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Mistrust about political motives in contested Ukraine

- February 13, 2015

Left to right, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko talk in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/ Mykola Lazarenko)
It is certainly welcome news that after 16 hours of talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia (the so-called Normandy Four) agreed the outline terms of a ceasefire agreement that could potentially put Ukraine on the path towards conflict de-escalation and a modicum of stability. The process will be extremely challenging though as the various military factions on the ground may have their own agendas and goals (as Kimberley Marten has argued). This is not a Dayton-like settlement moment for Ukraine. There is no multinational peacekeeping force on its way to implement the agreed heavy weapons withdrawal commitments like IFOR (Implementation Force) did in Bosnia in late 1995 by materially creating a zone of separation between the warring parties. There is nothing in Minsk about return of those displaced by the fighting. Instead there are the weak instruments of the OSCE, and the uncertainties of the Trilateral Contact Group. If a ceasefire takes hold and endures, Ukraine’s separation line could begin to approximate Nagorny Karabakh’s Line of Contact. Since that armistice line, in place since 1994, locked in an impassible border and is the site of an upsurge of violence at this very moment, this is a scenario to be avoided.
The mistrust between the leadership of Ukraine and Russia was evident for the world to see from the unsmiling faces in Minsk. Less evident are the variable levels of trust, and the legacies of violence, amongst ordinary citizens across contested Ukraine. In December 2014, we organized largely similar surveys in Crimea and six oblasts [provinces] of Southeast Ukraine. (See our earlier blog post). The Political Science division of the NSF supported this research through a RAPID grant. We excluded Luhansk and Donetsk since reliable surveys through randomized face-to-face interviews were impossible there. (Recent published work points to disparate pre-conflict geopolitical identities in Luhansk). Thus we cannot report on the legacies of the intense violence that frontline locations within these oblasts have experienced over the last 10 months, or on the still evolving legacies of the displacement of a million Ukrainian citizens. We can, however, provide some indication of the levels of distrust and suspicion that exist among ordinary residents in Crimea and the six oblasts where we surveyed in Southeast Ukraine.
The figures below present aggregate results to identical questions asking respondents their perception of the interest of the Russian and Ukrainian governments in peace.
Like all social surveys, there are significant differences between certain socio-demographic groups. Those in the southeast Ukraine six who hold that the Ukrainian government is interested in peace see the end of the Soviet Union as positive, declare that they have prospered after, and have high levels in trust for Poroshenko. The lesser number who hold that the Russian government is interested in peace positively correlate with Russian TV watching, and liking Russians. In Crimea, those who declare that the Russian government is interested in peace have high levels of trust for Putin and Russian TV news.
The figure below presents results from the question: “In coverage of the current political events, the term ‘Novorossiya’ is…”. We provided respondents with two alternatives: (i) “a Russian political technology that seeks to ruin Ukraine” or (ii) “an expression of the desire of  residents of southeast Ukraine for independence.” Hard to say and refuse were also options.
Most Crimean residents agree with the second option. Those in Ukraine that agree with the first option have certain characteristics: they tend to think the collapse of USSR was a right move, they trust Ukrainian TV news, they have high levels of trust in Poroshenko and they show tolerance for ethnic minorities (we used feeling about Jews as our tolerance measure across a range of sites that include other parts of the former Soviet Union). The one significant feature of those in the southeast Ukraine six who hold the second position — that Novorossiya is a legitimate geopolitical expression – express even higher levels of warmth for Russians than others in the sample.
The latest Minsk agreement is clearly another important moment in the evolution of the territorial extent and governance structure of modern Ukraine. Going into the negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin played up his role as benevolent protector stated he wanted an agreement that represented the interests of the Russian and Russian speaking people of southeast Ukraine. Crimea is absent from the agreement, and we now see Putin ostensibly pledging recognition of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while viewing Crimea as fully part of Russia.
So what can we say about Ukraine’s political geography at this moment? Clearly there is no nascent Novorossiya on the ground as Putin first described it in April 2014 (he name checked six of the contemporary eight oblasts the rebels aspire to control). Nor is there a unitary southeast Ukraine, nor a unitary Russian or Russian-speaking community there who look to Putin as their protector. Nor, indeed, is there a homogeneous geopolitical community comprising all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Instead, there is a territory forcefully captured by separatists with Russian military help, territory upon which they are establishing what is likely to be one de facto state drawing inspiration from contemporary Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh.
But this aspirational de facto state has a population and industrial base that is much bigger than anything in those disputed territories, none of which were ever fully incorporated into the post-Soviet successor states. As we argue in a new article summarizing our 2010-11 survey research in the post-Soviet de facto states, collapsing what is being forged in the Donbas into the existing set of post-Soviet de facto states has its dangers. This is a new creation built upon the Soviet past, a post post-Soviet geopolitical hybrid forged from local and Russian-sourced manpower by Putin and his circle. Its depth of legitimacy is uncertain at this point but likely considerable. Policy makers would do well to design responses founded on its geographic singularities, not on a homogenizing and overly moralizing tabloid geopolitics that obscure these local particularities.
John O’Loughlin is College Professor of Distinction and Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Gerard Toal (Gearóid Ó Tuathail) is Director of the Government & International Affairs program at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia.