By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst
As diplomatic tensions over Ukraine escalate, public opinion in Russia and Ukraine are challenging barriers to the resolution of the crisis. In Moscow, symbols of public support for the Crimean takeover and against Western interference are apparent – signs reading “Barack Obama is banned from entering” can be seen pasted on shop windows and subway cars. Anti-Western sentiment is nothing new among Russians, but in recent months it has been fanned by the state-run news media and politicians who cite the visits of Western politicians to Maidan Square to fuel Russia’s narrative about Western “interference” in Ukraine and its alleged attempts to undermine Russian interests. A poll conducted in late March by the Levada Centre, an independent research organization based in Moscow, found that 61 percent of Russians view the U.S. “generally badly or very badly,” with 53 percent of respondents viewing the European Union in the same way.
In Ukraine, Crimea’s secession, the seizure of government buildings by pro-Russian forces, and the general rise of pro-Russian insurgents suggest similar sentiments; however, questions have arisen about this perception. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that his government actively supports pro-Russian insurgents, insisting that their existence and actions are locally-driven and fueled by threats against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. However, a poll of respondents in Ukraine found that a mere five percent believe that Russian-speakers are “definitely” under pressure or threat. The same poll shows that the majority of Ukrainians favor a united Ukraine, reject unification with Russia, and are opposed to Russian military intervention. Overall, only a small percentage ranging from 4 to 4.7% favor completely breaking away from Ukraine to join with Russia. More questions arose when pro-Russian separatist forces who declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in early April actively thanked the “National Liberation Movement” (NLM) – a supposedly grassroots movement led by Putin – for its support. The NLM has been known for spreading pro-Russian sentiment throughout former Soviet territories and more recently helped foment separatist sentiments in Donetsk and other eastern Ukrainian provinces, organized pro-war marches inside Russia, and attacked outspoken critics of Putin.
For Ukrainians who identify with Russia, primarily those living in three Ukrainian provinces (Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk), the idea of Russian rule may indeed be favored. In a February poll conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, only 12% of Ukrainian respondents favored a union with Russia; however, support for a union of Russia and Ukraine was higher in Crimea (41.0%), Donetsk (33.2%) and Luhansk (24.1%). In addition, a majority of citizens in Donetsk disapprove of the recent takeover of government buildings. In the provinces of Odessa and Kharkiv, where support for uniting Ukraine and Russia stands at 24% and 15.1%, respectively, large pro-Russian protests and attempts to seize government buildings have occurred, and the mayor of Kharkiv was shot on April 28. Despite low support for Russian reunification, the situation in Odessa further deteriorated on May 2 following the deaths of 43 people during an armed clash between pro-Ukrainian protestors and pro-Russian militants, followed by an attack on the Interior Ministry office on May 4 by pro-Russian forces who demanded and secured the release of arrested Russian protestors.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian security forces have arrested more than a dozen individuals suspected of gathering intelligence for Moscow, ranging from Ukrainian nationals to suspected Russian “war tourists.” In response, Kiev has ended unrestricted travel for Russians to the country and started to deny entrance to the Russian media at the border. The bigger problem for the new Ukrainian government, however, will be dealing with genuinely pro-Russian sentiments in eastern Ukraine. Only recently have military operations begun against separatists who took over government buildings, indicating an unwillingness to lose the troubled eastern regions. Such reassurance will be critical for the people of Ukraine who must now deal with rapidly devaluing currency, the price gouging of gas supplied by Russia, as well as the looming threat of further invasion or the outbreak of armed violence.
As for the West, help beyond hotly debated sanctions and broad statements of concern is possible without resorting to armed conflict or direct provocation. The public opinion landscape in Ukraine should drive collaboration among Western intelligence services to expose the activities and motivations of pro-separatist groups like the NLM. Boosting direct support to the fledgling Ukrainian government to restore order and protect minority rights will also help undermine Russia’s attempts to exaggerate the influence of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. Western support can also enable the new Ukrainian government to mobilize its own embassies and diplomatic capabilities to directly approach other nations, allowing it to generate critical alliances that would bolster Kiev’s domestic credibility.