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Why Ukrainians are still so optimistic

Someone forgot to tell the Ukrainians that they can’t win the war against Russia.

According to a Ukrainian public opinion survey conducted by the respected Razumkov Center in late January, a whopping 85 percent of respondents believe in a Ukrainian victory, while only 8.5 percent do not. The numbers are fairly uniform across the board, ranging from 78 percent in eastern Ukraine, where all the fighting and most of the death and destruction are taking place, to 88.5 percent in the rest of the country.

As to when victory will be achieved, 20 percent say by the end of 2024, 40 percent in one to two years, 14 percent in three to five years, and 3 percent in more than five years.

Even more striking is what Ukrainians mean by victory: 38 percent believe “that the expulsion of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine and the restoration of borders as of January 2014 can be considered a victory.” Amazingly, 27 percent have even higher expectations and “would consider the destruction of the Russian army and the promotion of insurrection/collapse within Russia a victory.”

The optimism is impressive: 60 percent of Ukrainians believe they will prevail by the end of 2025, while 65 percent of that number have a maximalist notion of victory.

And it’s not just average Ukrainians who are bullish about the immediate future. So, too, are Ukrainian businessmen and women. According to a survey conducted by the Ukrainian Business News Network this month, “After a quite successful 2023, when 70%+ of companies hit both revenue and profit targets, for 2024, nearly 60% of the business expect some level of growth, with most of them planning for double-digit growth. Most firms are confident they can hit these targets too.”

One businessperson captured the prevailing mood: “I get scared of the war only when I’m watching it on TV in London.”

In contrast, Europeans are overwhelmingly bearish about Ukraine. The European Council on Foreign Relations found that “Europeans appear pessimistic about the outcome of the war. An average of just 10 per cent of Europeans across 12 countries believe that Ukraine will win. Twice as many expect a Russian victory.”

European pessimism isn’t quite as uniformly pessimistic as the 10 percent figure suggests, since 27-47 percent of Europeans believe that Ukraine and Russia will reach a “compromise settlement” (good luck with that!) and 19-38 percent opted for “none of these” or “don’t know.” Still, even with this qualification, it’s clear that Ukrainians and Europeans have diametrically opposed views of Ukrainian victory.

Needless to say, many American policymakers and analysts share this pessimism, with one analyst arguing recently in The Hill that “the idea of total Ukrainian victory is delusional.”

Which raises the obvious question: Are the Ukrainians delusional, or are European and American policymakers, analysts and average folk wrong?

It’s hard to argue that Ukrainians are out of touch with reality. After all, they’re doing the dying, they’re being shot at, raped and bombed. Two years of war and genocide should sharpen the senses and reduce delusional expectations, not enhance them.

In contrast, it’s obvious that the vast majority of Europeans and Americans have no idea of what exactly is going on in Ukraine. They watch TV, they read the occasional article or social media post, and then, overcome with war fatigue, they go back to their beers and wines and barbecues. If anyone is delusional, it’s your average Europeans and Americans.

Alas, the same holds true for some policymakers and analysts. American media personalities Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump and their acolytes; Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico; Hungary’s notorious Victor Orbán; Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France; the Alternative for Germany party; and Austria’s Freedom Party, to name a few, inhabit a parallel universe in which Vladimir Putin is a saint and Volodymyr Zelensky is Satan. Fortunately, such folk are in the minority.

It’s possible that Ukrainians have become so desperate, so terrified of the evil that awaits them, that they have collectively made a jump into the absurd belief that they’re going to win because they must win. Such a move would presuppose a population wholly in thrall to irrational emotions that impel it to see things that are not there. This may be true of some Ukrainians, but surely not of 85 percent. In any case, there’s no evidence of such irrationality in the Ukrainian media, or in conversations with real live Ukrainians.

If Ukrainians aren’t delusional, then perhaps they know better than we in the West do. After all, they know quite well that the U.S. Congress is de facto siding with Russia by failing to deliver weapons to Ukraine. They know that Europeans and Americans are skeptical about their victory. They know what the reality in the West is.

But they also know what the reality in Ukraine and Russia is. They know that Russia can’t win a war that is costing it 1,000 deaths a day. They know that Putin’s regime is far weaker than it seems. Finally, Ukrainians also know that, to win, they need only to outlast the Russians — which they know they can, not because of some magical belief in resilience and victory, but because the alternative to outlasting the Russians is being exterminated by the Russians.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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