OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine 2015.

OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine 2015.

Reviews Crisis in Russian studies? Ukrainian-Russian relations and what to think about them

Published on balticworlds.com on June 10, 2021

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Russian studies and Ukraine

The “conflict in and around Ukraine” (as OSCE is calling it) was in 2014 a hot media topic, but today it does not get the same level of attention, and both in Ukraine and in Russia the situation seems to be more or less routinized. This does not mean that the conflict is frozen, the casualties still accumulate, although not so dramatically as some years ago. the perspective of peace yet seems far away. The Western researchers that used to focus on Ukraine seem to be puzzled by what is happening. UK-born Ukraine-expert Taras Kuzio[1] recently (2020) published a book Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War where he sees the lack of interest for the current situation reflecting a crisis in academic Russian studies, according to him, many researchers are incapable of analysing the Ukrainian-Russian conflict on objective grounds. As I see it, to a certain extent, this may be due to the short history of Ukrainian studies as compared to Russian studies. This also has to do with the high acclaim of Russian culture: we all know Tolstoy and Shostakovich etc., while Ukrainian culture is – similarly to that of many other countries – largely unknown outside its borders.

Kuzio’s book has rather an aggressive and partly repetitive style, but his arguments merit closer attention. This article reviews the main points of them and continues the discussion with some data from contemporary Ukraine.

The crisis in Russian studies is analysed by Kuzio in five perspectives. Firstly, there is a long tradition of Russian imperial history denying Ukraine a separate history, and this tradition is often endorsed also by Western historiography. A standard example is defining Kyiv (Kievan) Rus as the origin of Russian statehood and culture, while maintaining that the state and culture “moved” to Moscow and were discontinued in Ukrainian lands. By Kuzio, this construction neglects, for instance, the impact of Novgorod or Vologda on the emergence of Russian statehood and culture and defines the post-Kyiv-Rus inhabitants of Ukraine as “settlers” coming to more or less empty lands. As I see it, we do not have to deny the links of Moscow with Kyiv Rus to admit that people in the Ukrainian lands did not disappear with the emergence of Muscowy in the 13th century. Kuzio’s arguments make sense, but historiography unfortunately focuses more on state than people. Ukrainian history is not only incorporated in Russian imperial history, it is also e.g. a part of Polish or Austrian-Hungarian history.

Secondly, Kuzio points out that Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea, while Russians are newcomers as well as Ukrainians. Looking at state borders and referring to Andrew Wilson’s views, Kuzio sees that the Russian presence in Crimea is historically rather short, only 13 years longer than that of Ukraine. The argument for the status of Crimean Tatars can only be neglected, if we look at the matter from a colonialist point of view. The view promoted by e.g. Putin referring to Prince Vladimir’s adoption of Orthodoxy in Crimea as a motivation for Russian rights to Crimea is most questionable. Nevertheless, here we also find the international weight of Russian culture. A great many of Russian notable persons of literature and art were in Crimea and described it. What do we know about Ukrainian or Tatar culture in Crimea – a question that does not mean that they do not exist, merely that they are not well-known or recognized.

Thirdly, Kuzio sees “orientalism” as escribed by Edward Said in some Western academic writing about Ukraine and Russian-Ukrainian war. Colonialists tend to see those they have subjugated as “the Other”, people-not-to-be-taken-so-seriously. A paramount example is Richard Sakwa’s renowned book on the conflict in Ukraine[2]: for the author, Ukrainian references beyond the English weekly Kyiv Post seem to be unknown. Kuzio asks what readers would think about an analysis on British-Irish relations with no Irish references. The approach reflects the idea of politically non-existent Ukraine, considered a pawn of chess in the NATO vs. Russia game.

Taras Kuzio’s fourth argument addresses largely the same problem as the first one, the Russian colonialism towards Ukraine and its long history. Kuzio writes that Putin’s view on Ukraine is not new, it shows a path dependency starting from the Czarist Russian imperial ideology and was continued by e.g. Stalin’s Soviet Union. There also seem to have been no white Russian generals or politicians, who saw Ukraine without an imperialist attitude.

Finally, Taras Kuzio defines the Ukrainian-Russian conflict including the Russian annexation of Crimea as a Russian-Ukrainian war, not as a civil war in Ukraine. He points out that national belonging in Ukraine is not linked with language, and the key victims of the war in Ukraine have been Russian-speakers, who more often than Ukrainian-speakers live in the war zone and also compose the largest segment of the Ukrainian military force. Defending Russian-speakers in Ukraine, a key separatist argument, in fact kills Russian-speakers. Kuzio argues that the insurrections all over Ukraine in 2014 show some coordination, and their general failure beyond Donbas and Crimea show that they had low support among the population. According to non-partial assessments, the separatists would have lost their fight against the central government without external support.

The above presented five perspectives should be common knowledge in research on Ukraine. To exemplify the confusions that easily are nourished if not contested Kuzio also refers to Kees van der Pijl with a book (2018) on the shooting down of the Malesian airlines Flight MH17. The book puts the blame for it on NATO and Ukraine; elsewhere he has claimed that 9/11 attacks were carried out by Israelis. For the accusations he had to give up his academic status at the University of Sussex under controversy.

Ukrainians on Ukraine and the war

Let us now look at some recent quantitative research concerning the development of Ukrainian values, attitudes, and opinions during the past few years. When discussing or analysing politics, we need to acknowledge that what people think is not irrelevant and we can find out what they think by validated means.

Results of parallel polls by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and Levada Center (Moscow) reveal a pattern in the development of Ukrainian-Russian attitudes. Ukrainians’ view on Russia has traditionally been more positive than Russians’ view on Ukraine. This trend was interrupted in 2014 when the war started. The share of those with a positive view dropped sharply from 80 – 90 % to 30 %, although it has started to rise again and was 42% in late 2020. The share of those with a negative view on Russia was at this point equally 42%. There is however regional variation: while in Western Ukraine 30% of the respondents had a positive view on Russia, in the Eastern Ukraine (excluding the separatist territories) the share was 56%. The development of Russian attitudes to Ukraine show rather a similar pattern. The Russian attitudes have also lately improved and the share of those with a positive view on Ukraine was 48% and the share of those with a negative view 43%.[3]

The somewhat surprising Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia as well as Russian attitudes towards Ukraine are explained as a synthesis of very different views on the people and the government. For instance, 77% Ukrainians had a positive attitude towards Russians, but only 13% had a positive attitude towards Russian leaders in 2019. In Russia the corresponding shares towards Ukrainians and Ukrainian government were 82 % and 7%. In both countries, approximately half of the population is also for close relations between Russia and Ukraine.[4]  People make a distinction between the people and their rulers, which is in compliance with earlier results.[5] These findings should deliver a message to decision-makers in both countries.

The position of Russian language in Ukraine has changed considerably since 2014. Presently, almost half (46%) of Ukrainians use only or mostly, Ukrainian in their family, while the share of Russian-speakers is 28%. Both languages are used at equal level by 25% of Ukrainians. The share of mono-lingual Ukrainian-speakers is 32% and that of mono-lingual Russian-speakers 16%.[6] Thus, we could say that most Ukrainians are bilingual. When considering the social distance between various ethnic or language groups, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel that they are closer to each other than to any other groups. This is in compliance with the earlier results: the linguistic cleavage in not as important as often described outside Ukraine.[7]

Attitudes towards NATO have changed considerably during the Russian-Ukrainian war. While the perspectives of closer cooperation with the EU and the Russian-led customs union were more or less equally supported by the population before 2014, the perspective of approaching and joining the EU is today the most popular option. NATO did not have real support among the Ukrainian population until 2014, but a clear majority – approximately two thirds – of the population would now support joining NATO, if there should be a referendum.[8]

The attitudes toward Stalin in Ukraine and Russia show an interesting profile. Altogether 14% of Ukrainians vs. 40% Russians had an overall positive view on Stalin in 2018. Altogether 77% of Ukrainians consider Stalin a dictator, who is to blame for the death of millions of people; the corresponding share in Russia is 44%. However, 28% of Ukrainians still hold Stalin for ”a brave leader” and see that thanks to him the Soviet Union had its heyday and power; the corresponding share among citizens in Russia is twice as high, 57%.[9]

Altogether 44% of the Ukrainians consider the current Donbas conflict to be between Russia and Ukraine and therefore that the negotiations to stop the conflict should take place between the two countries. There is general discontent with Minsk agreements to solve the conflict: 38% are for proceeding according to the Minsk agreements, while 44% are against it. The most popular outcome among the Ukrainians would be to return the separatist territories under the control of the government of Ukraine as they were before the conflict. Having relatives in separatist territories or in the Ukrainian army also has influence on attitudes: in these cases the respondents are more willing to accept also unpleasant solutions to make peace in the east.[10]

It is important to notice that the share of those who are “undecided” in many surveyed war-related issues is remarkably high in Southern and Eastern Ukraine.[11] This reflects Ukrainian regional differences in media use (including social media); however, it also shows that many people do not know what to think about the situation.

Concluding remarks

Russian approach to Ukraine shows today a strong path-dependency, which is not explained by Putin or Soviet history solely. Western scholarship, too, sometimes seems to be dependent on the Russian interpretation of present and past. Besides political sympathies, this may be explained by the international weight of Russian culture and reflect unrecognized colonialist views — Kuzio prefers to use the term “imperialism” when discussing Russian nationalism. He finds that the perspective of peace is for the time being not there, which seems to be well understood also by the population in Ukraine.[12] We must a bear in mind that to be against Putin does not necessarily mean to be against the annexation of Crimea.[13]

Studies of Ukrainian attitudes show interesting results. Mr René Nyberg, Finnish ex-ambassador to Moscow, once stated that “Russia got Crimea but lost the Ukrainians”.[14] However, the general attitude of population towards Russia is not overwhelmingly negative and the approach to Russian people is friendly, also due to the long co-existence of Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers in Ukraine. However, the war has changed the Ukrainian feelings from balancing undecidedly between “East” and “West” to a preference for the West. However, there does not seem to be any information that NATO or the EU would offer some new carrots to Ukraine.

According to the latest surveys almost half of the population in Ukraine (49%) is subjectively poor i.e. can buy food but even buying clothes is difficult for them.[15] An overwhelming majority is, too, highly critical of the government, due to the war, problems of the living standard and corruption. This discontent with the government has been there as long as we have comparable data. With the separatist territories, Ukraine lost 9.3% of its GDP, however, the economic development of these territories today, when comparing pay levels, lays considerably behind the rest of Ukraine, and the separatist territories are living on Russian support.[16]

In one of the surveys carried out by Razumkov Centre[17] there was a question concerning how to get Crimea back.  In Southern Ukraine over half of the respondents found that raising the standard of living in Ukraine is the best option. This sounds a very wise response: people can compare. The famous Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev suggests that Ukraine should adopt the Moldovan model in the relations with separatist territories. He believes that today’s situation will be there for several decades, as there are key players in both Russia and Ukraine who benefit from it. In the long run, he reasons further, Ukraine has a better hand due to a more active civil society and genuine political competition lacking in Russia. Inozemtsev states that the future of Ukraine is in the West, but not as a bulwark against Russian Federation.[18] Other analysts see that successful government policy in Ukraine would require distancing from the interests of the rent-seeking economic groupings and promoting genuine marketization, still unpopular and unfinished in Ukraine.[19] Surprisingly, the population in Ukraine is today happier than ever and sees a perspective of hope in the future.[20]


[1] Taras Kuzio, Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War (Bristol: E-International Relations Publishing, 2020).

[2] Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine, Crisis in the Borderlands, (London: B. Tauris, 2015).

[3] KIIS (Kyiv International Institute of Sociology), Attitude of the population of Ukraine to Russia and the population of Russia to Ukraine, September 2020, KIIS press releases and reports 7 Oct 2020, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=972&page=4.

[4] KIIS, Ibid.

[5] Simo Mannila and Natalia Kharchenko, “War and other worries of the people. Views on Ukraine from Ukraine”. Baltic Worlds 2017, 4, 10-19, http://balticworlds.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/BW-4.2017-MANNILA_KHARCHENKO_pp10_19.pdf.

[6] KIIS (Kyiv International Institute of Sociology), Thoughts and views of the population on teaching the Russian language in Ukrainian-speaking schools and granting autonomy as a part of Ukraine to the uncontrolled territories of Donbas: March 2019, KIIS press releases and reports 15 Mar 2019, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=832&page=20.

[7] Volodymyr Paniotto, Interethnic prejudice in Ukraine, September 2019, KIIS press releases and reports 7 Nov 2019,  https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=904&page=12.

[8] Julia Sakhno, Geopolitytsni orientatsii zhiteliv Ukrainy: lyutii 2020 [Geopolitical orientations of the population of Ukraine, February 2020, in Ukrainian], KIIS press releases and reports 1 Apr 2020, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=uk:&cat=reports&id=927&pag=9;

Yuri Yakumenko Y, Ukraine 2019 -2020: Broad Opportunities, Contradictory Results, (Kyiv: Razumkov Centre, 2020), https://razumkov.org.ua/en/articles/ukraine-2019-2020-broad-opportunities-contradictory-results; Mannila and Kharchenko, Ibid.

[9] Liana Novikova, Attitude of the citizens of Ukraine and Russia to Stalin, KIIS press releases and reports 10 Apr 2018, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=760&page=29.

[10] Viyna na Donbasi: realii I perspektyvy regulyuvannya [Donbas war: facts and perspectives of settling it, in Ukrainian] (Kyiv: Razumkov Centre, 2019).  https://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/article/2019_Donbas.pdf; Faktor hromadskoi dumky u formuvanni polityky vregulyuvannya rosiisko-ukrainskoho konfliktu – mozhlyvosti ta ryzyky (Citizens views and the development of policy for the settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – opportunities and risks, in Ukrainian) (Kyiv: Razumkov Centre, 2020), https://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/article/2020_donbas.pdf.

[11] Anatoli Grushetski, Natalia Ligachova and Halina Petrenko, Sources of Information, Media Literacy and Russian Propaganda (Kyiv: Detektor media, 2019), https://detector.media/doc/images/news/archive/2016/164308/DM-KMIS_Report_05_2019_ENGL_WEB.pdf.

[12] Cf. Alla Chernova,  Anna Pashkova and Galina Balanovich G (Eds.), Konflikt Moskvy i Kieva: okno vozmozhnostei, sokhranenie status quo ili novyi vitok eskalatsii [The conflict between Moscow and Kyiv: window of opportunities or new escalation? in Russian?] (Kiev: Razumkov Centre, 2019), https://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/article/2019_Donbass_Italy.pdf.

[13] Cf. Friedrich Schmidt, Wie nationalistisch ist Nawalnyj? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1 Feb 2021, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/warum-alexej-nawalnyj-kein-nationalist-ist-171124550_html?premium&service=printPreview.

[14] René Nyberg,  Realismi on ratkaisu Suomen suhteissa Venäjään (Realism is the solution in Finnish-Russian relations, in Finnish). Helsingin Sanomat 30.8.2014.

[15] Anatoli Grushetski, Dynamika samootsinky materialnoho stanovyshcha rodyny, kviten-cherven 2020 roku [Dynamics of the self-assessment on the material situation of the home country], April-June 2020, in Ukrainian). KIIS press releases and reports 1 July 2020, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=957&pag5.

[16] Citizens of Ukraine about themselves, the country and its future, (Kyiv, Razumkov Centre, 2019), https://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/other/2019_DUMRA_GROMAD_ENG_UKR.pdf.

[17] Crimea in the Public Opinion of Ukrainians, (Kyiv: Razumkov Centre, 2018), https://razumkov.org.ua/en/news/crimea-in-the-public-opinion-of-ukrainians.

[18] Vladislav Inozemtsev, Konflikt na vostoke Ukrainy: perspektivy posle vyborov 2019 g [Conflict in the Eastern Ukraine: Perspectives after the elections in 2019, in Russian], in Alla Chernova and al. 60 – 67, https://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/article/2019_Donbass_Italy.pdf.

[19] Alexei Pikulik, “Belarus, Russia and Ukraine as post-Soviet rent-seeking regimes”, in Balint Magyar (Ed.), Stubborn Structures, Reconceptualizing Post-Communities Regimes, 489 – 506 (Budapest: CEU Press, 2019).

[20] Citizens of Ukraine…; Volodymyr Paniotto, Samootsinka schastya naselennyam Ukrainy, kviten 2020 (Self-assessed happiness among the population of Ukraine, April 2019, in Ukrainian) KIIS press releases and reports 18 May 2020, https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=944&page=7.


  • by Simo Mannila

    Simo Mannila is adjunct professor of sociology, University of Helsinki. Member of the Planning Group for Ukrainian studies, University of Helsinki.

  • all contributors

Taras Kuzio, Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War (Bristol: E-International Relations Publishing, 2020).