The latest polls, jointly conducted by KIIS (Ukraine) and Levada (Russia), show that the collapse in Ukrainian sentiment towards Russia may be turning a corner.
Legend: Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia [blue]; Russian attitudes towards Ukraine [orange]
For the first time since April 2014, more Ukrainians have a positive impressive of Russia than the converse. Attitudes are basically 50/50 even in West Ukraine.
However, there is no particular cause for premature celebration amongst Russophiles. This is still greatly down from the 80%-90% support before 2014. Support for open borders/no visas with Russia slightly exceeds those who want closed borders by 48% to 39%, and while another 4% want outright political union with Russia – up from minimums of 2% in the past three years – this is still cardinally down from 15%-20% prior to Euromaidan.
Moreover, this has to be set against 51% vs. 23% support for EU accession, and 40% vs. 31% support for joining NATO. In contrast, 43% of Ukrainians oppose joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan versus 24% who support; this might be up from ~15% support/55% opposition in the past four years, but before 2014, this option was as popular as the EU one. Meanwhile, in a direct choice between the two, 46% of Ukrainians favor the EU to 14% for the Customs Union. Before 2014, they were level pegging.
The only good thing from Russia’s perspective is that neither the EU nor NATO accession for the Ukraine is on the table for now.
However, these latest polls do allow us to attempt to sketch out the likely future course of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship.
Barring any further flare-ups on the Donbass Front, or in the Sea of Azov, I assume these improvements will continue, but they will never reach the pre-2014 state of affairs for the foreseeable future. In the post-Soviet space, we have two examples of the template according to which relations might continue to develop: Georgia and Moldova.
Georgia has restored full-fledged economic ties with Russia, and Russians can visit it at will, requiring no visa. Tbilisi enjoys a great reputation amongst Moscow hipsters. After some hiccups following the 2008 war and Saakashvili’s departure, it has resumed fairly vigorous growth and is now quite a successful state, at least by Caucasian standards (e.g. corruption may be almost as low as in the Baltics). However, it has not geopolitically reorientated towards Russia. It votes with the West at the UN, and there is near universal support for Western integration; a state of affairs that Leonid Bershidsky has called a “NATO of the Mind“, which as good as locks out Russian political/cultural influence.
On the other end is Moldova, where pro-Russian forces fought a war in the early 1990s to carve out the statelet of Transnistria. It is an extremely corrupt and economically failed state, the absolute poorest in Europe (Ukraine is second). It so much of a joke state that an Israeli Jew managed to steal 13% of its GDP from its banks – the equivalent of $350, or four months worth of wages for every working Moldovan – and who then, instead of getting arrested and jailed after his conviction, somehow became the mayor of a Moldovan town and entered parliament. In Moldova, pro/anti-Russian political forces typically poll 50/50, and more people view NATO as a threat than as protection.
In terms of socio-economic success and state capacity, the Ukraine is certainly closer to Moldova. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is about a third of Russia’s, and half of Belarus’. Even the most strongly pro-Ukrainian outlets, such as The Atlantic Council, have been forced to admit that Poroshenko, far from snuffing out corruption, has merely reinforced the oligarchic system. The Ukraine is also culturally much closer to Russia. It was part of the same ancient medieval state, and major parts of it have been (re)integrated with Russia to some extent or another since the 17th century (Georgia and Bessarabia were acquired early in the 19th century). Ukrainian is much more similar to Russian than is Moldovan, which is basically Romanian but with a bit more Slavic vocabulary, and infinitely closer than Georgian, which is an entirely different language and script. Ukrainians are genetically almost indistinguishable from South Russians, while Moldovans are a Romanian/Slavic metis and Georgians are, once again, very distant. Finally, the Ukraine is surrounded by Russia from the East and the South. This suggests the Ukraine may follow a Moldovan vector.
However, there are also several factors militating against this possibility. The more primitive Russophile propaganda to the contrary, the Ukraine isn’t an eternally collapsing economic basket-case. The economy has recovered, and western Ukraine is now even better off than it was in 2014. Economic growth is nothing to write home about, but it is well above zero and should trundle along at around 2%-4% (if well short of the 6%-7% that it really needs for convergence with Russia or Visegrad). Foreign exchange reserves are now safely back to pre-Euromaidan levels, with the risk of default receding into the background. Meanwhile, while pretty much all Moldovans would agree theirs is a joke country, this is not the case for the Ukraine, which has strong homegrown traditions of svidomism and nationalism. In principle, their country of ~35 million people with an average IQ of perhaps 95 could still be a reasonably successful and prosperous European state… if they ever get their act together. Of course there are major challenges in the future. The completion of Nord Stream II and Power of Siberia this year will blow a $3 billion hole in their meager budget, where every billion counts. And there might be another global recession looming, which may again collapse natural resource and steel prices (though Russia will be affected too of course).
I do not know which of these factors will be stronger. However, I think it is reasonable to posit that – all else equal, and with no drastic developments (e.g. a Democratic President in the US that has it out for Russia and starts to energetically lobby for Ukraine’s NATO membership, like George W. Bush in his second term) – that Ukraine’s course and social attitudes will converge to some point between those of Moldova and Georgia. This means the resumption of normal economic relations between Russia and the Ukraine, and direct flights between Moscow and Kiev. However, the victory of pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine has been ruled out for the foreseeable future, it will be consistently voting with the Western Powers at the UN, and deepening its security integration with NATO and EU structures as the opportunity presents itself.