Debunking the constructed war against Ukraine: Evidence from the pre-invasion Crimea and Donbas

Kateryna Ivashchenko-Stadnik
Dr., Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Sociology, National Academy of Sciences

It has been over a month now since the Russian Federation started its unprovoked premeditated war against Ukraine. Cities across the country are being bombed, causing growing civilian casualties among adults and children, destroyed infrastructure, and demolished residential areas. According to the UN, 10.5 million people (which is more than a quarter of the Ukrainian population) have been forcibly displaced, among those nearly 6.5 million IDPs and more than 4 million refugees.

The Russian list of ceasefire conditions is transforming now from a paradoxical demand for Ukraine to be ‘de-Nazified’ and ‘demilitarized’ to ‘keeping non-aligned’ status (something which was a part of Ukraine’s geopolitical doctrine for a long time but, apparently, failed to provide long-term security and peace nearby the neighbor whose leadership publicly denies the country’s right for sovereignty). Yet, the two cornerstones are being kept as the main alleged pretext for escalation and as a last resort to give some meaning to this war: it is ‘defense’ of Crimea and ‘liberation’ Donbas ‘suffering genocide of the Russian-speaking population’.

During the years of escalation, the myth of the ‘primordially pro-Russian and anti-West’ regions, poorly studied but willingly exploited in discussions, infiltrated public perceptions, both locally and internationally. As a result, the vague usage of the terms “civil war”, “conflict”, “separatists insurgency” in the context of the ongoing war have been widely legalized not only by Russian officials but, occasionally, by the international community (including the UN high representatives, politicians, foreign observers and scholars). Sadly, such false reality paved the way to the other blatant lie, blaming Ukrainian authorities for being ‘fascists’ and physically threatening Russia itself.

The ongoing escalation of February-March 2022 should be seen and understood in a context of a longer-term Russian conquest scenario based on the distorted picture of the historical legacies. Punishing and dismantling the Ukrainian state which does not fit the colonialist design of the Russian totalitarian project, has become an idée fixe for the Russian dictator. For decades, it has been dispersed by the blaring propaganda machine and, as the Russian public polls demonstrate, is widely supported by the domestic public. Those who resist totalitalization and brainwashing face intimidation and extermination.

Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014 (as the first phase of aggression) and the creeping occupation of Donbas from April 2014 onwards (second phase), Russia has used its diverse yet habitual military, political, and informational tactics to construct false justifications for its imperialistic expansion in the post-Soviet space. Construction of a parallel social reality as a pretext for its predatory revisionism at the expense of the sovereign states involved, among other tools, the violation of the human rights of the local population (including widely reported illegal detentions, forced displacement, kidnapping, persecution, tortures, and murders of Ukrainian citizens, including the representatives of ethnic minorities and religious groups, who refused to cooperate); deployment of shock troops made of mercenaries, paramilitary detachments and other hybrid forces as well as the regular army playing assigned roles in a way that ignores the international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war; and, on and on, massive disinformation, censorship, and punishment to disloyal.

Such oppressive policies leave little room for objective analysis: social consequences of the war and attitudes of the occupied areas remain hard to study. However, what can be analyzed is the pre-war situation in Crimea and Donbas before the Russian invasion, which during those years was anything but unanimous anti-West and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. First, during the 1991 referendum, the call for Ukraine’s National Independence was supported, although with a different enthusiasm, by a majority of the local population in all ‘disputed’ now regions: 84% of the voters in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 57% in Sevastopol, and 54% in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea said ‘yes’ to the sovereign Ukrainian state (compare this to 76% in Kharkiv, another largely Russian-speaking border region in the east, and 90% national average). The results of the social surveys conducted in Ukraine prior to 2014 were a reflection of the uneasy but progressive democratic processes marked over the years with the fluctuating public trust in the government and local authorities and a high pluralism of thoughts (with some ‘drops and downs’ during the pro-Russian Yanukovych’s rule, though). Although a need to shape regional consciousness in Donbas and Crimea as an integral part of the Ukrainian political nation has never become a priority, neither for the local nor for the central authority (at least not until the Russian aggression in 2014), the available Ukrainian Society Survey data (conducted by the Institute of Sociology annually from the early 1990s) showed a colorful picture of changing public attitudes that confronts the black-and-white Russian narratives. Besides a significant role of local mindsets, Ukrainian political identity (in a hierarchy of other personal identities, “being a citizen of Ukraine first”) has been increasing in all regions over time, including Donbas and Crimea. Although it remains the lowest as compared to the other macroregions, the progress over the decades was rather impressive. In Donbas, it has grown from 27% in 1992 to 37% in 2012 (in 2021 in the government-controlled areas (GCA) of Donbas it reached 57%). In Crimea, the Ukrainian identity has increased from 27% in 1992 to 34% in 2012 (no data were available since the annexation). The pro-EU attitudes have been steadily strong since the early 2000s, with 49% of supporters in Donbas and 47% and Crimea in 2000 (in 2012, during the Yanukovych period, it dropped to 27% in Donbas and 37% in Crimea). In 2000, 13% of respondents in both regions had positive attitudes toward Ukraine joining NATO. Due to the massive anti-NATO rhetoric in the Yanukovych-time media, this dropped to 6% in both regions in 2012 (and increased to 27% in Donbas GCA in 2021; while no data are available for Crimea since then). Importantly, before the annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, the number of respondents who reported that they would leave their place of residents because of the langue issue remained below the significance level (from 0,3 to 0,6%).

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues and is getting closer to the West, the international community should finally learn the bitter lessons of the first two phases of aggression in Crimea and Donbas, which have been poorly digested so far. Apparently, Russia plays similar conquest scenarios across other regions of Ukraine now (from Mariupol in the east to Kherson and other cities in the south, north and center of Ukraine) and, likely, will go beyond (to the Baltic states, Poland, etc.), using the same ‘constructed’ pretexts and justifications. Will the international actors accept that? What should be done now to prevent this catastrophic scenario(s)? The first essential step involves stopping being trapped in the imposed Kremlin’s narratives and developing a critical perception of the Russian state that can never again be treated and heard as usual while its constructed wars are spreading across the world.

A view from the author’s window in Kyiv after the Russian rocket hit the residential building on Saturday morning, 26 February 2022.


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