A new study details just how badly the Russian leadership misread Ukraine’s popular mood during the run-up to the failed blitz on Ukraine in early 2022. The signs of solidarity and resilience shown by Ukrainians were evident in the decade leading up to the war, but the Kremlin ignored the evidence.
Ukrainians’ spirit of civic participation was showing impressive growth in the years prior to Russia’s unprovoked attack. That Ukrainian society came together so fast to resist the invasion should not have come as a surprise, according to the findings of the recently published report, titled Ukraine: Measuring civic space risk, resilience and Russian influence in the lead up to war. The report represents the culmination of a three-year research project carried out by AidData, a research lab at the Global Research Institute at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.
“The Kremlin severely underestimated the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people,” the report states. “President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was an important part of this story, but 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.”
AidData analyzed a “vast amount of historical data” dating back to 2010 to gauge public attitudes concerning Ukraine’s civic space during the pre-war years. A key finding: during the past decade the spirit of volunteerism among Ukrainians significantly outpaced that of their peers in other formerly Soviet states.
“Ukrainians’ disenchantment with organized politics stands in sharp contrast to a substantial uptick in their reported participation in other forms of civic life—from increased involvement in demonstrations to growing levels of membership in voluntary organizations, charitable donations, and helping strangers,” the report stated.
Civic engagement in Ukraine did not follow a steady upward trajectory. It surged in the wake of the Euromaidan protests in 2014, then dipped in 2017, amid deepening public disillusionment with the government’s failure to tackle corruption.. It started rising again in 2019 after Zelenskyy became president.
The Gallup World Poll’s Civic Engagement Index showed Ukraine’s civic participation reaching its highest level during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020–2021) period. In 2021, the AidData report notes, 47 percent of Ukrainians reported donating to charity, 24 percent volunteered with an organization, and over 75 percent reported helping a stranger. Ukrainians were thus poised to quickly rally together to resist Russian aggression.
The findings offer a reminder for Western governments intent on trying to counter the spread of illiberalism around the globe. “There is a broader lesson here that reverberates far beyond 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,” the report concludes.