To Bring Ukraine Back
No. 2 2015 April/June
Eduard Ponarin

Eduard Ponarin is Tenured Professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Head of its Laboratory for Comparative Social Research.

Boris Sokolov

Boris Sokolov is a junior researcher at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Ressentiment and the Future Russian “Reconquista” of Public Opinion in Ukraine

There is a widely-spread opinion among experts, both Russian and foreign, that Russia has forever discredited itself in the eyes of Ukrainians by acting the way it did during their “revolution of dignity” and the subsequent secession of Crimea and the war in Donbass, and is now generally viewed as an aggressor. Some claim there is no use for Russia to look for a compromise solution and it should instead adhere to an aggressive policy.

Some hotheads insist that Russia should declare a war on Ukraine and simply seize its pro-Russian eastern regions and even Kiev itself. They reason that the current Russophobic government will reign in Ukraine for many years to come, pursuing a blatantly anti-Russian policy and seeking ever closer integration into the Euro-Atlantic security system. They further hold that the prospect of seeing the neighboring country possibly turning into a large hostile state ready to host NATO military bases is a much bigger threat to Russia’s national security than the risks associated with economic, political or even military countermeasures to be taken by the international community if Russia invades Ukraine. 

In fact, having a big and aggressive neighbor that is cooperating with competitors for influence in the world and harboring territorial claims is a serious threat. But the potential of “soft power” for achieving Russia’s main goals in Ukraine should not be underestimated either. At present, the general public in Ukraine is largely unfriendly towards Russia, while showing much loyalty towards the United States and major Western European countries, which undoubtedly facilitates their foreign policy pursuits in the region. However, the theory of international relations and public opinion suggests that as the political landscape in Ukraine becomes more complex, Moscow will get a chance to change the situation in its own favor and restore the positive image of Russia among Ukrainians.


In order to understand how this can be achieved, we should digress for a while from assessing the current situation in terms of geopolitics or rational choice and turn instead to the history of ideas. There is such a term in philosophy as ‘ressentiment’ (from the French word ressentiment, meaning resentment, frustration, and hostility). It was first used by Nietzsche in his “On the Genealogy of Morality” to describe a specific phenomenon of revaluation of all values. According to Nietzsche, ressentiment occurs when an individual feels inferior to someone more powerful and suffers from the inability to achieve the same status. As a result, an individual feeling ressentiment develops a world view that denies that of the more powerful individual and even holds the latter responsible for his own failures.  

Liah Greenfeld, an American historian of Soviet descent, says that ressentiment can occur not only individually but also nationally. In her opus magnum “Nationalism: Five Ways to Modernity,” she illustrates this thesis with examples from European history of the 18th-19th centuries. At the beginning of that period, England was the political trendsetter, and its political and economic institutions were publicly admired by many Enlightenment leaders who urged the French government to follow Britain’s suit. At that time, England and France were constantly at war with each other, competing for global leadership, and the latter often got beaten. This generated strong demand for modernization in France, prompting reforms at some point. However, the French could not catch up with England economically and militarily, eventually losing Canada after the Seven Years’ War and many of their positions in India.   

One of the side-effects of that failed pursuit was a radical change of intellectual attitudes. While initially Anglophilia was welcome in the French salons, it gave way to various forms of Anglophobia in the second half of the 18th century. Similar changes occurred in the Russian Empire, which had been following European trends since Peter the Great, albeit not always successfully, and eventually saw the emergence of a strong anti-Western tradition in the Russian social thought, and in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars when the newly-born French Republic was celebrated at first and then severely criticized. 

A vivid example of ressentiment can also be found in Russia’s contemporary history. During perestroika the majority of people in the Soviet Union in general and in Russia in particular thought well of the United States, democracy and market economy. Today, however, public opinion polls reveal a completely different attitude, especially towards America. The reason is that many people in Russia, particularly among democracy-minded intellectuals, viewed reforms of the early 1990s as a springboard for overcoming technological and economic backwardness and turning Russia from an isolated “evil empire” into a leading power in the rapidly integrating world. It was believed that the former geopolitical adversary, the United States, would exert active efforts to help Russia become a developed democracy faster. 

However, the United States did not provide economic and political assistance to modernizing Russia in the amounts hoped for by its elites. Moreover, the Americans used the temporary weakness of their former competitor to expand their presence in regions that had previously been under Soviet influence. Their refusal to respect Russia’s national interests caused a negative reaction among its elites in the mid-1990s, and not only among foreign policy “hawks” or steadfast advocates of Soviet power. Even such prominent liberals as Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Nemtsov sometimes accused the United States of acting unfriendly towards Russia. 

The disappointment of the elites was accompanied by public discontent after the shock therapy and ensuing upheavals. All this has generated strong anti-American, anti-market and anti-democratic sentiment in Russian society and led its considerable part to consolidate around anti-Western ideology. As a result, liberal and democratic views and their advocates have been discredited in the Russian political space.


Prior to last winter’s revolutionary events, the situation in Ukraine was largely reminiscent of that in Russia in the early 1990s. Just like many Russian reformers of that time, Maidan activists proclaimed an ideology that was intended to turn Ukraine into a prosperous democratic country and was not based on bloody Russophobic ideas advocated by radical nationalists. The latter were in fact the most organized and resolute part of Ukrainian civil society and for that reason played a disproportionately big role in the events that followed. Crimea’s secession and pro-Russian demonstrations in Donbass played into their hands by waking up nationalistic feelings even among those Ukrainians who had been neutral towards Russia until then. Moreover, at some point enmity towards Russia became a key element of national solidarity in post-Yanukovich Ukraine and as such it has been kept boiling since then by various groups within the ruling elite in order to retain power. And yet, initially, the Maidan was not inspired by anti-Russian slogans and had a rather positive agenda: the people in the streets simply wanted to make their country a better place.

The war with Russia until the bitter end is not their political ideal. They are not prepared to pay for the senseless armed hostilities with a socio-economic catastrophe unfolding not just somewhere in a faraway and abstract land but in the streets of Kiev. Since their country is actually in a state of war, it would be wrong to accuse them of regarding Russia as an enemy and being ready to pay a certain price for the sake of victory. However, for the majority of people in Ukraine, just like in any other country, their own economic interests will always be a more significant factor in their political behavior than ideological slogans. It takes a repressive and propaganda system of the sort used by Stalin or Nazi Germany to make a starving country fight to the last bullet. But the present Ukrainian government is not able to carry out an effective mobilization campaign even in the western regions of the country where nationalistic sentiment is the strongest. This suggests that for Ukrainian politicians to win over the electorate they will have to prove their ability to ensure minimum socio-economic stability in the country rather than to irresponsibly call for waging a war with Russia until the bitter end.

Ukraine can continue its “counter-terrorism operation” in the east of the country only if it receives economic and military assistance from the West. The government in Kiev is well aware of this, and this is what its supporters expect from the West, which they still view as an embodiment of “the good” standing up to “the evil.” European leaders generally are not interested in continuing the confrontation with Russia because of the high economic costs that can cause them to lose power amid fierce electoral competition. But one must not delude himself about their true reasons, though. Europeans are much more concerned about the big neighbor’s attempts to redraw state borders by force than about the limited gains from economic or military cooperation with Ukraine. If Ukraine’s territorial integrity is guaranteed, the European Union’s diplomatic pressure on Russia will lessen considerably, but economic aid to Ukraine will remain minimal, barely enough to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe that can create a flow of refugees (which, however, will go mainly to Russia rather than to EU countries. Therefore, the West can easily shift the burden of accommodating them to Russia). 

As for the United States, the situation is not that simple. The positions of the “American hawks,” who continue to display Cold War thinking and seek to spread U.S. presence wherever possible, are still strong. In their opinion, Russia’s independent policy is a challenge to the U.S.’s status as a world hegemon and for that reason must be nipped in the bud. However, one must face the truth: if there is anything that makes Russia’s actions different from those of Israel against its neighbors, it is its size. The rise of China and the growth of Islamic extremism, which is gradually abandoning guerrilla warfare to fight for a place on the political map of the world, are a much bigger threat for the United States than the snarling of the disturbed bear.   

There are enough people across the ocean who are much more versed in foreign affairs than representatives of the last Cold War-era generation lost in time. Confrontation with Russia, good or bad, democratic or authoritarian, cannot be a top priority in U.S. foreign policy, especially if the U.S.’s ally is an incapable political entity. So the incumbent Ukrainian government can hardly count on anything bigger than arms supplies which will undoubtedly benefit American armament manufacturers who are excellent lobbyists. But Ukraine’s problem is not a lack of weapons.

The most probable scenario suggests that we will see absence of substantial Western aid and disregard for Ukraine’s interests in the big geopolitical game. Coupled with its own government’s inability to cope with the situation in the country, this will sooner or later change public opinion in Ukraine, including in what concerns cooperation with the West. Today, many politically active Ukrainians assess the international situation using a simple “East-West” formula: evil is coming from the east, help must come from the west. However, if help does not come from the west – and it certainly will not – this black-and-white picture will be broken. Europe will no longer be regarded by the majority of people as a political and economic partner or an ideal social model. On the contrary, Ukrainians, especially educated and most pro-European-minded ones, will become more and more disappointed with their ideals and harbor hard feelings about European countries, thus experiencing ressentiment. This will be accompanied by growing fatigue from senseless nationalistic slogans which are essentially nothing more than a background for the elite infighting.

If Moscow takes an effort to move away from the abovementioned opposition’s hardliners and fill in the ideological vacuum that is forming in Ukrainian society as it comes to realize that the nationalistic and European projects have failed, a U-turn can be possible. Many Ukrainians will begin to view Russia as a partner that is much more trustworthy than European politicians who made declarations but essentially did nothing to help Ukraine.  

Naturally, such a U-turn will require a bit more than just a massive propaganda campaign, especially since access to Ukraine’s information space for Russian agents is restricted. But convincing arguments in favor of a union with Russia could vary from humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian population, including that from NGOs or the Church, and humane treatment of pro-Russian combatants in Donbass, to government programs to support Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia and people living in the adjacent regions of Ukraine, as well as to creating favorable conditions for Ukrainian companies trading with Russia, specifically small and medium-sized businesses. These measures should target ordinary Ukrainians, not high-ranking functionaries in the present government. Moreover, Russian propaganda, both internal and external, must draw a clear watershed between the incumbent authorities in Ukraine and its people.  

Moscow must not sweepingly stigmatize everyone who lives to the west of the frontline in Donbass, for this will only consolidate Ukrainians around nationalistic policy. Instead, Russia should create an ideological vacuum around radicals and cut them off from public support. Ukraine is an independent state, and its people’s national feelings must be spared as much as possible. What is truly important now is to stop the practice traditionally used by the ideologists of Ukrainian nationalism to position Ukraine as “non-Russia.” There can hardly be a better way to do this than by showing the obvious political failure of anti-Russian nationalists and pro-European liberals in Ukraine. 

Some elements of this policy are already in place and working. But observers interpret them as an attempt to send an indirect signal to the West about Russia’s peaceful intentions, although this message should be directed not only to Western diplomats and experts but also, and predominantly, to ordinary Ukrainians. If this cannot be done through mass media because of the information blockade imposed by the Ukrainian authorities, Moscow can always use informal people-to-people contacts. Promoting the image of Russia and Russians as opponents of the oligarchic government and radical nationalists rather than Ukraine and its people via friends and relatives, entrepreneurs, and soldiers participating in the counter-terrorism operation will have an even stronger effect than showing a positive image on television. 

If successful, this strategy of indirect impact will have several side-effects, very important for Russia’s national interests. First of all, a peaceful conquest of the public opinion in Ukraine will allow Russia (presumably amid the continuing political competition inside the country) to secure an acceptable level of loyalty of the Ukrainian government in the medium and even long term and block Ukraine’s cooperation with the West in areas where it can be harmful to Russia. But it would be wrong to obstruct Ukraine’s European integration completely, for this would push away both Europe and the pro-European part of Ukrainian society: Ukraine’s ressentiment will not obliterate its commitment to cooperation with Europe. However, a soft re-orientation of Ukrainians towards cooperation with Russia will help reduce tension in Donbass and thus find an acceptable solution to the conflict that would not endanger Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This will change the image of “revanchist” Russia, which Western “hawks” use as a bugaboo for their more or less neutrally-minded partners and voters, and strengthen the electoral positions of those Western political blocs and economic groups behind them that are interested in cooperation with Russia.

It would be absurd, of course, to stop supporting the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, for this would be regarded as a sign of weakness and damage Russia’s reputation. Giving the two republics a special status in post-war Ukraine will be inevitable for humanitarian reasons and will not require any sophisticated moves affecting the interests of Russia or perpetuating its image as an aggressor. People who killed each other cannot mend their rifts overnight, and the presence of UN peacekeeping missions in the region would be a good compromise.

Sanctions over Crimea will not be lifted quickly and this issue will remain a stumbling block in relations between Russia and the West for many years to come. But mounting ressentiment in Ukraine and the warming of relations between Moscow and Kiev can create a paradoxical situation where people in the country formally affected by their neighbor’s territorial expansion will be less concerned about the status of Crimea as a disputable ground than international political structures. People in any country can temporarily be blinded by hatred towards an enemy. But in the long run ordinary people happen to be more reasonable than politicians and choose to be with those who give him a helping hand, not with those who push them into the abyss of war.

*  *  *

Many may find these reflections improbable. But just several years ago most experts would have said the same about a possible big war between Russia and Ukraine. One must not underestimate the potential of “soft power” and the role of ideological factors in political processes. 

Summarizing the aforementioned, we should say plainly: neither the United States nor Europe cares about the Ukrainian people as such. They are no more than a bargaining chip in a big geopolitical game which is being played by just one group within U.S. political elites and which is drawing in the European Union – very much against its will. The Ukrainian government, which is riding on a nationalistic and anti-Russian ideology, seems to be bankrupt. Mounting economic problems will only exacerbate Ukrainians’ ressentiment towards the West as well as mistrust and even hatred towards their own political elites. Russia should make use of Ukrainian society’s disappointment with Ukrainian nationalism and pro-European liberalism. Close economic, social and historical ties between the two countries will undoubtedly facilitate the success of efforts to build a positive image of Russia among Ukrainians.