Ukrainians have endured war for nearly two years. Since the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, more than 6.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, while an estimated 3.7 million are internally displaced.
As the war enters its third year, what is the mood among these Ukrainians? As a political geographer who has worked with colleagues on surveys in the region for years, I know that measuring public opinion in wartime Ukraine presents many challenges.
Nearly 1 in 4 Ukrainians have had to move from their homes. And while the 620-mile front line has largely stabilized, missile and drone attacks are a daily occurrence. Patriotic feelings are high, and so also is distrust, especially in places formerly occupied by Russia.
Most public opinion research today in Ukraine is conducted by telephone interview. Survey companies make calls to randomly selected functioning numbers and ask citizens over the age of 18 to participate.
Response rates can be low. Nonetheless, survey companies manage through persistence.
The latest survey by the National Democratic Institute released on January 26 provides insight into how Ukrainians are coping. Administered by the reputable Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, this telephone survey recorded the views of 2,516 Ukrainians from Nov. 14-22, 2023. Four findings stand out:
1. Costs in Lives and Mental Health Are High
Since the outset of the war, the National Democratic Institute has asked Ukrainians if they have experienced the loss of family and friends from the war. In May 2022, one-fifth of respondents indicated that they had. In November 2023, almost half said they had lost loved ones, with higher rates among middle-aged and young respondents.
The mental health costs to Ukrainians of war are considerable. Many are forced to flee to shelters at all hours. Almost three-quarters of women and half of male respondents report a deterioration of their mental health, according to the latest poll.
Lack of sleep is the single largest reported health cost of the war. But lost income, deteriorating physical health, and family separation are also commonly reported.
Any post-war Ukraine will be a society where significant parts of the population are living with physical and mental disabilities. Human rehabilitation needs are already considerable and will grow.
2. More Ukrainians Are Willing to Negotiate
Since the war began, the National Democratic Institute survey has asked if Ukraine should engage in negotiations with Russia to try to achieve peace.
A majority (59 percent) said yes just a few months into the war in May 2022. But, by August 2022, in the wake of accumulating Russian assaults and alleged war crimes, sentiment had flipped with a majority against. By January 2023, the share of those in favor had dropped 30 points to a low of just 29 percent.
Since then, this percentage has climbed upward. In November 2023, it rebounded to 42 percent.
As it stands, the majority of Ukrainians are opposed to seeking negotiations with Russia. Talks, in any case, are not on the agenda. In the current war climate, there appears little prospect of negotiations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia at a time when it is deepening the militarization of the state, economy, and society.
Academic research, largely based on the U.S. experience since World War II, suggests that as casualties increase, public support for war declines.
Wars of defense against an invasion appear to be different, with greater public tolerance of loss because the conflict is perceived as necessary and just.
3. Resistance to Land Concessions Continue
From the outset of the war, Ukrainians have been surveyed to elicit what they would accept as the price of peace. The question is difficult for Ukrainians who rightly feel victimized.
Research by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology since the outset of the war reveals overwhelming sentiment among Ukrainians against territorial concessions for immediate peace.
My own research with social psychologist Karina Korostelina in front-line southeastern Ukrainian cities revealed the overwhelming belief that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is sacred.
But so too, of course, is human life. Ukrainians are understandably divided over what should be prioritized: preserving territory or preserving lives.
Wartime experiences also matter. Earlier research suggested that those most affected by the war through displacement and most concerned about their immediate security are more likely to prioritize a cease-fire.
Russia occupies approximately 18 percent of Ukraine today, a figure composed of territories it controlled before February 2022 (Crimea and the Donbas) and territories it subsequently seized and retained. Some, but not much, territory has shifted hands this last year.
To most Ukrainians, it is unacceptable to hold only the territory it currently controls as the price for peace – 71 percent strongly reject this, another 13 percent less strongly in the survey.
Only 12 percent see peace based on current territorial control as acceptable.
Meanwhile, a majority declare it is fully unacceptable to return to the pre-2022 borders. Slim majorities also say it is unacceptable that Ukraine renounces its aspirations to join NATO and the European Union as the price of peace.
These attitudes restrain Ukraine’s leadership, as U.S. officials signal that they do not foresee Ukraine retaking lost territory in 2024. Right now, it is safer politically to fight than confront an ugly peace.
4. Ukrainians Expect a Long War but Remain Optimistic
Ukrainians do not think the conflict will end any time soon, with 43 percent saying that war will go on for an additional 12 months, at least. A third responded that they simply do not know when the conflict will end.
In May 2022, just a few months into the conflict, 1 in 4 Ukrainians thought the war would end within three months. In November 2023, only 3 percent had that expectation.
War, paradoxically, generated a surge of optimism about Ukraine’s future as Ukrainians processed suffering into hope. That sentiment remained high in November 2023, with 77 percent of respondents saying they were optimistic about the country’s future, though fewer Ukrainians said that they were “very optimistic.” Data on this important metric in 2024 will be revealing.
The Desire to Resist
Ukraine war fatigue is growing among the country’s Western backers. But no group is more tired of this war than Ukrainians. The costs being paid by ordinary Ukrainians are enormous in terms of lives lost, settlements destroyed, environments poisoned and futures compromised.
And these costs come across in public opinion surveys. But so too does an enduring desire to have their war resistance mean something, to have it affirm Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.