The Magazine

‘Legitimate Concerns’

Why cooperate with Putin’s propaganda?

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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A new Gallup poll of Ukrainians undermines the main rationale for Russia’s aggression towards its neighbor and calls into question the U.S. approach to diplomacy with the Russians, which treats some of the Russian claims as legitimate. The findings of the national survey also cast further doubt on the results of the recent referendum on Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Crimean Ukrainians protest their annexation by Russia, March 13, 2014.

Crimean Ukrainians protest their annexation by Russia, March 13, 2014.

Newscom

Ukrainians of all backgrounds and from every corner of the country reject Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to Ukraine to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians, with 81 percent of those surveyed expressing opposition to the move and 13 percent in favor. The skepticism is largely explained by the fact that Ukrainians don’t buy Putin’s claim that ethnic Russians need protection at all. Eighty-five percent of Ukrainians said that Russian-speaking citizens are not threatened, an opinion shared by 66 percent of ethnic Russians themselves. Seventy-four percent of Ukrainians living in both the south and the east, regions where Russians claim protection is most needed, responded that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were not under threat because of their language.

The survey of 1,200 Ukrainians from all regions of the country, including Crimea, was conducted March 14-26 by Gallup and Baltic Surveys for the International Republican Institute. IRI—which describes itself as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide”—has extensive experience polling overseas, and U.S. policymakers often rely on its findings. The interviews were conducted in person at respondents’ homes.

“These results show that east and west Ukraine are not as divided as Moscow would like you to think,” says Ambassador Mark Green, president and CEO of IRI. “Ukrainians across the country, including Russian speakers, believe in democracy and want closer ties to Europe.”

Indeed, the poll suggests that Russian aggression may have the opposite effect from what Putin intended, pushing Ukraine further away from Russia and closer to the West. In a poll taken in February, 41 percent of Ukrainians said they favored joining the European Union. That number jumped to 53 percent in the latest poll. At the same time, just 28 percent of Ukrainians said they favored joining the Customs Union backed by Russia.

The results of the survey, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, also complicate the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Russia. Top administration officials, including Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, have often validated Putin’s stated concerns about discrimination against ethnic Russians, even when they rejected his response to them. From the earliest days of the crisis, administration officials have offered to work with Russia to address what they’ve described as Putin’s “legitimate concerns.” Kerry, in an appearance on ABC’s This Week on March 2, vowed that the United States would stand with the Russians to protect their interests in Ukraine. “We are prepared to stand up against any hooligans, any thuggery, any individual efforts with Russians in order to create stability in Ukraine and allow the people of Ukraine to make their choices for the future.”

Recognizing the valid concerns of your adversary in an effort to resolve disputes is, of course, a standard negotiating tactic, whether in marital counseling, business, or diplomacy. But recognizing invalid, made-up concerns is likely to be counterproductive. Administration critics have argued from the beginning that Putin’s alleged eagerness to protect ethnic Russians was merely a pretext for his aggression. They were right. And if most Russian-speaking Ukrainians don’t take Putin’s claims seriously, why should the United States or its European partners?

Among the most interesting findings of the IRI poll is the response to a question echoing the one posed in the referendum held in Crimea on March 16. That vote, eagerly sought and arranged by the Kremlin, was supposedly decisive, with 96.8 percent of Crimeans voting to separate themselves from Ukraine and join Russia. But the IRI poll found that a majority of Ukrainians in each of the four regions believed Crimea should remain part of Ukraine, with 57 percent in the south and 52 percent in the east supporting the status quo ante. Just 23 percent of Ukrainians surveyed thought the referendum was a legitimate expression of the views of Crimeans.

As Green said, “These results are in stark contrast to the alleged 97 percent of the voters in Crimea who ‘voted’ to join Russia.” 

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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