration.

First, contrary to certain opinions offered by the present and former Russian leadership and promulgated by some scholars and mass media about the failure of the Ukrainian state, these surveys show that by 2013–2014 the Ukrainian nation-building process was rather successful, at least in regards to the growing salience of civic nationalism. While significant polarization on the question of unity with Russia was present in the early 1990s, by the end of 2013 the majority of Ukrainians across all regions wanted friendly relations with Moscow as two separate states, with an open border, without visas and customs. The Euromaidan revolution seems to have brought back some regional variation, while the annexation of the Crimea and the insurgency in the east have likely contributed to anti-Russian sentiments of a significant part of residents in western and central Ukraine.     

Second, a broad-based pro-Russian separatist movement in the Donbas and the Crimea should have emerged during the late 1990s, when popular support for the unification with Russia registered around 60–79 percent. It has been on the decline ever since registering at 24–32 percent in these provinces before the Euromaidan revolution (November 2013), 30–41 percent during the Euromaidan revolution, and 29–39 percent after the annexation of the Crimea (no data from the Crimea is available after February 2014).

We expand on these trends in the Map Gallery by looking at two dynamics: preferences in regards to relations with Russia before the Euromaidan revolution and after.


Since 1995, KIIS has held several national surveys during each year, where they asked respondents to reflect on "What kind of relationship would you like to see between Ukraine and Russia?" Five possible answers could be given:

  1. They should be like between other states with closed borders, visas, and customs 
  2. Ukraine and Russia should be independent, but friendly states with open borders, and without visas and customs
  3. Ukraine and Russia should unite into one state
  4. Hard to say
  5. Refuse to answer

Some 1500 or more respondents (N=1500), depending on the survey, were selected using a stochastic sampling model and polled across Ukraine through face-to-face interviews, with residents in all administrative regions, types of settlement, and of different voting age (18+) and gender represented in the sample. Using the data from some of these surveys, we mapped the answers in Esri's ArcGIS by the 26 administrative regions where the interviews took place. Surveys in this visualization include: omnibus from September 16 – October 5, 1995 (N= 1719); omnibus from November 1 – 16, 1998 (N=1605); omnibus from November 5 – 15, 2002 (N=2023); omnibus from December 8 – 19, 2005 (N= 2018); omnibus from September 1 – 7, 2008, (N= 2072); omnibus from November 4 – 15, 2011 (N=2037); omnibus from February 8 – 17, 2013 (N=2032); omnibus from May 21 – 30, 2013 (N=2030); omnibus from November 9 – 20, 2013 (N=2011); omnibus from February 8 – 18,  2014 (N= 2041), and omnibus from April 29 – May 11, 2014 (N=2022), where N represents the number of observations/respondents recorded by the survey. This data could be directly requested from KIIS.

In the making of the actual maps, we decided to take the highest response percentage for a given answer and set of years and divide it into four equal intervals so as to avoid confusion, while at the same time illustrating the data for multiple years. For example, for answer 3 on unifying with Russia, the highest percent supporting unity in the years between 1995 and 2014 was 78 percent, thus we divided all responses for that answer into four equal intervals, illustrating 0 –19%, 20 – 38%, 39 – 57 %, 58 – 78%. The final N= noted on the maps excludes missing values, the 'Hard to Say' and 'Refuse to Answer" responses.

Food for thought

The surveys, visually interpreted here, are unique and no other study known to us has traced sovereignty preferences systematically over the last two decades. However, the results also raise more questions than they answer and thus point to avenues for future research in at least three directions. First, while visualizing the surveys over time helps us to see the changing macro-trends, it does not explain them. Thus, more research needs to be carried out in attempting to explain why these trends have emerged (greater cross-regional support for Ukrainian sovereignty since the late 1990s and a more uniform attitude towards friendly relations with Russia, with waning support for separatism in the east and south of the country). Second, the survey results highlight the evolving nature of popular preferences in Ukraine. Examining how and why these preferences change necessitates a more nuanced approach to identity and preference formation in Ukraine, beyond the typical markers of language use, ethnic or national affiliation and place of residence. It points out that civic identification might be quite strong in Ukraine, requiring researchers to bring in additional measurements of identity and preference formation. And last, in approaching the study of identity and preference formation, especially through quantitative methods, researchers must go beyond national surveys that tend to take administrative oblast divisions, or subjective macro regions such as "Western" or "Eastern" Ukraine as markers for variation and instead use smaller administrative units such as 'rayons' or census zones that would help us to better map what geographical divisions in Ukraine actually consist of, how they evolve over time, and what impact they have on the country's politics and policy orientations.

Works cited

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