In early 2017, the war in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas intensified after a lull and regained a temporary media presence. However, the views of internally and externally displaced people remain hidden from view. By summer 2016, the Ukrainian Ministry for Social Policy had registered close to 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has been among the ten countries with the largest IDP populations worldwide. Moreover, about another 1 million have fled from the conflict zone to Russia.

Their overall number, their territorial spread, and their extreme experiences make displaced people a group that the Ukrainian and Russian national and local governments—as well as the West—need to take into account. The displaced are politicized, though they do not form one cohesive political or social force. Many remain dependent on state or family support while remaining in close contact with the areas and people they left behind. They are also an extreme case to test identities shaped by war.

Gwendolyn Sasse
Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, EU enlargement, and comparative democratization.
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The newly founded Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin conducted a rare two-part survey of IDPs in Ukraine and of people who fled to Russia. The survey of IDPs covered the oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, and Lviv and Kyiv city. The quota sampling was based on official data on the location and sociodemographic profile of the IDPs: the majority is middle aged, and two-thirds are women. The ratio between registered and nonregistered IDPs was 90:10.

The survey of the displaced in Russia covered 11 western and central oblasts with known concentrations of displaced people. The ratio between registered and unregistered refugees in this sample was 56:44, reflecting the rate of camp closures. In the absence of information on the displaced in Russia, the quotas were aligned with the IDP sample.

The self-reported mean income was higher among the displaced in Russia (€470, or $500, per month) than among the IDPs (€163, or $173, per month). This is at least in part linked to the fact that over 70 percent of the displaced in Russia reported being in full-time work, compared with 46 percent of IDPs in Ukraine. Only 14 percent of the respondents in Russia declared that they were receiving state support, alongside 66 percent in Ukraine.

Family ties and friends have been an important factor in shaping the resettlement. About 70 percent of the displaced in Russia and 60 percent of those in Ukraine had family or friends in their current locations. One finding that might come as a surprise to the Ukrainian and Russian authorities is that the majority of the displaced intends to stay where they currently are—especially in Russia (just over 80 percent), but also in Ukraine (about 65 percent).

The most interesting survey results referred to self-reported identities. Asked whether their identity had changed as a result of the events in 2013–2016, the respondents who registered the biggest changes were the displaced in Russia. Just over 50 percent said they felt “more Russian” now, but more interestingly, close to 30 percent said they felt more strongly than before that they were “both Russian and Ukrainian.” Among the surveyed IDPs, 50 percent recorded a change in their identity: just over 30 percent reported they now felt “more Ukrainian,” and 14 percent felt more strongly that they were both Ukrainian and Russian.

Therefore, mixed identities remain important or have become even more so among those most directly affected by the war. This salience of mixed identities stands in contrast to the polarizations that characterize much of the analysis of Ukraine.

The survey revealed the many strong ties the displaced in both Russia and Ukraine retain with family members and friends in the occupied territories and the rest of the Donbas. Two-thirds of displaced Russians have relatives or friends in the areas controlled by Kyiv. Among the IDPs in Ukraine, two-thirds have friends or relatives in the occupied territories. About half of the displaced in Russia and Ukraine are in daily or weekly contact with relatives or friends in the occupied territories. There are additional personal linkages that guard against new dividing lines: about 40 percent of IDPs in Ukraine have friends or relatives living or working in Russia.

There is a marked difference in trust in political leaders. An overwhelming majority of over 90 percent of the respondents in Russia “generally” or “rather” trust the Russian president—a sharp contrast with Ukraine, where only about a third of IDPs trust the Ukrainian president. The key here is not the difference in trust levels as such, but the fact that the displaced reflect the general mood around them. Those who left Ukraine for Russia have rather quickly assimilated into the Russian mainstream.

The small share of those displaced to Russia who favor Ukraine’s EU membership—17 percent—fits a similar pattern. But the fact that 45 percent of IDPs in Ukraine are against EU membership may be more surprising. Current disappointment with the EU’s inability to change the situation in Ukraine, a perceived link between displacement and the Euromaidan antigovernment demonstrations, and an association of the EU with closer links to NATO may jointly explain this result.

A resolution to the conflict in the Donbas seems far off, and the displaced are likely to stay where they are. They will become an issue of political and socioeconomic integration—even more so for Ukraine than for Russia judging by these survey results.


Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Center of East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.