Editor’s note: AidData, a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, has spent the past three years collecting and analyzing data on the health of civil society and vulnerabilities to Russian influence across 17 countries in Europe and Eurasia from 2015 to 2021. This research effort includes original data collection to capture Russian financing and in-kind assistance to civil society groups, as well as analysis of Russian state-backed media coverage targeting foreign publics. The project also conducted extensive collection and analysis of domestic cases impacting civic space (instances of harassment and violence, restrictive legislation, state-backed legal cases) and drew on public opinion polling data to understand attitudes towards civic participation. Taken together, the research—launching soon—provides an unusual comparative perspective on the set of countries most closely tied to the Russian orbit, while at the same time affording insights into what makes Ukraine unique.
It is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin, on the cusp of invading Ukraine in February 2022, viewing his odds of success as anything other than inevitable. The theoretical scales were tipped in Russia’s favor, as it faced a smaller foe with a fraction of the military personnel, aircraft, naval vessels, and weaponry.
Yet, one year later—and regardless of Putin’s bombastic pronouncement this past January that his success is still “assured”—the Kremlin’s victory is anything but certain. Why might this be? And what lessons can we draw that may have broader import in other geographies and future conflicts?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Kremlin severely underestimated the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was an important part of this story, as his words and actions galvanized not only the Ukrainian people but the world. The willingness of the average Ukrainian citizen to mount a whole-of-society resistance to Putin’s aggression also played a decisive role in overcoming the odds.
It is tempting to say that it was the 2022 invasion that prompted this unity and fighting spirit. Ukrainian citizens did indeed rally around the flag in a time of crisis; however, it is a mistake to view this as a momentary phenomenon. In fact, over the last three years, as AidData has collected and analyzed vast amounts of historical data on civic space in Ukraine (along with 16 other countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia), we see that the seeds of this solidarity began much earlier—with Russia’s 2022 invasion only adding fuel to the fire of a recently energized Ukrainian citizenry.
The average Ukrainian was not always the civic-minded superhero we see today—resisting, enlisting, fashioning Molotov cocktails from everyday implements, caring for neighbors and children, or making sandwiches for volunteers sweeping up after another Russian missile strike. Just over a decade ago, less than 10 percent of Ukrainians gave money to charity, only a quarter volunteered their time, and approximately one-third reported helping a stranger, according to the Gallup World Poll (2011-2013). Ukrainians’ participation in civic organizations was about 5 percent, according to the 2011 World Values Survey, buoyed primarily by higher membership levels in labor unions and religious groups.
Low levels of civic participation were matched by similarly anemic levels of confidence in their public institutions—with at least three-quarters of Ukrainians surveyed saying they distrusted the executive branch, parliament, and the country’s political parties in the same 2011 survey. Not only were most Ukrainians disinterested in politics, but the vast majority also said they would never consider taking part in activities such as a petition, boycott, demonstration, or strike. This reluctance to participate in public life is striking in contrast to our image of the average Ukrainian citizen today—standing up for their country in the face of Russian tanks, coordinating humanitarian assistance efforts, and building critical supply chains to support those fighting on the front lines.
Fast forwarding to 2021, the year before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian society had transformed to one where a substantially larger volume of citizens were actively contributing to civic life in their country in a variety of ways. Nearly half of Ukrainians surveyed by the Gallup World Poll that year donated to charity and over 75 percent reported helping a stranger, the highest levels seen in a decade. Willingness to engage in collective action in the political domain was also on the rise, as 40 percent of Ukrainians said they had or would consider joining a demonstration, per the World Values Survey the previous year. Membership rates in civic organizations of all different stripes was also up across the board. By all appearances, the seeds for Ukraine’s whole-of-society resistance were planted and cultivated in a time of relative peace, tested in a time of war, and critical to the country’s resilience in the face of aggression.
So, what happened in between that may have made the difference? In hindsight, Ukrainian citizens appear to have come to a growing realization that their country’s freedom was fragile and that they had a role to play in withstanding the Kremlin’s efforts to reclaim its lost empire, and holding their own leaders accountable for doing the same. Public discontent with Ukrainian political leadership reached a boiling point with the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests and Revolution of Dignity. Large-scale protests broke out over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to suspend Ukraine’s entry into an association agreement that would have marked closer political and economic integration with the European Union. Yanukovych’s unilateral action was seen as capitulation to Moscow and a betrayal of the wishes of the parliament and many Ukrainians. Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin annexed Crimea and abetted pro-Russian separatist militias in the Donbas—providing military support, bankrolling anti-Ukraine propaganda activities, and supplying political training for labor unions, among other activities.
Following these aggressions, there was a rising tide of public support for the Ukrainian military, even in the face of losses against Russian-backed forces in the period 2014-2021. Rather than shaking public confidence, the growing number of families with ties to soldiers who have fought on the front lines has likely deepened the connection the average citizen feels with their military. This strong support and trust in the military in the face of externally-incited conflict and unrest may partly explain the willingness of Ukrainian citizens to join civil defense forces in early 2022, in the face of the Russian invasion.
Ukrainians had a front-row seat in observing the Kremlin’s multifaceted influence campaign play out in numerous spheres of civic and political life. AidData’s research uncovered numerous instances of Russian financing and assistance to cultivate pro-Russian voices over a seven year period (2015-2021): sponsoring patriotic youth education camps, hosting joint events with historical or cultural foundations, supporting sympathetic political parties, and promoting false-front protestors to push for greater greater autonomy from Kyiv in local public councils.
While Ukrainians now resist Russian armor, for years they repelled the Kremlin’s attempts to Russify civic life (particularly in the eastern oblasts and Crimea), stoke discontent among Russian language speaking communities, vilify opponents via negative media coverage of pro-Western or pro-democracy voices, and use sharper tools of disinformation and cyberattacks to fracture the country. While the 2013-14 protests may have lit the spark for more Ukrainian citizens to participate in civic and political life, it was the choice of communities to support each other and their country in the face of prolonged Kremlin aggression—beginning many years prior to the February 2022 invasion—that likely fanned the flame of resistance critical to Ukraine’s resolve in the war with Russia.
There is also a broader lesson here that reverberates much farther than Ukraine: investing early in a robust civil society is not just an optional “extra,” but fundamental to a society’s ability to deter, withstand, and repel the destructive intent of an external aggressor in times of peace and war.
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