Ukraine Has Changed Since 2014. Does Putin Know Why?
Russia has become more autocratic, while Ukraine has developed a stronger sense of identity
In 2014, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, which at that time was divided over whether to orient itself towards Moscow or the West. He annexed the pro-Russian province of Crimea. Should he launch another invasion in 2022, he will find a country substantially less sympathetic to Russia and its autocratic model.
That may come as a surprise. In July 2021, Putin wrote a 5,000-word essay about how Russians and Ukrainians were "one people." He lamented "a wall" that had emerged between the countries, and said that this was "our great common misfortune and tragedy." He blamed Ukrainian nationalists for sowing discord between the two nations.
But it's not nationalism that has opened up a gap between the two countries -- it's politics, and precisely the kind of autocracy that Vladimir Putin has created. In 2000, both were in the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism, having some elements of a free press, opposition politics, and civil liberties, but a far cry from being a consolidated democracy.
Ukraine has stayed in that gray zone. It has both the robust political competition of democracy as well as the deep corruption of authoritarian states. Meanwhile, Putin has turned Russia into a total autocracy. Russia in 2022 has virtually no political opposition remaining inside its borders; authorities are cracking down on what remains of independent media; its government does not hold free and fair elections.
“People thought Ukraine and Russia were the same place. Now we are properly separate states, and people around the world know about our country.”
Freedom House's Freedom of the World Report ranks countries on political rights and civil liberties on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 being the most free. In 2000, Ukraine scored a 4 in both categories, while Russia scored a 5 in both categories. Both were ranked as "partly free." In 2021, Ukraine was a 3 in political rights and still a 4 on civil liberties. Russia, meanwhile, had gotten the lowest score of 7 on political rights and a 6 on civil liberties and had moved into the "not free" category.
Polling data from the International Republican Institute indicates that Ukrainian public opinion has radically shifted since 2014. In March 2014, 43 percent of respondents said they would vote against joining NATO, while 34 percent were in support. By 2021, 28 percent said they would vote against and 48 percent said they would vote to join. In 2012, 32 percent said they would vote to join the European Union; by 2021, 54 percent said they would vote to join. Membership in these organizations is decades off, if ever -- but Ukrainians' preference is clearly oriented towards the West.
Nevertheless, Ukraine continues to have severe corruption, an obstacle to it joining these democratic institutions. Ukraine and Russia score similarly on international corruption rankings -- according to Transparency International, Ukraine scores a 33 out of 100 while Russia scores a 30. According to the I.R.I. poll, a whopping 56 percent of respondents thought that the government hadn't done enough to fight corruption since the country's anti-corruption revolution in 2014. Petty corruption, like paying bribes to receive free services like medical care and schooling, as well as grand corruption, like money laundering through state institutions, is still common.
Six months after writing the essay about how Ukrainians and Russians were "one people," it is not clear whether the Kremlin believes the thesis of the essay or if they believe that Ukraine is slipping away and Russia needs to take extreme actions to avoid losing the country entirely. Late on January 22, the government of the United Kingdom released a statement alleging a Kremlin plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine. The U.K. provided no evidence for its claim; however, were a pro-Russian coup to happen, it would likely face massive resistance.
Either through coup or invasion, Putin will face a more complicated situation than in 2014. Crimea was a largely sympathetic population, and Ukraine was disorganized. Since then, Ukraine has been united by the Russian attack. As one respondent from Eastern Ukraine told a focus group in 2021, “Up until the events in 2014…People thought Ukraine and Russia were the same place. Now we are properly separate states, and people around the world know about our country.”
For the Russians, in addition to their fears of Ukraine falling into the hands of the West, they may perceive the West to be in a weakened state. The United States has become less democratic since 2000. Freedom House downgraded it to a 2 from a 1 in both civil liberties and political rights. President Joe Biden already ruled out sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine in December. Whether or not that would be a wise course of action, it's hard to imagine the United States having the domestic unity to even send troops to a foreign country given its polarization. That disunity is one reason that Vladimir Putin may feel freer to act.
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