Ukraine Through Russia’s Eyes

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in 2017. Courtesy of / CC BY 4.0

The Kremlin’s pre-invasion research suggested Ukraine was fertile ground for subversion, but the shock of war may transform Ukrainians’ willingness to resist in unpredictable ways.

While the Russian military is capable of defeating the Ukrainian armed forces, the prospect of occupying a hostile country constitutes a major gamble for Moscow. In order to accurately assess why President Vladimir Putin concluded that he could invade and occupy Ukraine, it is necessary to consider how Russian officials understood the Ukrainian population and its political, economic and social structure on the eve of the invasion. This article analyses social surveys conducted across Ukraine in February 2022 and commissioned by the Ninth Directorate of the Fifth Service of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). These indicate how Russian officials viewed Ukraine as they were planning their invasion, and what this might mean for the trajectory of a Russian occupation.

The KGB’s Fifth Service had been responsible for counterintelligence in the territories of the former Soviet Union. When the KGB became the FSB in the 1990s, and these territories became independent states, the Fifth Service transitioned into an intelligence agency targeting Russia’s neighbours. Its Department for Operational Information is responsible for compiling data on Russia’s ‘near abroad’, and the Ninth Directorate, targeting Ukraine, has been overseeing the gathering of intelligence on Ukrainian society to inform Russian decision-making. Its February 2022 surveys reveal much about how the Kremlin assessed the resilience of Ukrainian society.

Ukraine in February 2022

According to the polling data, Ukrainians in early February were, by and large, pessimistic about the future and apathetic about politics, and did not trust politicians, political parties or the majority of Ukraine’s domestic institutions. Their main concerns were overwhelmingly inflation and the cost of living, with both perceived to be rising.

Trust in the office of the president sat at 27%, with 67% distrustful of the presidency. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had poor approval ratings at −34, but a high proportion of Ukrainians polled still professed that they would vote for him over other candidates. The Ukrainian Army, both regular and reserve, was highly trusted, with 68% of the population supportive, as were military veterans, while regional and municipal governments were comparatively well-trusted with over 40% of the population having a favourable opinion of them. However, other institutions enjoyed approval figures that ranged from mediocre to poor, including the police at 28% and domestic security services at 23%. Trust in the Rada – the Ukrainian parliament – and in political parties was abysmal, at 11% and 8% respectively. And when it came to willingness to serve in the military or otherwise resist a foreign invasion, 40% of respondents stated that they would not defend Ukraine.

The population notably had a high opinion of the military’s capabilities, although this is worryingly divergent from the assessment of professional military analysts. 51% of respondents believed that the Ukrainian Army had the capacity to repel an invasion force, despite Ukrainian technical capabilities being decisively outmatched and outnumbered by those deployed by Russia. They also for the most part did not believe that the Russian military build-up – of which 90% of those surveyed were aware – would necessarily result in invasion. These expectations are in the process of being shattered.

It is notable that Putin, in his pre-invasion televised address, spoke extensively about the failures of Ukrainian governance in terms that mirrored the picture painted by the FSB’s surveys

Other points of Russian leverage were also identified in the survey conducted for the FSB. More than half the Ukrainian population was assessed as having a favourable opinion of the church, despite those parishes which consider themselves a part of the Moscow Patriarchy’s jurisdiction being heavily penetrated by Russian intelligence. The extensive mapping of how different political figures and parties were perceived also provided the FSB with an indication of which ones to prioritise for co-option, coercion, marginalisation or elimination. Notably, when looked at from a national perspective, the Ukrainian population appeared to possess only a moderate level of resolve. However, when broken down by region – north, south, east and west – it becomes clear that attitudes in the south and east of the country exhibit much less faith in the Ukrainian state.

Implications for Russian Operations

These trends will have been factored into Russia’s invasion planning, and the implications are worth considering. It is notable that Putin, in his pre-invasion televised address, spoke extensively about the failures of Ukrainian governance in terms that mirrored the picture painted by the FSB’s surveys. The institutions in which Ukrainians have the most faith – the armed forces – are precisely those against which Russia can act most rapidly and decisively. High casualties and the isolation of Ukrainian military units short of air cover may see Russian armoured thrusts bypass centres of resistance, disabusing the population of their military’s defensive capacity.

In Ukraine’s cities, there is also the question of popular mobilisation and unconventional resistance. However, even here, regional disparities are of higher importance. While a minority of Ukrainians surveyed by the FSB said they would not defend Ukraine, this population was disproportionately concentrated in the south and east of the country. Furthermore, among those who said they would not fight, around half indicated that in the event of war they would ‘adapt and survive’, suggesting that large parts of the population in the south and east of Ukraine would be open to complying with the occupation authorities if they could provide services.

By contrast, Kyiv, the capital, came across as markedly different, and the research suggests it will be vital ground for the success or failure of Russia’s war plans. Trust in civil society and voluntary institutions was deemed high, and President Zelenskiy’s call for mobilisation will see large numbers of military-aged adults armed. However, as we have written previously, it is civil society organisations that Russian Special Forces, directed by the FSB, intend to ruthlessly target. If the Russian military can displace the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, the FSB has little evidence to suggest that citizens of Eastern Ukraine will be sorry to see the political parties and politicians replaced.

If those who planned Russia’s invasion took the survey seriously, its impact on a Russian occupation strategy is clear. Russia stands a good chance of destroying Ukraine’s trusted institutions and replacing those that are less trusted. New occupation administrations would also be well-advised to use the language of anti-corruption and to rely on the supply of services as a means of coercing swayable parts of the population, a task perhaps made easier by the fact that 44% of the population was expecting to struggle to pay utility bills at the beginning of February. Putin has already used this language in his public addresses, but given the endemic corruption in Russia and the impoverishment of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014, it must be doubted whether Russian occupation administrations will convince the population of their ability to deliver good governance. While the FSB may have identified opportunities to leverage Ukrainian society, that does not mean the Russians will be able to follow through.

If Russia hoped that shock and awe in the destruction of the Ukrainian military might deter resistance, historical experience points to the opposite result

Putin Rolls the Dice

The problem with surveys of social attitudes is that they are a snapshot of a moment in time. In stable conditions, trends in the data can suggest the trajectory of public sentiment, and the FSB has social trends data for Ukraine going back as far as 2006. But a seismic shift of context can cause major variations in sentiment and attitudes. Air attacks, even when limited to precision strikes on military targets, have historically been perceived extremely negatively by civilian populations subjected to them, who may also not fully understand the difference between area bombardment and military targeting. This often inspires intense hatred of the attacker and stiffens the resolve to resist. Likewise, military casualties in the face of an enemy ground invasion can make a population more determined to resist, so long as resistance does not appear hopeless. Ukraine’s small but symbolically important tactical victories like the retaking of Antonov airport gain a wider significance when looked at in this light.

If Russia hoped that shock and awe in the destruction of the Ukrainian military might deter resistance, historical experience points to the opposite result. Thus, while the FSB survey may have been accurate in measuring opinions at the time it was conducted, it told the Russians little about how sentiments would evolve in the aftermath of an invasion.

The FSB-commissioned surveys also highlighted the traditional regional disparity in Ukraine between the eastern and western parts of the country. The FSB’s Ninth Directorate has mapped out occupation administrations for oblasts (regions) east of the Dnieper, but it has not done so west of the river, other than for Kyiv. And yet, if Russia only has a weak hold on the west of the country, the western parts could remain a long-term vector for resistance groups that will continue to contest Russia’s invasion.

Given the significant gamble revealed by Russia’s own assessments of the human terrain in which it is operating, it is evident that occupation could prove exceedingly difficult. Furthermore, if Russia finds that it is facing stiff resistance and insurgent attacks, it is likely to ramp up the use of firepower in urban areas. While this may remove tactical obstacles, it is unlikely to win the trust of a politically distrustful population. If Russia cannot prevent a prolonged insurgency commanded from Western Ukraine, it is possible that Russian forces may become stretched, increasing their vulnerability and presenting Putin with the prospect of a bloody failure. If the examples of Chechnya and Syria are any guide, Russian planners will likely transition from promising good governance to applying ruthless repression.

This article is based on documents commissioned by Russian intelligence and seen by the authors in the original. The authors were granted access to these papers by the Ukrainian authorities, and have taken all reasonable measures to verify the authenticity of the documents. Pictures of the documents are kept on file but reproduction is withheld, to protect the identity of the persons involved.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Nick Reynolds

Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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