Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the north-east of Ukraine appeared to take everyone by surprise, not least Russia’s war planners who had been moving troops south to meet an offensive in the Kherson region which Ukraine had been trumpeting about for several weeks. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is claiming that his military has won back 700 square miles of territory, including key Russian supply bases Kupiansk and Izium.
Ukraine’s military success must have equally surprised politicians and pundits around the world who have, over the last six months, urged Ukraine to offer concessions in order to secure a peace settlement with Russia. Giving up territory in the east or pledging to remain neutral would save Ukrainian lives and reduce the risk of a Russian nuclear strike, they argue. But this has raised the question as to what sort of settlement would be acceptable to Ukrainians and whether they would support ceding territory or sovereignty to end the violence.
Ukraine has a just cause for war – self-defence. Russian opinions excepted, this is something most of the rest of the world agrees on. But even a war with a just cause may not be worth fighting. Moral philosophers and lawyers caution that a war of self-defence must still be proportionate – the projected costs should not exceed the benefits.
Calls on Ukraine to negotiate or surrender often echo this argument. Ukraine can’t expect to defeat its large neighbour in the long run, so it should give up self-defence now to limit the costs of the war. But should resistance to aggression really be constrained by such cost-benefit calculations?
You could just as easily think about self-defence in absolute terms. Some outcomes are unacceptable – regardless of how costly it is to resist. The many reports of war crimes in Russian-occupied territory could well motivate Ukrainians to want to fight to the end to resist Russian control.
What is victory worth?
To find out how Ukrainians think about self-defence, in late July 2022 we surveyed a representative sample of 1,160 Ukrainians in all regions not contested by Russia. We asked our respondents about what concessions they might accept, offering various scenarios.
Some of these included upfront territorial concessions, while others didn’t. What’s more, the scenarios featured strategies with different projected costs and benefits after three more months of fighting. They varied regarding projected military and civilian deaths, the risk of a nuclear strike and the likely political outcomes.
We found that Ukrainians strongly prefer strategies that preserve Ukraine’s political autonomy and restore its territory, including Crimea and the Donbas region. This is the case even if making concessions would reduce projected civilian and military deaths, or the risk of a nuclear strike over the next three months.
Of the people we surveyed, 79% opposed all options that would lead to a Russian-controlled government in Kyiv. Importantly, the minority of people who accepted a Russian-controlled government did so because they prioritised restoring Ukraine’s territory in the choice they faced.
Russian control of the government in Kyiv or of territories in the east would put the lives of many Ukrainians at risk, as it is well documented that Russia has committed widespread human rights violations in temporarily occupied territories.
One way to interpret our findings is that Ukrainians reject Russian political control or territorial concessions because they prefer the immediate costs of self-defence – civilian and military fatalities and nuclear risk – over the long-term costs of Russian control. But our findings suggest that not giving in to Russia is about more than the important aim of saving Ukrainian lives overall.
How many extra deaths or increased nuclear risk after three months would lead to a similar rejection by respondents as a Russian-controlled government? The answer we found after extrapolating our statistical analysis is it would take about 12 million additional civilian deaths or more military fatalities than the country has inhabitants (44 million) – or the certain prospect of a nuclear attack – for Ukrainians to react as strongly as they reject a Russian-controlled government.
Clearly, this is unrealistic – no realistic strategy for self-defence could have such costs after three months. So these calculations reveal that Ukrainians take an absolute stance: they categorically reject Russian control and territorial concessions – regardless of the costs.
Why does it matter what Ukrainians think?
We conducted this study because the voices of ordinary Ukrainians have been absent from the intense international debate about whether – and how – Ukraine should defend itself. We worked closely with the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology to gather reliable data while ensuring the safety of interviewers and respondents.
It’s difficult to conduct surveys in a war zone, but we have at least three urgent reasons to care about what Ukrainians think. First, the costs of self-defence, but also the costs of potential concessions, are primarily borne by ordinary Ukrainians. They deserve a say in which of many difficult paths their country takes.
Second, we cannot properly judge what is at stake in Ukraine’s defensive war without understanding how strongly Ukrainians oppose Russian control and how highly they value territorial integrity. A cost-benefit calculation from afar is unsound.
Third, it is dangerous for the international community to pressure Zelensky and his government to pursue a strategy that contradicts what Ukrainians want. Trying to go against the wishes of the people could destabilise the government and would ultimately be unsuccessful.
Put simply, it is neglectful, unsound and unwise to judge Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia – and make political demands based on such judgments – without understanding how Ukrainians think about the costs and benefits of self-defence. Back in April, the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky urged Kyiv to settle, even if it meant territorial concessions, famously asserting that Ukraine and its western allies should “pay attention to the reality of the world”.
As Ukrainian troops bravely advance east, we have a fuller picture of this reality. Ukrainians categorically reject Russian control and territorial concessions – regardless of the immediate costs of resistance.
This research was supported by funds from Nuffield College.
Carl Muller-Crepon and Janina Dill do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.