Changes in the foreign policy attitudes of Ukrainians over the period 2014–2016 represent one of the most significant transformations in public opinion in recent years. They are characterized by changes in both quantitative and qualitative indicators evident nationally as well as at the regional level.
Regarding European integration, one can speak of the disappearance of the polarity in integration priorities. The choice between Ukraine joining the EU or joining the Customs Union no longer divides society. As of May 2017, proponents of joining the Customs Union in Ukrainian society amounted to a mere 11 percent.
At the same time, fluctuation in support for (hypothetical) accession to the EU ended up at 49 percent (in May 2013 it was 42 percent). Basically, this suggests that the maximum possible level of conscious support for Euro-integration given today’s realities has been reached. Any additional growth seems possible only with the emergence of new circumstances, either domestic or foreign, including positive developments in bilateral relations with the EU.
The notion of dualism disappeared in the integration priorities of Ukrainians. Until 2014, if the poll question offered no alternative option, Ukrainians predominantly supported the idea of membership in both the Customs Union and the EU. However, since the end of 2013 the balance has shifted toward those who oppose membership in the Customs Union: in March 2014 only 26 percent were in favor of this option and 53 percent were against it. Meanwhile, the proponents of membership in the EU continued to remain in the majority.
Regional changes regarding integration priorities should be considered the most significant ones. The maximum decline in support for joining the Customs Union was observed exactly in those regions where the idea of Eurasian integration was traditionally supported by the majority of the population: the South, the East, and the Donbas.
At the same time, loss of support for the Eurasian vector of integration gradually began to merge with an increase in support for nonaffiliation with any of these unions. In other words, the greatest share of people disappointed with the Eurasian vector “swayed” either toward the nonaccession category or toward the undecided category. Support for nonaccession of any kind was greatest in the South, the East, and the Donbas, where it grew significantly over the past two years.
However, two scenarios are possible here. First, the disinclination to join any union could become constant. Then we would have a new kind of regional breakdown, in which yesterday’s proponents of joining the Customs Union would simply object to the need to sway in favor of the EU. This, in turn, would create new regional differences, but probably less tangible than the previous ones, that is, without a high level of polarization, as in the situation with the country divided into those who favor EU accession and those who favor an alliance with the Customs Union.
In the second scenario, the position “neither the EU nor the CU” would be only temporary, an interim position, and could potentially become a resource for supplementing the ranks of EU proponents. Insofar as a nucleus of conscious proponents of EU integration can already be considered to have formed in the majority of regions, the transition from the position “nowhere” to supporting EU integration seems possible only if new circumstances arise that stimulate loyalty to the EU.
The attitudes of Ukrainians toward Euro-Atlantic integration have also undergone major upheavals in the period since 2014. They were even more dramatic than those regarding the choice between the EU and the Customs Union.
Support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO began to grow steadily in the spring of 2014 and at the moment is at an unprecedentedly high point in the entire history of NATO-Ukraine relations. So, if a referendum had been organized in Ukraine regarding NATO membership at any time after June 2014, it would have yielded positive results. In June 2017 the potential yes vote was registered at 70 percent among those who would have participated in the referendum (predicted 66 percent turnout).
The vision of the role of NATO also changed. In 2014, NATO accession for the first time became the most supported option for guaranteeing the security of Ukraine. Alongside this shift toward NATO as guarantor was a decline in the support for non-bloc status (the main security option prior to 2014) and for a military alliance with Russia (before 2014 it was in second place).
Attitudes toward NATO membership changed considerably at the regional level as well. As an example, in 2012, fewer than 1 percent of the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts considered NATO membership a possible guarantee of national security. In the summer of 2015, this figure in the Ukraine-controlled Donbas grew to 12 percent, and by May 2016 it had increased to 24 percent.
At the same time, a number of risks must be considered. The steady growth in support for NATO membership is associated with the security vacuum that Ukraine got caught up in after the failure of the non-bloc policy and Russian aggression in the east of the country.
Thus, two of the most widespread security options in Ukrainian society prior to 2014, non-bloc status and a military alliance with Russia, were rejected with the emergence of new realities. However, though support for a military alliance with Russia collapsed, the non-bloc status is a different matter altogether. As an option, it dropped from first place (from 42 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in June 2017), but in the South, East and the Donbas it remains the most popular option, though supported by only a relative majority.
In the event of a freezing of the conflict in the Donbas, with a population accustomed to the status quo (the conflict persists, the territory is uncontrolled, Crimea has been annexed), and should adequate support from Ukraine’s Western partners be lacking, a decline in the level of support for NATO affiliation and an increase in the support of non-bloc status could be expected.
Precisely this sector of the population—residents of the South, the East, and the Donbas who support non-bloc status—should be the target audience for information and awareness campaigns regarding the realities and prospects of the national security policy of Ukraine.
Moreover, the aforementioned risks will be strengthened if key political players in Ukraine return to the topic of NATO membership as the central focus of political campaigns (elections/referenda).
To sum up, society’s attitudes toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration became a field of dramatic shifts beginning with the Euromaidan in 2013–2014. How the new map of society’s moods in Ukraine takes shape will depend on potential changes in the critically important regions of the country, namely, the South, the East, and the Donbas.
Authors: Maria Zolkina and Olexiy Haran, political analysts of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (Kyiv, Ukraine)Author : Ukrainian Liaison Office in Brussels