Saint Petersburg, Russia – Tensions around Ukraine show no signs of weakening, as more than 100,000 Russian troops are still stationed on the border with Ukraine.
Their presence continues to fuel fears of invasion, despite Russia’s assurances that it is not seeking war.
Moscow says it has the right to move troops wherever it wants, and accuses NATO of undermining the region’s security.
President Vladimir Putin has demanded that NATO, an alliance created during the Cold War to limit the Soviet Union, never allow Ukraine to become a member, a move he said would threaten Russia.
Meanwhile, commentators and politicians in the United Kingdom, America and elsewhere have stressed the need to oppose any possible Russian aggression.
In this tug-of-war for Ukraine, the voices of Ukrainians themselves seem lost, as Kiev officials contradict Western accounts of events, while polls show that ordinary Ukrainians are not as keen on NATO as their government.
To learn more, Al Jazeera spoke with Vladimir Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist and research associate at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Al Jazeera: How does Ukraine view the crisis compared to the United Kingdom and the United States?
Vladimir Ishchenko: The West’s interpretation, and in particular the media campaign, the fear of an impending Russian invasion must be carefully considered.
This story is transmitted by anonymous, anonymous media officials, while it is far from clear whether this is an accurate description of Russia’s plans.
The Ukrainian government is not really buying it, and their very consolidated message is that a Russian invasion or occupation of big cities is very, very unlikely.
The number of [Russian] the troops on Ukraine’s borders are actually not significantly larger than the troops that have been there since last spring.
Even if you do not trust the government and believe that employees will take off the first flight from Kiev in the event of a real attack, there are no patriotic officers from the military or intelligence services who say that the government is lying.
Instead, independent think tanks that specialize in military analysis believe that more realistic threats around Russia would be of a hybrid nature, such as cyberattacks, attacks on infrastructure. Security services recently accused Russia of a wave of fake bomb threats in schools.
The opinion from Ukraine is that the media fear comes from the American media. This level of hysteria is already having negative consequences and is actually hurting Ukraine. The Ukrainian currency is volatile and losing value, and investors are leaving Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: Why are the interpretations of the events so different?
Ishchenko: In the case of the British, and in particular in the case of a very recent press release from the UK Foreign Office on the plans of the Russian government in Ukraine, for me this is quite obviously related to the problems of [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson.
When you are attacked at home, it is quite typical to start escalating foreign policy.
As for the United States, this is speculation, but the United States may still try to undermine the Nord Stream project, the gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
There is a very clear economic interest – there are gas producers in the United States that are direct competitors of Russia.
There is other speculation that this may be related to the defeat in Afghanistan and again when [US President Joe] Biden’s support is waning, and strengthening foreign policy could be one solution. But I would like to emphasize that this is speculation.
Al Jazeera: After the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, there was a feeling that Ukrainians had clearly expressed their desire to join the West. Russia fears that NATO may soon be on the threshold. How popular is the union among Ukrainians?
Ishchenko: This is a very important question, because in these discussions about whether Ukraine will ever be allowed to join NATO, very few people actually wonder what the Ukrainians really want.
And from Ukrainians, we need to understand all Ukrainian citizens, not just the Ukrainian government or the professional English-speaking civil society, which are usually commentators in the Western media.
Prior to Euromaidan in 2014, support for NATO was very low.
When it was decided in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO at some point in the future, support for NATO in Ukraine was below 20 percent.
Most Ukrainians were divided – some wanted a neutral, non-aligned status for Ukraine, as enshrined in the constitution, while others supported joining a military alliance with Russia.
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia (in 2014) and the war in Donbass, some began to see NATO as a defense against Russia.
However, support for NATO was lower than support for the EU, which had a really solid majority.
This may have changed since 2019, when two things happened.
first, [Ukraine President Voldomyr] Zelenski came to power and was extremely popular and pro-NATO, and he may have detoxified NATO for those who may have seen it in connection with the aggressive nationalism of [President Petro] the era of Poroshenko. And lately, more and more people are saying that the last tension would not have happened if we were in NATO.
There is some evidence that support for NATO has risen to more than 50 percent.
But this crisis will end at some point, one way or another, and those who are understandably scared may just cool off. If NATO eventually compromises with Russia, some Ukrainians will see it as a betrayal.
Al Jazeera: Is Russia responsible for nurturing the nationalism in Ukraine that he often talks about?
Ishchenko: Partly, yes. But I would certainly not reduce the rise of nationalism in Ukraine to a reaction to the Russian threat.
Ukrainian nationalism in the form in which it is developed does not make Ukraine stronger, it makes it weaker and more divided.
The reason it is rising is something like compensating for the shortcomings of the Euromaidan revolution.
The people really wanted a revolutionary change and wanted to see a different Ukraine, but it ended up just with the exchange of elites and almost no change at the institutional level.
There are the same people on the Forbes rich list, the same legislation that allows them to exploit government resources for personal enrichment.
But instead, let’s rename the streets, let’s remove the statues of Lenin, let’s escalate the language issue again. This creates the illusion of change when there are no significant changes. We have seen many similar processes in other post-Soviet countries.
Al Jazeera: Do people see a possible solution with Russia as a capitulation to Putin?
Ishchenko: Yes, some people perceive it that way and there were small protests in 2019 from the so-called anti-capitulation campaign. These movements opposed Zelensky’s light-hearted attempts to implement the Minsk agreements in the first months of his presidency.
But when the Minsk agreements (which sought to end the conflict in Donbass) were signed in 2015, they received support from a majority among Ukrainians. There was real hope that these agreements could bring peace. But Ukrainians now see the agreements as null and void because the shootings and bombings in Donbass continue at random. Support for the Minsk agreements has waned.
If the Western governments and Ukraine had a consolidated position that the Minsk agreements must be implemented, that there is a need for reconciliation with the separatists and the need for peace with Russia … they can gain the support of the majority.
The problem is that they don’t.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.