From the time that news first broke of Trump’s now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine watchers have worried about the scandal’s ramifications, including its potential to tarnish Zelensky’s image as a corruption fighter, to offer fresh fodder for Russian propaganda efforts in Ukraine and to undermine the United States’ ability to promote the rule of law abroad.
But how much has impeachment actually affected Ukrainian public opinion? The answer is, paradoxically, not much.
How we did our research
To find out, from Jan. 17-18, we fielded an online survey of Ukrainian citizens using a panel of smartphone users recently established by the Ukrainian research firm Gradus.
Respondents were recruited from the general population utilizing probability-based sampling, with the aim of making the panel representative of the Ukrainian urban adult population under age 60. Keep in mind that the trends discussed below may not generalize to citizens who are older or located in rural areas. The panel also excludes those who live in the conflict zones in Ukraine’s east that are currently outside its government’s control.
The survey had a 66 percent response rate, yielding data on 743 respondents, with a 4 percent margin of error.
Did Ukrainians pay attention to the impeachment proceedings?
Yes, but just a little. The vast majority of respondents, 89 percent, had heard about the impeachment hearings. But only 9 percent of the sample indicated they were paying "a lot of" or "a very significant amount of" attention, compared to 45 percent who reported that they were paying "a little attention" or were "barely following the proceedings."
Did impeachment affect Ukraine’s domestic politics?
Apparently not. Zelensky was elected in spring 2019 in no small part because of his anti-corruption platform. Trump’s requests for Zelensky to use Ukraine’s law enforcement apparatus to conduct politically motivated investigations awkwardly placed Zelensky at the center of the very type of schemes he promised to eradicate.
But most Ukrainians seem unconcerned. We focus here and below exclusively on the 89 percent of respondents who had heard of the impeachment proceedings.
Of these, when asked whether the proceedings affected their opinions on Zelensky’s willingness to fight corruption, 71 percent reported that their opinions remain unchanged. Nineteen percent indicated that their opinions of Zelensky have worsened, while 10 percent reported their opinions had improved.
Similarly, 70 percent of respondents reported that their willingness to vote for Zelensky in the future had not changed as a result of information released during the impeachment proceedings. Although a substantial 24 percent indicated the proceedings had made them less likely to vote to reelect the Ukrainian president, this largely reflected the views of nonvoters or supporters of Zelensky’s political opponents.
Among those who reported voting for Zelensky in the April 2019 elections, 80 percent suggested their support for the Ukrainian president remained unchanged, while only 11 percent indicated their support had diminished.
Did the impeachment process affect Ukraine’s national security?
According to many Ukrainians, yes. Recent surveys show that the most pressing political issue in Ukraine today is resolving the conflict with Russian-backed secessionists in the country’s eastern regions. If Russia believes that Ukraine doesn’t have U.S. support, that could conceivably hurt Ukraine’s leverage in its ongoing negotiations with Russia.
Indeed, a plurality of our respondents, 35 percent, believed that the impeachment process has hurt Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia. Only 11 percent suggested that impeachment helped Ukraine’s negotiations, compared to 33 percent who believed impeachment had no effect and 22 percent who responded that it was "hard to say."
A larger plurality, 44 percent, said impeachment has had a harmful effect on Ukrainian national security in general, while 43 percent suggested that the proceedings had harmed U.S.-Ukrainian relations.
Did impeachment affect Ukrainians’ views of the United States?
Surprisingly little. Some observers have suggested that by encouraging politically motivated investigations in Ukraine and withholding military aid in violation of U.S. law, Trump may have undermined the United States’ ability to promote itself as a model of the rule of law.
But 56 percent of respondents indicated that impeachment has had no effect on their view of the United States as a rule-of-law role model. And while 20 percent reported the proceedings have worsened their opinion of the United States as a role model, a slightly greater number, 23 percent, reported that their opinion had improved.
A similar question about the U.S. as a model of democracy produced nearly identical results.
So what are the key takeaways?
Our findings focus narrowly on public opinion, although the impeachment process almost certainly affected Ukraine in other ways. For instance, details of Trump’s actions might have discouraged Ukrainian anti-corruption activists. And Russian media has eagerly used the impeachment story to depict both Ukraine and the United States as corrupt, weak or both.
When it comes to public opinion, our survey does find some cause for concern. Many Ukrainians are uneasy about how the proceedings may hurt negotiations with Russia, Ukraine’s national security and relations with the United States.
But the bigger takeaways are that impeachment wasn’t central to Ukraine’s news cycle, and Ukrainians haven’t lost faith in either Zelensky as an anti-corruption reformer or the United States as a role model for the rule of law and democracy.
By Tymofii Brik, Aaron Erlich and Jordan Gans-Morse, The Washington Post
Tymofii Brik is an assistant professor of sociology at the Kyiv School of Economics and currently a visiting Fulbright scholar at New York University.
Aaron Erlich is an assistant professor of political science at McGill University, where he is a member of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. He has been conducting public opinion research in Ukraine since 2015.
Jordan Gans-Morse is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and was a 2016-17 Fulbright scholar in Ukraine.