Five reasons why Ukraine rejected Vladimir Putin’s “Russian World”

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a March 2018 event in Moscow to mark the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Now in its eighth year, Russian military aggression against Ukraine has played a major role in driving the two formerly close post-Soviet nations apart. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL via REUTERS)

In February 2021, Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine entered its eighth year. During this period, the Kremlin has succeeded in occupying Crimea and a large swathe of territory in eastern Ukraine’s borderland Donbas region. At the same time, Russian influence over the remaining 92.8% of Ukraine has plummeted to lows not witnessed for more than three hundred years.

Although there remains no end in sight to the ongoing war, it is already becoming increasingly obvious that the events of the past seven years have led to Ukraine’s decisive departure from Russia’s sphere of influence. Evidence of this historic shift can be seen throughout Ukrainian society.

Politically, support for Ukraine’s pro-Russian forces has collapsed to significantly less than half pre-war levels. Moscow-leaning Ukrainian political parties that were capable of forming parliamentary majorities and winning presidential elections less than a decade ago now struggle to pass the 20% barrier in national elections and are heavily reliant on an ageing electoral base driven by nostalgia for Soviet stability. This leaves very little scope for any future revival in political fortunes.

Russia’s ability to dominate Ukraine economically has also greatly diminished. Prior to the war, Russia accounted for around 30% of Ukraine’s annual trade balance. By 2020, that figure had fallen to approximately 7%. During the same period, Ukrainian trade with China and the European Union has flourished. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s sizeable migrant workforce has voted with its feet, turning away from traditional Russian destinations since 2014 in favor of EU alternatives.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, post-Soviet Ukraine had been Russia’s greatest soft power success story. Not any more. The formerly indivisible Russian and Ukrainian showbiz scenes have undergone a sharp separation due to the war. Many Russian celebrities are officially banned from Ukraine, while others are no longer welcome.

Most Russian TV channels have been forced off the Ukrainian airwaves, and Ukrainian TV channels have drastically reduced their Russian-made content. Thanks to a quota system, radio station playlists now increasingly favor Ukrainian-language artists. With Russian social media sites blocked, millions of Ukrainians have switched to Facebook and other international platforms.

Russia has also been in retreat in the spiritual realm. The 2019 establishment of an internationally recognized Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent of the Moscow Patriarchate has accelerated the already declining influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Many in Moscow had hoped the spring 2019 election of Russian-speaking Jewish candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy as President of Ukraine would reverse Russia’s catastrophic loss of influence in the country. However, almost two years on, there has been no such revival.

On the contrary, Zelenskyy himself has launched a crackdown on remaining avenues of Kremlin influence in Ukraine. He recently shut down Kremlin-linked Ukrainian TV channels and has imposed a range of sanctions on Russia’s leading Ukrainian allies, while also adopting a strategy for the de-occupation of Crimea.

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Ukraine’s geopolitical turn away from Russia enjoys overwhelming public backing. Indeed, with Ukrainian opinion polls consistently indicating majority support for future membership of both the European Union and NATO, it is difficult to imagine any way back for Russia. Instead, Vladimir Putin looks destined to enter the Russian history books as the man who lost Ukraine.

The loss of Ukraine is a crushing blow to Putin’s dreams of imperial revival and his obsession with reversing the humiliations of the Soviet collapse. It also represents a resounding defeat for the “Russian World” doctrine that has served as the unofficial ideology of the Putin regime for more than a decade.

Putin’s commitment to a so-called “Russian World” that extends beyond the borders of modern Russia first began to take shape in the mid-2000s and gained considerable momentum following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

According to Putin and other prominent advocates, the “Russian World” encompasses populations throughout the former Czarist and Soviet empires who are bound together with Russia by the Russian language along with a common religion, culture, history, and world view.

Ukraine lies at the very heart of Putin’s “Russian World” and is central to his imperial ambitions. Nor is he alone in such thinking. Indeed, widespread assumptions regarding Ukraine’s natural place within the “Russian World” played a crucial role in Moscow’s decision to invade the country in 2014. This deep-rooted belief has since helped to maintain high levels of Russian public support for the separatist republics created and maintained by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine.

Putin and fellow “Russian World” devotees such as Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill believe Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all part of the same “Russian civilization” and share common ancestral origins in the medieval Kyiv Rus, which is depicted as “the first Russian state.” They view today’s separation into individual post-Soviet states as a mistake of history and blame the West for artificially dividing the “Russian World.”

This Russian narrative dismisses Ukraine’s centuries of struggle for statehood as a betrayal of Russian-Ukrainian “brotherhood.” Ukrainian leaders ranging from eighteenth century Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa to modern-day presidents Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are portrayed as traitors and separatists collaborating with Western enemies of Russia in order to divide and weaken the “Russian World.”

In reality, the “Russian World” ideology promoted by the Putin regime has been out of touch with Ukrainian public opinion for many years. This gap has widened significantly as attitudes have hardened in response to the undeclared and ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

In early 2014, Putin appears to have fallen victim of his own propaganda to such an extent that he genuinely believed he could orchestrate pro-Russian uprisings across Ukraine. Instead, the Kremlin’s hybrid assault on Ukrainian sovereignty sparked a wave of popular opposition that has had disastrous consequences for Russian interests in the country.

The loss of Ukraine means that Moscow must come to terms with the greatest retreat in Russian influence since the demise of the USSR. For the time being, the uncertainties of the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine have delayed the inevitable fallout from this historic setback. However, when the reckoning finally arrives, it promises to be painful for the Kremlin.

At this stage, it is already possible to identify five key reasons why Ukrainians have rejected Putin’s appeals to rejoin the “Russian World.”

1. Absence of imperial identity: While modern Russian national identity is inextricably tied to notions of imperial destiny, the same is simply not true for Ukrainians. For this reason, the “Russian World” doctrine did not strike a chord among a majority of Ukrainians even before the 2014 crisis. Instead, it provoked widespread suspicion.

During Viktor Yanukovych’s 2010-2014 presidency, the number of Ukrainians who believed the “Russian World” was an attempt to rebuild the Russian Empire grew from 30.4% to nearly half (48.4%), while those who viewed it as maintaining the spiritual unity of the eastern Slavs declined from 56.8% to 39.7%. Predictably, these trends have continued to strengthen since the onset of hostilities seven years ago.

2. Democratic divergence: After gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has slowly but steadily embraced democracy, leading to the emergence of a highly competitive if imperfect multi-party political system. Today’s Ukrainians take free and fair elections for granted and have also grown used to robust criticism of the authorities and a pluralistic media environment. Meanwhile, following constitutional changes adopted in 2020, Putin now looks set to remain president of Russia until 2036.

Many Ukrainians remain deeply dissatisfied with the country’s often dysfunctional democracy, but few have any desire for a return to a one-party system dominated by a dictator in the Kremlin. There is also very little enthusiasm for Putin personally. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Ukrainian approval of Putin in international affairs fell from 56% in 2007 to just 11% in 2019. No wonder today’s authoritarian Russia has proven such a hard sell to Ukrainian audiences.

3. The polarizing impact of war: Prior to 2014, negative views of Russia were not particularly common among Ukrainians outside of western Ukraine. However, since the outbreak of hostilities, such attitudes have become increasingly mainstream in all regions of the country.

As a direct result of the ongoing conflict, the number of Ukrainians holding positive views of Russia has collapsed from around 80% to current levels of approximately 40%, according to February 2021 data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and Russia’s Levada Center.

An entire generation of young Ukrainians with no personal memories of the shared Soviet past now knows Russia primarily as an aggressor and an adversary. Regardless of any future developments towards peace and reconciliation, the seven-year war between the two countries represents a watershed event that has permanently transformed Russian-Ukrainian relations.

4. Religious differences: One of the central pillars of the “Russian World” doctrine is the Russian Orthodox Church. On paper at least, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to exert formidable influence over Ukraine. However, in reality, this influence was already in decline prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 2014 and long before the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019.

Throughout the early post-Soviet decades of Ukrainian independence, the internationally unrecognized Kyiv Patriarchate had continued to gain ground on the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate in the competition for Orthodox Ukrainian loyalties. This shift gained further momentum following the start of hostilities in 2014, thanks in part to widespread perceptions that the Moscow Patriarchate supported military aggression against Ukraine.

Moscow Patriarchate priests have provoked numerous scandals over the past seven years by refusing to officiate at funerals for fallen soldiers and rejecting public calls to honor the country’s defenders. In May 2015, Moscow Patriarchate leaders sparked fury when they refused to stand in the Ukrainian parliament to honor Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war.

Ukrainians also increasingly question Moscow’s attempts to link the modern Russian Orthodox Church with the ancient Orthodox traditions of the Kyiv Rus era. In a survey conducted on the eve of Ukraine’s January 2019 breakthrough towards Orthodox independence, majorities of Ukrainians identified modern Ukraine as the successor to the Kyiv Rus legacy and recognized the Kyiv Patriarchate as the successor to the Orthodox Church established in the Ukrainian capital just over one thousand years earlier.

The Russian Orthodox Church remains a powerful force in Ukrainian everyday life with millions of believers and thousands of parishes. Nevertheless, it is now nowhere near as influential as it once was. Looking ahead, it cannot hope play the kind of unifying role in pluralistic Ukraine that it performs inside Russia itself.

5. Memory wars: Ukraine and Russia have diverged on a number of key historical questions ever since the Gorbachev era. Many Ukrainians do not agree that Crimea “was always Russian,” for example, and also reject Russian attempts to claim the historical legacy of the Kyiv Rus. These competing approaches towards the common past are hardly surprising. For centuries, Russia was able to dictate a highly russo-centric version of Ukrainian history. This made the backlash of recent decades all but inevitable.

Attitudes towards the imperial past differ in fundamental ways. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the Czarist regime and continuing throughout the twentieth century Soviet era, Ukrainians faced wave after wave of russification policies designed to stifle Ukraine’s own statehood aspirations. This history of repression makes it significantly harder for modern Ukrainians to identify with the imperial past, but Russians do not share such qualms. While a clear majority of Ukrainians now regard Stalin as a tyrant, equally high numbers of Russians see the Soviet dictator as a hero.

In recent years, the space separating rival Ukrainian and Russian historical narratives has grown ever wider. Ukraine’s decommunization laws of 2015 have led to the wholesale rejection of Soviet symbolism and a new approach to the totalitarian era that directly contradicts Russia’s own efforts under Putin to rehabilitate the USSR. Inevitably, conflicting accounts of the shared past remain central to the information war raging between today’s Russia and Ukraine.

Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine in 2014 owed much to his apparently sincere conviction that the country belongs in the “Russian World.” This proved a grave miscalculation that has accelerated a number of existing trends pulling the two post-Soviet nations in different directions.

The entire “Russian World” concept is rooted in outdated nineteenth century imperial myths that have no place in the twenty-first century. Such thinking has had an incredibly damaging impact on Russian-Ukrainian ties, playing a direct role in the drive towards war seven years ago and fueling the subsequent escalation of the conflict.

This imperialistic approach now serves as a barrier to peace and possible future reconciliation. Until modern Russia is able to reject the toxic “Russian World” doctrine, it will continue to poison relations with Ukraine and widen the divide between the two countries.

Taras Kuzio is a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and a professor at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He is also author of “Putin’s War Against Ukraine” and co-author of “The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order”.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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