IRI Director Michael Druckman on Ukrainian attitudes during wartime

18 August, 11:18 AM
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Win and revive: despite the horrors of the half-year war, Ukrainians can think about the future, massively dream of rebuilding the country, fighting corruption and joining the EU (Photo:REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Win and revive: despite the horrors of the half-year war, Ukrainians can think about the future, massively dream of rebuilding the country, fighting corruption and joining the EU (Photo:REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Author: Olga Duhnich

Michael Druckman, the Ukraine program director of the democracy advocacy organization International Republican Institute (IRI), talks about how the terrible tragedies of the war haven’t caused Ukrainians to panic, haven’t dented their faith in victory, or removed their ability to joke about themselves.

"Ukrainians are full of emotions, but they all understand: there’s no other choice but to win," says Druckman. He has lived and worked in Ukraine for 12 years and is well acquainted with both the political and social conditions of Ukrainian society, so when he talks about Ukrainians in 2022, he can speak knowledgeably about the various periods of Ukrainian independence, and can see the change in Ukrainian attitudes.

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The IRI, as an organization in Ukraine, has even more experience than Druckman, having been part of democracy promotion efforts in the country for over twenty years. NV talked to Druckman about the results of a recent large-scale study conducted by the Rating Sociological Group and commissioned by the IRI, in order to examine the state of Ukrainian society in wartime.

NV: The International Republican Institute has been studying Ukraine for many years. What new qualities characterize Ukrainian society after six months of war?

Druckman: First of all, national unity. No matter what questions we asked – about the victory of Ukraine in this war, about the European future of Ukraine and the desire to become a member of the EU, about joining NATO; no matter where we ask them, in the east or west of the country – it doesn't matter, all the interviewees gave common answers to these questions. Whereas before, we always saw different regional variations. In the east of Ukraine, in Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts, there was always noticeable resistance to Ukraine's accession to NATO, and the prospect of EU integration was often preferred to the Customs Union, and such attitudes changed very slowly. In the south of Ukraine, the processes of change were noticeably faster, especially in the matters related to integration into the EU, but the situation today is radically different. The war accelerated all the processes of rapprochement between Ukraine and Europe, and this is the most obvious conclusion of the study. We know how terrible the situation is today in the east of Ukraine, but people there still yearn for Europe, believe in victory, and see a future for their children in Ukraine.

NV: According to the results of this research, we see that Ukrainians believe the war will end with victory for Ukraine, but they are ready for a prolonged war, they believe in the return of all occupied territories to Ukraine, and they aren’t ready to lower their expectations for victory. In your opinion, how is this information evaluated by our American partners and our partners in Europe?

Druckman: Even before the war, our research and our understanding of Ukrainian society and its transformations in recent years led us to believe that Ukrainians would fight back and fight for their land. It was visible in people's words and actions, and was later confirmed by research. But yes, all this wasn’t so obvious outside of Ukraine before the start of the large-scale invasion. And yes, the rebuff that the Ukrainians gave to the Russian army came as a surprise to many in the West, but it came as an even bigger surprise to (Russian dictator) Vladimir Putin. Today, the data we received positively impresses people in the West. It’s very important to know and understand that after Bucha, Azovstal, Mariupol, Kremenchuk, Vinnytsia, Olenivka, Ukrainians are not demoralized. They continue to believe in victory and intend to win. Terrible tragedies haven’t destroyed this faith of theirs. They intend to take back all of their territories. The military aid provided to Ukraine by the United States, the UK, and other NATO countries, is yet more evidence that Ukraine's efforts are not a one-off – the Ukrainian army is motivated to fight on. At the same time, society is not in a state of panic, its desire to win is unchanged, they are ready, perhaps not for such a protracted war, but definitely ready for a war until victory.

NV: Why do you think Ukrainians aren’t panicking, even though the war in Ukraine is brutal and very difficult? What helps people stay resilient?

Druckman: In order to understand this, it’s important to visit Ukraine now. People here, even during such a terrible war, are able to joke, are able to make fun of themselves. This masks the enormous vitality of Ukrainians as a people. Everyone here has a huge amount of emotions, but everyone understands that they have no choice but to win. Ukraine is not yet a member of the EU, it’s not a member of NATO, so the country and society can only completely and entirely count on themselves.

Resilience and a sense of humor: these two qualities distinguish Ukrainians even in the most difficult times, says IRI Ukraine program director Michael Druckman (Фото: IHOR TKACH / IRI)
Resilience and a sense of humor: these two qualities distinguish Ukrainians even in the most difficult times, says IRI Ukraine program director Michael Druckman / Фото: IHOR TKACH / IRI

You can mentally go back to 2013 and remember the former fear of Ukrainians to provoke Russia by moving towards Europe too quickly, the fear of flying the Ukrainian flag higher because you might be considered a nationalist. All the fears we heard from people before 2014 were overcome by the Euromaidan and later by the war with Russia. Ukraine met this new challenge of war in 2014 with confidence and powerful volunteerism, which still permeates throughout Ukrainian society. This fear passed with the start of the full-scale invasion in February, and we finally saw people determined and ready to fight. The events of recent days, when the number of “accidents” at Russian military bases is growing, only strengthens the Ukrainians in their determination to bring victory closer.

NV: In your research, the first five priorities for Ukrainian society after the war are interesting. It’s the restoration of territorial integrity, overcoming corruption, strengthening the country's defense capabilities, joining the EU, and a high level of economic development. But these aren’t new goals, are they?

Druckman: They really aren’t new. We’ve already asked this question in our previous studies. We asked people to name the three most important tasks for Ukraine and three most important tasks for respondents themselves. The war in Donbas has always been in first and second place in both cases, as well as the fight against corruption. Therefore, the goals of Ukrainian society haven't changed - it is the restoration of the country after the war and the fight against corruption. And I think it’s very important for Ukraine's Western partners to understand this. It’s not international centers, NGOs and initiatives that want to fight corruption – it’s what the Ukrainian people want themselves. This is what’s happening to society in this war, it’s not losing its important priorities and that opens up new opportunities for the Ukrainian government. It’s important to take further steps in the fight against corruption and tighten the already established anti-corruption institutions and procedures.

If one looks back, to 2014, the population in Ukraine didn’t have the (National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine) NABU, there was no institution of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, but this year, they do have them, along with a strong civil society and some of the most active anti-corruption activists. Ukrainians are responding positively to these institutions’ activities, and moreover, today's fight against corruption is an important condition for victory in the war. If corruption in the Russian army is already known to the whole world and continues to exist, then corruption in the Ukrainian army today equates to anti-patriotism, corruption in Ukraine today works against the Ukrainian state, it works against the whole of Ukrainian society and against every Ukrainian – and people understand this.

NV: About 80% of Ukrainians support the integration of Ukraine into the EU. To what extent did the war cause the growth of European integration sentiments?

Druckman: This is the highest level of support for European integration in Ukrainian society in the history of the study of the issue. On the eve of the war, sometime in early January, we conducted a similar study, and then only 50% supported Ukraine's accession to the EU, and this figure had remained stable for quite a long time. Yes, it was a little lower in the east of the country, a little higher in the west. But currently, 80% of respondents almost throughout Ukraine are in favor of joining the EU, and 72% of respondents are in favor of Ukraine joining NATO – this is a huge jump in support, which is important to understand. The effectiveness of aid from Western allies, NATO member states, the HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems and other weapons are being actively discussed in the media today. Today, the Ukrainian army is very closely connected by its new standards and training with the armies of the NATO countries. It’s all the more remarkable that a few years ago in the eastern regions of the country, the question of joining NATO mostly got disapproval, as no one wanted to provoke Russia. Today, such arguments no longer work, people in the east of the country also understand that Ukraine has no other choice. This is a serious shift in their worldview.

NV: Let's talk about local government. At the beginning of the war, its role was critically important for urban and rural communities. We remember how in Melitopol people went to protests, demanding the release of their mayor from captivity. Today, according to the data from the study, local government is in a significantly inferior position to the central government. Its role in the recovery of the country's economy after the war is seen as significant by only 13% of respondents. Why did this happen?

Druckman: Indeed, after the decentralization reform, we were for a long time in a period when the local government was much more popular than the central government. Now the central government is taking the lead, and there are several explanations for this. First, during the war, centralization increased. People turn on the television, open websites or channels on social media in their search of statements from the central government – the Office of the President, the Minister of Defense, the General Staff. In such periods, the central government assumes the main responsibility, and its actions are critical for people.

As for the local authorities, their role during the war is also important. We analyze a lot how the local authorities in Ukraine have adapted to wartime conditions. We see that today, along with the challenges of managing cities and communities in wartime, responsibilities have been added in settling refugees. In addition, almost all of Ukraine today is under the threat of missile attacks. It is important for the heads of local authorities to constantly think about critical infrastructure, or residential buildings that need reconstruction. Perhaps that’s why local government, which is busy with so many problems, is less visible today than national government, and its presence in the media is lower. But I don’t think that this reflects the real attitude of the population towards local government.

I think that these figures will change in the post-war period. Depending on the level of challenges and other factors, we will see a difference in how cities respond to these challenges. You know that every year we conduct a study of the degree of satisfaction that residents have with their local authorities, and we can see that those cities that have a strong and effective local government that people trust have much more mobilized communities, which, I think, will play an important role during the post-war reconstruction period.

At this time, it’s important to note that today almost all of the authorities in Ukraine, – not only the president and the Cabinet of Ministers, but even the Verkhovna Rada, whose activities have traditionally been assessed most negatively by Ukrainians – have very high percentages of support.

NV: However, we also see that for the first time since the start of the war, the very high level support for the president, the government, and parliament have decreased somewhat. Is this related to the adaptation of Ukrainians to the war and realistic assessments of power?

Druckman: The level of support for all branches of power in Ukraine still remains unprecedentedly high, so rather, it’s the intensity of that approval that has decreased. It switched from unconditional approval to more restrained approval, and, in my opinion, this indicates precisely the adaptation of Ukrainians to wartime and a return to a more or less familiar perception of authority. Still, these support figures are high compared, for example, to 2019.

In the years following the Maidan, Ukrainians were much more pessimistic. They were very critical of Ukrainian politicians, and they had high expectations of them. Today we see unprecedented support for the authorities from Ukrainians in the post-election period.

And if you now return to Kyiv, you’ll see little difference from the Kyiv in August a year ago, when most people would go on vacation in the country. All the government departments are working, people are walking the streets, businesses are working and dealing with their usual problems – although on a larger scale than before, of course. But all this testifies to the huge credit of confidence that Ukrainians have in their government.

What’s also important is that the authorities have maintained an important and intensive level of communication with the population over these six months. Since the beginning of the war, the authorities remained in place, and people can get up-to-date information through various information channels. All this also resulted in strong and stable support for the central government. On many issues, Ukrainians have always been more pessimistic in their expectations. That is why now support for the government is so high.

NV: What do you think Ukrainian society will look like after the war? Will it seriously differ from the pre-war one?

Druckman: It’s difficult to answer a question like hat when we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, but we’re optimistic. Most likely, Ukrainian society will become even more united, more patriotic, more mature and less tolerant of corruption and politicians who aren’t up to the job. I think we’ll see major changes in the public political arena, in how people organize into new political parties. There will no longer be disputes about who Ukraine should be with, Europe or the Customs Union, but there will certainly be many new challenges related to the European integration of the country. The country is going through very difficult times, but as an organization that has been helping Ukraine for a long time on its democratic development path, we believe, we’re convinced, that Ukraine will become even stronger.

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