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Public opinion polls in wartime Ukraine: do they tell the full story?

War requires patriotic performance, inducing people to express positions they know are socially and (geo)politically correct

EuropeWar Zones

Ukrainian flags fly in Dnipro, marking the graves of soldiers killed in action following the Russian invasion in February 2022. Photo by Svitlana Korableva/Instagram.

Does war change geopolitical attitudes? The answer seems obvious—yes!—but the question is more complex than it appears. In December 2014, John O’Loughlin and I organized a survey (2,033 respondents), administered by KIIS (the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology), a well-regarded polling firm, across six of eight oblasts (regions) comprising southeast Ukraine to probe how much war changed geopolitical attitudes in that area following Russia’s invasion of the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were excluded because of war). For a baseline, we compared the results to an earlier survey administered by KIIS in April 2014, on the eve of the fighting that would later engulf the Donbas (3,232 respondents). While not a panel survey (where one re-interviews the same people), we had, it seemed, a pretty clear contrast between a pre-war sample and then a wartime sample, though the need to exclude the Donbas meant we were surveying regions adjacent to the fighting, not along the frontlines.

We expected to see a sea change in attitudes. What we found, instead, was a much more modest movement in attitudes and a notable increase in “don’t know” responses. For example, in April 2014, 10.2 percent of respondents in the six comparable oblasts “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with a possible introduction of Russian troops; that number dropped to 5.6 percent in December. In contrast, 61.7 percent in April and 63.7 percent in December strongly opposed their arrival. The percentage of “don’t know” answers to the question about Russian troops almost doubled from April to December among those self-identifying as ethnic Russians in Ukraine (from 11.7 to 20.4 percent). The difference with the ethnic Ukrainian population who gave a similar “don’t know” answer jumped from 1.5 percent in April to nine percent in December. Wartime, in other words, brought out strategic hedging on sensitive questions among parts of the population. It also generated a modest ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effect. By December, after the violence over the intervening eight months in the Donbas, there was clearly less support than in April from both ethnic Russian and Ukrainian respondents to the introduction of Russian troops.

Much has changed since 2014. Russia’s expanded invasion in February 2022 took its war to a country-wide scale and new heights of brutality. Millions of ordinary Ukrainians have volunteered to fight and support the war effort. Some eight million others, mostly women and children, have fled overseas while a further six million plus have suffered forced internal displacement. The war is ugly, cruel, and unjust. Patriotic sentiment in Ukraine is high, but levels of human suffering are high, too. In such a charged environment, are public opinion polls meaningful and reliable? The short answer to the first question is yes—public opinion polls even in wartime conditions tell us important things—but considerable skepticism is required about the representativeness of wartime polling, especially when it comes to possible sea changes in geopolitical attitudes.

Let us first acknowledge that public opinion—a concept tied to ideals of popular sovereignty and authentic identity—is central to this and other wars. Putin’s fantasy of “rescuing” fellow Russians portrays Russia as acting on behalf of those who were never asked their opinion, and who are without a voice. Putin is rescuing an ‘authentic Ukraine’ from ‘fascist’ Westernizers who have ‘kidnapped’ it. By contrast, Ukraine’s leadership and its Euro-Atlantic backers regularly cite public opinion polls to justify their policy aspiration to integrate Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. Ukraine wants to be ‘free’ of Russia and move West. In the first vision, the ‘true Ukraine’ is never allowed to speak except in a controlled way by Russia’s propaganda apparatus, in controlled vox populi television or staged referendums. In the second, the ‘true Ukraine’ is the nation perpetually yearning to join the West.

Funded by advocacy groups and government entities, public opinion polling can function as political technology that not only gathers intelligence on what people think but also reveals ways to spin issues through affective framing. Certain issues can be made salient, other buried. Some public opinion polling is also ‘push polling,’ the sponsoring of ideas that may not be on the agenda or even relevant, but which certain groups want to promote. Persistent polling down the years on whether Ukraine should join NATO, for example, is arguably an example. Preoccupied with poverty and corruption? Joining Euro-Atlantic institutions is the answer (even though membership was never officially on offer).

Ordinary Ukrainians are justifiably inflamed by Russia’s war and its crimes. The act of polling in wartime is inevitably political—funders are rarely neutral while polling firm leaders and workers are under pressure to show patriotism—and the act of participating in polls is political. Then there are the logistics of polling. Given wartime conditions, most polling is done through computer assisted telephone interviews (CATI) not face-to-face interviews. While this is randomized, and in the best methodologies spread over multiple mobile carrier firms (this matters, as we learned from Donbas public opinion research), the act of answering the phone and then agreeing to participate in a survey of uncertain duration with a stranger in wartime is likely to be attractive only to certain people. Those beyond the world of mobile phones, mainly the elderly and impoverished, are voiceless but part of a Ukraine that is now terribly tragic as they are victimized by war and its horrors. Those who are cautious, skeptical, and fearful are less likely to be heard or want to speak. Those with strong opinions and emotions are more likely to be those included in the sample. Face-to-face polling can overcome some of the shortcomings of CATI through random route sampling and in-person dialogue, persuasion, and reassurance. Professional pollsters know all this and those with integrity post methodological qualifications about their work in wartime.

Wars are violently polarizing so it is little surprise that groupness consolidates and opinions harden. War requires patriotic performance, a rallying that induces people to express positions they know are socially and (geo)politically correct. Thus, for example, we see a rise in the number of people declaring that they speak Ukrainian, not Russian, as this is socially desirable in government-controlled regions. Also, people feel the need to project confidence and belief in victory while hiding doubt. For example, KIIS found in December 2022 that more people had a low assessment of the economy before the war than ten months into it, when things were manifestly worse. “This paradoxical change in public opinion,” they note, “can be explained by consolidation and national elevation during the war.” This is social desirability on steroids. Thanks to the emergency of war, geopolitics really does trump poverty. Or at least some feel the need to say this. For now.

War changes what people say to pollsters. Numerous polls in wartime Ukraine, for example, have recorded a rise in the number of Ukrainians indicating that they support Ukraine joining NATO. Support for neutrality has dropped. Our recent research, which involves a partial return to people interviewed earlier (face-to-face in 2019 and by telephone in 2022) confirms this. But such a finding requires qualifications that normally are left aside as results are presented in short articles and further recycled as sound bites by advocates on television, in parliaments, and at public debates (I can attest to how the cautions about interpretation are often deleted by editors who want one clear message, and a provocative title too—‘for the clicks’).

There’s a general trust in numbers and those using them appear authoritative. How questions are framed matters greatly. Is it a simple two choice question? A majority of Ukrainians now support NATO membership for the country. This is a finding in multiple polls nowadays. It is also misleading, a result of yes/no questioning. For those responding, this position is perfectly understandable. Ukraine is at war, NATO is its vital ally and this stance is that of Ukraine’s leadership. Those opposed are silent and don’t volunteer their position. Opposition may be perceived as unpatriotic. Most importantly, contested parts of Ukraine are not included in the survey. Providing more security choice options in questions reveals greater complexity. The bottom line is this: how much war has changed geopolitical attitudes cannot be answered in the midst of war.

The gold coin in public opinion summation are phrases like “the majority of Ukrainians” or the more directly homogenizing expressions “Ukrainians believe…” and “Ukrainians want…” We have now entered a dangerous condition where partial country polls are taken to represent all of Ukraine. Regions like Crimea, and to a lesser extent the Donbas, are simultaneously seen as Ukraine but unseen and unheard in public opinion research from Ukraine.

Wartime surveys in Ukraine are meaningful and revealing. But conjuring a transcendent Ukrainian general will in wartime from the top line findings of telephone surveys funded by advocacy groups in government-controlled Ukraine demand skepticism (an important virtue amidst blizzards of disinformation in democratic societies). We can do better, in our survey methods and strategies, in our empathy for the plight of those caught up in a brutal war, and in our insistence that the limits of this form of social science be recognized. Ukraine is a very large and diverse country, and the least we can do, amidst the massive trauma of Russia’s invasion, is acknowledge and respect its socio-cultural and geographic complexity.

Gerard Toal is a political geographer and professor at Virginia Tech, and author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford University Press, 2017). His latest book is Oceans Rise Empires Fall: Why Geopolitics Hastens Climate Catastrophe.

The German version of this piece appears in issue 278 of Ukraine-Analysen which is devoted to wartime polling in Ukraine.


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