What could the Ukrainian people be afraid to lose in the growing threat of military aggression? War expectations in the context of Ukraine-Russia relations

What could the Ukrainian people be afraid to lose in the growing threat of military aggression? War expectations in the context of Ukraine-Russia relations

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / palinchak
18 March 2022

Drawn upon the World Values Survey (WVS) data, I examine Ukrainians’ expectations of war with another country in 2011 and 2020. I argue that after the war in the East of Ukraine started in 2014, there was a change in the key factors defining the people’s worries about war. I demonstrate that Ukrainians closely link the current war expectations to the issues of liberal democracy and civic nationhood defined as a political identity built around shared citizenship within the state.

Fears about war existed in Ukraine even a decade ago. According to the World Values Survey (WVS), around 70 percent of Ukrainian respondents were already worried about war with another country in 2011. After the outbreak of the war in 2014, the fear of further foreign invasion was constantly growing. The WVS reports that 92.8 percent of respondents expected war on the territory of Ukraine in 2020. The image of the approaching terror became crystal clear after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in his call-in show on June 30, 2021, that Ukrainians as a nation did not exist and, hence, Ukraine as a country per se has no right to exist (Düben, 2020)

It is still puzzling for many people what could drive Putin to begin the war against Ukraine. The image of NATO next to Russia’s borders? The existence of democracy in Ukraine? Or Putin’s fear of losing power in his own country or the area of Russia’s conventional control? (Fengler et al., 2020; Fournier, 2018; Ojala and Pantti, 2017). More interesting, however, is to understand the determinants that could influence the formation of war expectations in Ukrainian society. In other words, what could Ukrainian people worry about losing in the growing threat of military aggression?  

This paper struggles to provide a comprehensive insight into determinants that explain worries about war with another country among Ukrainians. I use the World Values Survey data for this purpose. The two most recent waves are selected for the analysis – 2011 and 2020. War expectations are operationalized by asking about the respondents’ worries that a war with another country can occur on Ukraine’s territory. The initial responses vary from 1 “very much worried” to 4 “not at all worried.” They are combined into a dichotomous variable by assigning the value of 1 to the responses “very much worried” and “a great deal worried” and the value of 0 to the answers “not very worried” or “not at all worried.”

Since the dependent variable is binary, I utilize logistic regression to link war worries to various political, economic, and social factors that can potentially affect one’s concerns about the war in Ukraine. The primary scope of my analysis is to define the key determinants that spurred the expectations of war among Ukrainians in each of the selected years and examine the change in their influence over the analyzed period. The set of determinants includes language spoken at home (Ukrainian, Russian, Other), self-defined ethnic group (Ukrainian, Russian, other), feeling or not a citizen in Ukraine, perceived quality of democracy, the importance that respondents assign to democracy as a form of governance in Ukraine, confidence levels in the government, feeling insecure or not, income satisfaction levels, the importance of competition and self-reliance as opposed to the government’s support. In addition, I include binary variables capturing the regional division of Ukraine into East, West, South, Center, and Kyiv. All the selected variables are coded as dichotomous or rescaled to change between zero and one if initially having a ten-point measurement scale. Lastly, I control for the standard set of respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics, including being or not born in the country, one’s level of education, gender, health condition, and age. A detailed description of the operationalization approach, as well as descriptive statistics, can be found online

Table 1 summarizes the results of the logistic regression. The coefficients are reported in log odds and are comparable since all variables were rescaled to change between 0 and 1. The results interpretation is straightforward. The minus in front of the coefficient means a negative effect; the plus refers to a positive impact that the respective variable has on worries about the war on Ukraine’s territory. Stars on the right side of the coefficients mean that there is an impact that the corresponding variable has on the worries about war; the lack of stars means that this variable has no association or no effect on the respondents’ expectations of some military invasion in Ukraine.  

Table 1

Critical sources of worries about the war in Ukraine in 2011 and 2020

VARIABLES 2011 2020
Language spoken at home. 
Speak Russian  Ref. category  Ref. category
Speak Ukrainian -0.009 0.344
(0.161) (0.425)
Speak other languages  0.059 0.001
(0.565) 0.000
Self-defined ethnic group 
Russian Ref. category  Ref. category
Ukrainian 0.148 -0.909
(0.213) (1.120)
Other 0.805* -1.376
(0.485) (1.653)
Feel citizen  -0.429 -2.790***
(0.318) (0.711)
Quality of democracy  0.063 -0.411
(0.274) (0.669)
Importance of democracy  0.750*** 2.320***
(0.270) (0.690)
Confidence in the Government -0.889*** 0.962
(0.325) (0.680)
Feel insecure  0.223 -0.560
(0.350) (0.855)
Income satisfaction  -0.338 -1.750**
(0.279) (0.777)
Importance of competition -0.435* 1.566***
(0.228) (0.598)
Self-reliance versus state support  0.667*** 0.951
(0.238) (0.606)
East  Ref. category  Ref. category
West 0.209 -2.455**
(0.224) (1.141)
South -0.135 -1.472
(0.179) (1.088)
Center 0.197 -2.879***
(0.210) (1.098)
Kyiv 0.0681 -2.582**
(0.240) (1.106)
Socio-demographic controls
Born in the country -0.199 0.846
(0.254) (0.760)
Education levels 
Higher -0.0250 0.157
(0.339) (0.552)
Middle 0.356 0.444
(0.322) (0.617)
Low Ref. category  Ref. category
Gender (Male=1) -0.095 -0.361
(0.128) (0.291)
Health 0.097 -0.221
(0.093) (0.198)
Age -0.001 0.013
(0.004) (0.010)
Constant 0.427 5.201**
(0.730) (2.065)
Observations 1,328 954

Standard errors in parentheses

*** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1

Table 1 shows that war fears were never associated with language or ethnicity. Neither did socio-demographic characteristics play some role in defining worries about war over the analyzed period. War expectations were not linked to concerns about insecurity or the actual quality of democracy in the country, either. Instead, it is the vision of Ukraine as a democratic and liberal country adopted by the majority of the population that was seen as the vital source for the country’s potential problems. In particular, three issues influenced the rise of fears among the Ukrainian people in 2011 – the importance of democracy as a form of governance, respondents’ confidence in the national government, and liberal principles in organizing economic processes in the country. More specifically, worries about war were higher in 2011 among the individuals who wanted democracy in Ukraine and preferred to restrict the government’s regulation by increasing liberalization of the economy through self-reliance. Additionally, people were more likely to expect war in Ukraine if they did not trust the national government. 

The saddening pragmatism of the conflict in the East of Ukraine only strengthened people’s fears of war. These worries were primarily related to the same issues in 2020 as in 2011 – aspirations for democracy, liberal economy, and now the civic nationhood. In 2020, people who wanted Ukraine as a democratic state feared even more military aggression from outside than in 2011. Many understood that democratization in the post-soviet area could create severe problems for the country and its population. At the same time, adherence to liberal values was still connected to war expectations, but in a slightly different way. The time neutralized the impact of self-reliance on the respondents’ worries and increased the role of competition in instilling fears of war in Ukrainian society. 

The issue of confidence in the government gradually transformed into a concern about the civic state. In 2020, it was no longer trust in the national government that defined the fears of foreign invasion. Instead, concerns about war were closely linked to the attachment to the state, forming the civic basis for the expectations of a foreign invasion of Ukraine. Those respondents who declared to feel citizens in Ukraine were substantially less likely to worry about war.

Also, an improvement in income levels in Ukraine could explain the negative relationship between income satisfaction and war worries in 2020. Individuals who were more satisfied with their household income were less likely to worry about war in their country. This negative impact of income satisfaction on war expectations might be additionally justified by the increased number of individuals displaced from the occupied territories who lost their property and were experiencing an increased level of worries about war. Lastly, the population of eastern regions, near the ongoing conflict, stressed more about a war than respondents in western, central areas, or Kyiv. 

So, what could make Ukrainians expect war in their country? What could they be afraid to lose in the case of a foreign invasion? What did they connect the expectations of war to? The answer to all these questions is straightforward – it is their aspiration for democracy combined with the preference for a liberal economy and strong civic statehood that Ukrainians related to their expectations of war with Russia because these were the key differences that created an unprecedented and unsurmountable gap between the two countries’ societies. 

Overall, the case of Ukraine confirmed the conventional knowledge that policy and institutions spread over the apparent identity dimensions, such as language, ethnicity, race, etc. (Jones and Smith, 2001). Culturally similar people ended up choosing very different governance methods and systems. Ukraine drifted away from Russia and commenced to perceive Russia as a foe that threatened lasting independence, as well as our country’s preference for more democratic and liberal forms of governance.


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Fournier A (2018) From frozen conflict to the mobile boundary: Youth perceptions of territoriality in war-time Ukraine. East European Politics and Societies 32(1): 23–55. DOI: 10.1177/0888325417740627 

Jones FL and Smith P (2001) Individual and societal bases of national identity: A comparative multi-level analysis. European Sociological Review 17(2): 103–118.  DOI: 10.1093/esr/17.2.103

Ojala M and Pantti M (2017) Naturalising the new cold war: The geopolitics framing the Ukrainian conflict in four European newspapers. Global Media and Communication 13(1): 41–56. DOI: 10.1177/1742766517694472



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