Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference in Kyiv, February 14, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference in Kyiv, February 14, 2022.
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of how he regards Ukraine, the nation he is threatening to invade. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush that the former Soviet state “is not even a country.” The Russian president believes the Ukrainians and the Russians are one people. It follows that Ukrainians cannot reject being part of Russia and any “anti-Russian” sentiment in Ukraine must be the result of Western meddling rather than a reflection of the preferences of Ukrainians. Putin has used this argument to characterize peaceful political mobilization in Ukraine as foreign-orchestrated coups. He also dismisses polls showing that Ukrainians now favor European Union and NATO accession over membership in Russian-led political and economic organizations.

Putin’s refusal to see Ukraine as an independent country undermines rather than advances his professed foreign policy objectives. Had he taken Ukrainian domestic politics seriously, the current crisis could have been avoided. Even after pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven out by a popular uprising in 2014, Putin could have maintained Russia’s influence and steered Ukraine away from NATO—if only he had allowed the democratic process in his western neighbor to play out without interference. After 30 years of independence, the genie of Ukrainian national identity and statehood cannot be put back into the bottle, no matter how hard Putin tries.

But the Kremlin is not alone in paying too little attention to the realities of Ukraine’s domestic politics. If Washington and its European allies hope to unwind the current standoff and avoid a similar one in the future, they will also need a better grasp of what ordinary Ukrainians want.

A Problem of Putin’s Making

After 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, regional divisions generated a pro-Russian electorate in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Since then, pro-Russian and pro-Western politicians have alternated in power. In 2010, the pro-Russian candidate, Yanukovych, defeated the pro-Western candidate in a fair election, after losing to the same candidate five years prior.

Three years later, under pressure from Russia, Yanukovych refused to a sign a trade agreement with the EU, prodding Ukrainians who favored stronger European ties to take to the streets. After clashes between government forces and protesters left dozens dead in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in February 2014, the parliament booted Yanukovych from office and pro-European politicians took over. Pro-Russian Ukrainian elites, however, quickly began bargaining with the new government: they were well positioned to maintain influence over national policies because the Russia-friendly electorates in the south and east meant their priorities could not be ignored. As in 2010, another pro-Russian political competitor would have stood a good chance of returning to power in the next electoral cycle.

But Putin didn’t wait for the democratic process to play out. Instead, he annexed Crimea and began sponsoring an insurgency in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Rather than fueling Ukraine’s divisions, Russian aggression increased support not just for Ukraine’s continued independence but also for a pro-European orientation. The Russian invasion fundamentally altered Ukraine’s electoral geography by cutting off some 12 percent of the mostly pro-Russian voters in Crimea and occupied Donbas from voting in Ukraine’s elections. Russian military involvement undermined Russia’s standing in Ukraine: before 2014, less than 25 percent of the Ukrainian population favored NATO membership; in December 2021, 58 percent were in favor.

Washington and its European allies need a better grasp of what ordinary Ukrainians want.
Putin’s aggressive policies also reduced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s willingness to compromise with Russia, despite the fact that he was considered the more pro-Russian centrist candidate in the 2019 elections. He sought to diminish Russia’s influence over Ukraine when he removed oligarch-owned pro-Russian TV channels from the airwaves, something that his more nationalist predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had stopped short of doing. Russia’s determination to curtail Ukraine’s sovereignty also pushed Zelensky to harden his position in the negotiations intended to end the war in the Donbas: Russia insists on constitutionally-guaranteed “special status” for these regions within Ukraine, which would give Russian proxy leadership a de facto veto over Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies. During the presidential campaign, Zelensky had said he hoped to reach an agreement with Putin. But once Zelensky was in office, Putin’s intransigence pushed him to become, in the words of Russia’s top negotiator over Donbas, “no different” from the previous “nationalist” president, Petro Poroshenko.

Russia’s reluctance to recognize Ukrainian national identity has fueled fears in the former Soviet state of being absorbed into Russia’s orbit. Ukrainian citizens know that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s split from Moscow—which began in 2018 and provoked the Kremlin’s ire—could be undone. Language policy could shift dramatically toward de-emphasizing Ukrainian and strengthening Russian. Russia could pressure Ukraine to change how it teaches schoolchildren about the Holodomor, the manmade famine engineered by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin that cost millions of Ukrainians their lives. Russian overlords could stymie the Ukrainian president’s efforts to expose oligarchic networks. Putin could also try to curb efforts, aided by European allies, to create an independent judiciary in Ukraine, given his concerns that the establishment of rule of law in Russia’s neighbor might resonate in Russia.

Further Russian attempts to squeeze Ukraine will generate more anti-Russian sentiment in the country. But instead of wrestling with its own miscalculations and misperceptions about Ukraine, Russia continues to either blame the West or write off attitudes in Ukraine. If Russia invades, it will face widespread and sustained resistance not only from the Ukrainian army, outgunned though it may be against Russian military might, but from ordinary people in all regions of the country. In a recent poll, 50 percent of Ukrainians said they were willing to resist Russian aggression; 33 percent said they would do so with arms and another 22 percent by nonmilitary means.

As long as the West condemns and sanctions Russian aggression and rejects Russia’s claims over Ukraine, the current leadership in Kyiv stands to gain support as people rally around the government in the face of Moscow’s saber-rattling. And if the Zelensky government were to crumble in the face of protests following military defeat, its replacement in all likelihood would be even more adamant about safeguarding Ukrainian independence. A Russian puppet government, on the other hand, would lack any modicum of legitimacy and could rule only with the full force of Russian guns behind it, requiring Russia’s complete and sustained occupation of Ukraine.

Putin Doesn’t Speak for All Russians

Russia is not doomed to be a wannabe imperialist power, seeking to dominate its neighbors. It is a mistake to equate Putin’s views on Ukraine and Russia’s relations with the West with the stable preferences of Russian society. To be sure, for now, Putin’s authoritarian rule has destroyed parliamentary opposition and pushed civil society opposition into exile or prison, giving Putin leeway to act unilaterally. Even in this highly repressive climate, however, thousands of Russians, including former military officials, have called on Putin not to attack Ukraine. The Russian president should listen to them: paradoxically, the best way to bring Ukraine closer to Russia would be to let Ukraine go.

The Ukrainian leadership, meanwhile, should be careful to distinguish between guarding its independence from an imminent military threat and foreclosing any possibility of forging a cooperative future relationship with Russia. The democratic rights of Ukrainian citizens who prefer a closer relationship with Russia should be scrupulously guaranteed. Ukraine’s strength lies in being a pluralist alternative to Russian authoritarianism. By strengthening and deepening democracy, Ukraine would deny Putin his objective to turn the former Soviet state into a “little Russia.”

As diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions proceed, Ukraine and its allies should be trying to shift the focus away from debates over NATO expansion. Instead, diplomacy should focus on helping Russia understand that its long-term interests are better served by forging a cooperative relationship with a Europe-oriented, independent Ukraine. Hopefully, it will not require a war for the Kremlin to learn that although it can influence Ukraine, it cannot control it or reverse time through force.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MARIA POPOVA is Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University.
  • OXANA SHEVEL is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University.
  • More By Maria Popova
  • More By Oxana Shevel