The following article is based on research conducted under the State Department’s Title VIII Fellowship, for the Frontier Europe Initiative at MEI.
For almost seven weeks (June 11-July 26) in Poland, I interviewed 17 Ukrainian students and young professionals in-person and on Zoom about their perception of the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Russia. Additionally, I met with two Ukrainian students in the Washington, DC, area upon my return. The students I spoke with in Poland and the U.S. hailed from different cities in Ukraine, including Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and Kharkiv, and were pursuing degrees in fields ranging from international relations to management and law. I wanted to speak to Ukrainian youth because I was inspired by the 2013/2014 EuroMaidan protests and the role that young people played in this revolution. My questions centered around their identity as Ukrainians, how the war is impacting their lives, and how they viewed Russia and the West before and after Feb. 24, 2022. Why do these students believe what they believe? How does war impact their sense of identity and outlook on the world? I believe that listening to students and young professionals, especially during this war, is instrumental in understanding the Ukrainian perspective. Moreover, the U.S. and the West would benefit from hearing these younger Ukrainians’ viewpoints because they are the future leaders of their country. The students I spoke with have only known an independent Ukraine, and their negative feelings toward Russia will not improve anytime soon.
Attitudes toward the U.S.
The U.S. response to the full-scale Russian aggression launched earlier this year will have long-term implications for Ukrainians’ perception of the European security architecture and Washington’s role in it. The U.S. has responded to the current war with hard power support for Ukraine, including financial assistance and weapons deliveries, but crucially short of direct armed intervention. My interactions with young Ukrainians revealed they openly express gratitude for this aid but retain some criticism as to its timing and efficacy. Fortunately, the U.S. can learn from its mistakes, as already illustrated by the difference in Washington’s robust response today compared to its more restrained reaction to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea eight years earlier. Many respondents stated that the international sanctions against Russia in 2014 were insufficient. Although two students also noted that there wasn’t much of a response to the annexation from Ukraine either. In contrast, interviewees praised the support and solidarity from the United States during the 2022 invasion. And as the respondents recognize, a Ukrainian victory has implications not just for the country’s own sovereignty but also for regional and global security.
Soft power is another relevant factor to young Ukrainians’ opinions of the U.S. Many interviewees seem to expect the U.S. public and government to be well-versed in Ukrainian history and culture, such as understanding that Ukrainian and Russian cultures are distinct from one another. This is something that the U.S. should consider when looking at Eastern European history and security. Furthermore, students noted the importance of how the war is portrayed by the U.S. and the language used to describe it.
Attitudes toward Russia
The overwhelming majority of interviewees have a negative or unfavorable view of Russia. A few students asserted that this is Russia’s war, not just Vladimir Putin’s. Even prior to Feb. 24, many students did not view Russia positively. One responded that she never liked Russia; however, some others stressed that while they always distrusted the Russian government, they did not feel a strong hatred toward Russians themselves. The annexation of Crimea was formative for many of these young people, who realized then that there was a fundamental shift in Ukrainian relations with Russia. Feb. 24 solidified their opinions on Russia and Russians. These viewpoints are complex, as many Ukrainians have Russian family members or lineage.
The students all thought critically about past, present, and future relations with Russia and the Russian people. According to one student from Odesa, some of the first people who called her on Feb. 24 were her Russian friends. While such stories were rare, they arguably demonstrated the unique understanding and multi-varied backgrounds of these young people, notwithstanding their shared feelings and experiences.
Language is an important piece of this conversation. As an example of Russian influence in Ukraine, one interviewee mentioned that many people in her hometown in southeastern Ukraine speak Surzhyk, a blend of Ukrainian and Russian. But some students have pointedly stopped speaking Russian altogether. And the same individual who discussed the prevalence of Surzhyh in her hometown said she will not teach her future children Russian. Another said that her younger sister does not even know Russian, as she was raised to speak only Ukrainian. This same participant shared a story from her childhood, in which her grandmother sang a lullaby in Russian as she put her to bed, but she refused to fall asleep until her grandmother sang the lullaby in Ukrainian. This demonstrates how passionately young Ukrainians feel about preserving their language, which they believe is for future generations, not just their own.
The international community must pay attention to these students’ and young people’s opinions on how a Ukrainian victory in this war should be defined. Multiple participants responded that they would like to see a return to Ukraine’s borders from 1991. Russians must leave Ukrainian land, including Donetsk and Luhansk.
As I spoke to one participant, I could see the joy and the longing for victory in her eyes and in her demeanor. She said she wants Ukrainians to return home after the war. Another mentioned that her hometown had been heavily bombed and left without electricity or water; her family had to leave because it was unsafe to stay. Some displaced families clearly will not be able to or are unwilling to return to Ukraine for the foreseeable future. As the country struggles to rebuild its infrastructure after the end of hostilities, the refugee crisis will remain a key issue in any post-war reconstruction plan.
As to what should happen to Russia after the war, one interviewee suggested the aggressor state should be isolated through sanctions and other restrictions. Another contended that there could never be a compromise or peace talks with Russia. Students would like to see Russia held responsible and pay reparations.
What does this all mean, including for Russia’s place in the international community and its relations with other countries? What will happen after the war, and how will wide-ranging popular resentment be handled in the future? These questions cannot be answered now, but as time passes, their importance and significance will grow. One student said that the concept of “Russophobia” should be dealt with after the war. Yes, there is a physical war occurring, but in many ways, an identity war accompanies it. While the military conflict may end one day, the social war could be everlasting.
Young Ukrainians are strong and feel a sense of obligation to make sure their country follows a European path. The strength and determination of Ukrainians in their fight for democracy and European values should be an inspiration for the rest of the world.
Attitudes toward NATO
Particularly since the start of the 2022 invasion, young Ukrainians have begun thinking more critically about the North Atlantic Alliance’s capabilities and the extent to which it can act, with many raising NATO’s unwillingness to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine as an example. While many would have liked to see a more aggressive NATO response, they understand the possible implications if it had.
Ukrainians’ perceptions of individual NATO members run the gamut depending on the specific country. And students cited Germany as one of the Alliance members they were most disappointed in for its response to this war and ambiguous relations with Russia.
Do young people want to see Ukraine join NATO? The interviewees differed widely on this point. One said Ukraine’s response to the war shows that it is NATO that has a lot to learn from Ukraine, not the other way around. However, many expressed a desire to join the Alliance, not only because of the opportunities for closer cooperation and assistance in the security and defense realms but also because it would allow Ukraine to associate more closely with other countries sharing their values.
That said, not all respondents expressed a positive attitude toward joining NATO. A few students proposed reorganizing institutions like NATO after the war. One said that her perception of NATO had worsened since earlier this year, while another initially had no idea that NATO would turn out to be as internally messy as it turned out to be. Lastly, multiple students brought up the point that while Sweden and Finland were invited to join, Ukraine still has not been presented with this opportunity. Students wanted to see NATO do more, considering the severity and scale of the war.
The Russo-Ukrainian war certainly laid bare some real faults in Euro-Atlantic security organizations, yet they still have purpose and strength. After all, if NATO does not matter, why would Sweden and Finland choose to become members? Younger Ukrainians thus realize that their own country must carefully consider all the benefits and downfalls of joining the Alliance.
Giana Pirolli is a Black Sea State Department Title VIII Fellow with MEI’s Frontier Europe Initiative and is a second-year M.A. Security Studies candidate at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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