Why Putin’s Adventure in Ukraine Is Doomed
Policy + Politics

Why Putin’s Adventure in Ukraine Is Doomed

REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, the plan to annex parts of Ukraine probably goes something like this: take Crimea; ignite Russian nationalism in parts of the country where ties to Moscow run deep; then incite anti-Ukrainian protests in these places and use the protests as an excuse to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine and annex it -- just as he did in Crimea. 

“It is classic Russian foreign policy to try to destabilize a country before it completely takes it over,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs. “Russia has always considered Ukraine as a nation culturally and historically connected to it.”

Related: Russian Ties to Ukraine Go Much Deeper than Gas

This plan had been unfolding just as Putin wanted--pro-Russia protestors have taken over government buildings in eastern Ukraine, while Russian troops wait at the border. Now, however, Putin’s plan is becoming undone for the simple reason that Russian nationalism within Ukraine is not nearly as powerful as he anticipated.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea ignited a wave of anti-Moscow feeling that had been latent before 2014. Poll numbers illustrate this; a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that the majority of Ukrainians, no matter what part of the country there are from, strongly oppose Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Even Russian speakers within Ukraine are against Russia’s recent actions. A study by the International Republican Institute shows that 67 percent of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and 61 percent of Russian speakers in the east are not experiencing infringements to their rights, and are against Russian troops being sent to protect them.

The majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians are also against the invasion of Crimea, believe the referendum to join Russia was a threat to Ukraine, and support an independent Ukraine. Only 14 percent of Ukraine’s Russian speakers want to federalize the country in a way that would allow Russian-speaking areas to become part of a Russian federation. 

The Russian media paints a very different picture of this. It insists that regions with ties to Russia are under siege by the Ukrainian government and fascists groups. But according to the International Republican Institute, even in Ukraine’s far east, support for Russia is low; just 26 percent of people there support federalization, while 45 percent want a unified Ukraine. Even in Donetsk, where pro-Russia activist have seized federal buildings, more than 50 percent of people want to keep Ukraine in tact.

Related: How Putin Awoke NATO’s Sleeping Giant 

A generational divide also stymies Putin. Most young Ukrainians long for closer ties to Europe, not Russia. The majority of the pro-Russia sentiment comes from older people, who fondly remember communism and are weary of a more European Ukraine. Yevhen Holovakha, a well-known sociologist and intellectual in Ukraine, suggests that within 10 years support for closer ties to Russia will all but vanish, even in areas where Russian is spoken. 

Putin’s actions have also caused a jump in pro-Europe sentiment across Ukraine. Support for closer ties to Europe went up 10 percent to 52 percent after the Crimea invasion. Support for the trade deal with Russia that kicked off the Euromaiden protests has also diminished, dropping from 72 percent to 55 percent in Ukraine’s east. 

Many have suggested that Putin’s actions show that a fond remembrance of the Soviet Union drives his actions, and he’s stuck in a Cold War mentality. Unfortunately for him, these numbers show that the majority of Ukrainians are not. 

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