New Research on Public Attitudes in the Contested Donbas/s Region

In September-October 2021 our research project on geopolitical orientations in Russia’s neighboring states and breakaway regions organized, in collaboration with ZOIS in Berlin, a computer aided telephone survey (CATI) in the contested Donbas/s region of Ukraine.

Conducting research in contested regions is always difficult, most especially in territories that restrict access to independent social science researchers. Suspicion runs deep that researchers have secret agendas or really work as spies (we don’t!). The Donbas/s is a particularly difficult research area as the conflict is still kinetic and sadly claims victims regularly. It is also a divided space. Made up of two Ukrainian oblasts (Luhansk/Lugansh & Donetsk), it features areas controlled by the legitimate Ukrainian government and areas controlled by Russian supported separatists. In English these are often rendered as government and non-government controlled areas (GCA and NGCA). In Ukrainian, the terminology is different. The separatist areas are termed ORDLO, literally separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk region: Окремі райони Донецької та Луганської областей. They are also designated as “temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine” by a ministry of that name within the Ukrainian state. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this conflict and researchers have to understand yet contend with that to do serious independent social science research.

Computer assisted phone survey research presents challenges anywhere. Most people do not answer their phone. A lot refuse to take a survey if they do. And then some quit before the survey is completed. The maximum time one can talk is generally considered 20 minutes. Ideally it should be less than that.

To get at opinion on both sides of the dividing line in the Donbas/s, we organized for two separate survey firms — KIIS and Levada Marketing — to conduct the CATI survey at the same time. Both used the same script of questions (it was available in Ukrainian and Russian but nearly everyone chose the Russian). We are working on academic papers based on this research. Since it is of public interest, we released the headline results in a series of publications since February of this year (it took some time to check and double check the data). Below are links to publications and presentations on the data:

From the Washington Post: A new survey of the Ukraine-Russia conflict finds deeply divided views in the contested Donbas region

The Russian translation is here.

From Global Voices: Capturing the mood on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donbas. Links from this piece take you to translations of it in Russian, Ukrainian, French, Esperanto, Spanish and Greek.

We’ve participated in two video presentations of this work so far (recorded on Zoom and posted to Youtube).

As the academic year ends, we hope to make progress publishing this work in regular academic journals. This research has no political agenda beyond presentation of best practice social science research results for public debate and informed policy making.

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Public Outreach Articles on New Research Findings 2020


G. Toal, “Five ways the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will change the map.” Washington Post. 16 November.

K. Bakke, G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, “Nagorno-Karabakh: what do residents of the contested territory want for their future?” The Conversation. 12 October.

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, K. Bakke, “The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is about local territories and wider rivalries.” Washington Post. 2 October.

J. O’Loughlin, G. Toal, K. Bakke, “Is Belarus in the midst of a generational upheaval? Global Voices. 17 September. (translated into Spanish, Ukrainian and Greek).

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, K. Bakke, “What’s Driving the Belarus Protests?” Washington Post. 21 August,

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, K. Bakke, “Flight MH17 crashed six years ago. Ukrainians have very different views on who’s to blame.” Washington Post. 16 July.

M. Laruelle, G. Toal, J. O’Loughin, K. Bakke, “Kazakhs are wary of neighbours bearing gifts.” Open Democracy, 30 April.

J, O’Loughlin, G. Toal and K. Bakke. “Response to Ukrainian Foreign Minister.” Foreign Affairs. 21 April.

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, and K. Bakke. “Are some NGOs really “foreign agents”? Here’s what people in Georgia and Ukraine say.” Open Democracy. 16 April.

J, O’Loughlin, G. Toal and K. Bakke, “To Russia With Love: The Majority of Crimeans Are Still Glad for Their Annexation.” Foreign Affairs. 3 April.

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, K. Bakke, “Six years and $20 billion in Russian investment later, Crimeans are happy with Russian annexation,” Washington Post. 18 March.

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, K. Bakke, “Is Ukraine caught between Europe and Russia? We asked Ukrainians this important question.” Washington Post. 26 February.

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Re-visiting Blame Attribution around the MH17 Tragedy

On the 6th anniversary of the horrific tragedy of the destruction of the civilian passenger aircraft Malaysian Airways Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, my colleagues and I published the results of our latest survey on blame attribution over the event in The Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post.

Here’s the initial write up of the first survey results.

And a link to the subsequent academic paper.

And a link to the latest results.

The piece has lots of links to excellent sources for those interested in following up. We have results from other locations and we’ll be publishing these in due time.


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First Look at Geopolitical Orientations

The COVID crisis has upended the planned roll-out of the research results of the Geopolitical Orientations Project (see previous post from February). Fortunately we were finished the survey research process just before the crisis really hit (though we were unable to survey in all the places we had hoped to do so, for various reasons).

We were able to compose a series of short pieces for general audiences on data from the project. While we had positive experiences with various editors, it is worth noting that we do not choose the headings or sub-headings of these pieces nor the accompanying photo. Further, the process of writing for a general audience does mean some compromise on language and framing. The ‘translation’ from academic language to popular language can sometimes be tricky. Here are the pieces that have been published to date:

  1. Data on the Geopolitical Orientation and Aspirations of the Ukrainian people. (Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post)
  2. Data on the attitudes of Crimeans six years after annexation, including trust in various leaders (Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post)
  3. Longer article on political attitudes in Crimea, including perceptions of biggest problems (for Foreign Affairs blog). This article elicited a response opinion editorial from the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, available here, along with our short response.
  4. Article on perceptions of NGOs as “foreign agents” in Georgia and Ukraine (Open Democracy Russia).
  5. Article on attitudes toward the influence of the various “great powers” in Kazakhstan,with an emphasis on perceptions of China before the Covid crisis, and subsequent info war, took hold (Open Democracy Russia).

Our project is structured as a panel survey. Researchers often hope for a “big event” in between the first round of surveys and the second round. Well, we’ve got that and its massively ugly and awful. No one wished for this.

Because of a longstanding interest in geopolitical conspiracies, our surveys did include some generic and specific blame attribution conspiracy statements. One of these was about the spreading of a virus. We’re analyzing that now and will write it up for academic publication, with a general audience version thereafter I expect.

Be safe everyone.


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Forthcoming Presentations on Geopolitical Orientations Research in 2020

Below are my currently scheduled or proposed academic conference presentations for this year (so far). Some are joint presentation with Dr John O’Loughlin, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado-Boulder ( Together with Dr Kristin Bakke, we’ll also be presenting data from our NSF/RCUK project throughout this year at universities and research centers. (My book-in-progress work is separate from all this).

Political Geography Specialty Group Pre-Conference, Boulder Colorado, April.

The Regional Effect in Ukraine Revisited: New Evidence with National Polling Data

Association of American Geographer’s Conference, Denver, Colorado, April.

Popular Support for Geopolitical Conspiracy Theories in Russia’s Neighboring States

Association for the Study of Nationalities Conference, New York, May

Are States on Russia’s Borders Really In-Between Lands? Measuring and Assessing the Geopolitical Orientations of 12 Post-Soviet States.

The Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies, Washington DC, November

With Russia or NATO? Preferences from 2020 survey data for military relations in Western Post-Soviet Eurasia.

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Publications in 2019

Here’s a list of pieces that have appeared in 2019. All were collaborative publications this year. With over 3000 downloads so far, the Crimea paper manifestly generated the most interest. There should, consequently, be considerable interest in our forthcoming work on public opinion in this most disputed of territories.

Those interested in my current book project (which is going very slowly) will find the conversation with Veit Bachmann the most relevant (and hopefully interesting).

Gela Merabishvili’s Ph D research on border walls continues apace. Hopefully he’ll be able to defend his Ph D research this year, and start to get more of his research into the public arena.

J. O’Loughlin, G. Toal, “Does War Change Geopolitical Attitudes? A Comparative Analysis of 2014 Surveys in Southeast Ukraine.Problems of Post-Communism. Online, 15 November.

G. Toal, J. O’Loughlin, “The Crimea Conundrum: Legitimacy and Public Opinion After Annexation.” Eurasian Geography and Economics. 60, 1: 6-27.

G. Toal, G. Merabishvili, “Borderization Theatre: Geopolitical Entrepreneurship on the South Ossetia Boundary Line, 2008–2018,” Caucasus Survey, 7, 2: 110-133.

V. Bachmann, G. Toal, “Geopolitics – Thick and Complex. A Conversation with Gerard Toal. Erdkunke, 73, 2, 143-155.  https://doi.10.3112/erdkunde.2019.02.05



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The Rise of Conspiracist Geopolitics

Video of my opening keynote address “The Rise of Conspiracist Geopolitics”at the Fourth Annual Tartu Conference on Russian and East European Studies. University of Tartu, Estonia, 9 June 2019.ToalTartu



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I am extremely grateful to the ENMISA Specialty Group of the International Studies Association for their Distinguished Book Award of 2019. Thanks in particular to Dr Bahar Baser for the presentation of the award at the ISA meeting in Toronto and to Dr Daniel Naujoks for the photograph.


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The Crimea Conundrum

As part of a special issue on Ukraine 5 years after Maidan, the journal Eurasian Geography and Economics has published an article John O’Loughlin and I wrote on the conflict over Crimea (available free access for a limited time). The article highlights what we term ‘scalar disjunctures of legitimacy,’ which is simply a summary phrase for the fact that most of the world condemns Crimea’s annexation/reunification whereas there is consistent evidence that most Crimeans consider this act as legitimate. The commonplace speech act ‘Crimean annexation’ in much of the world de-legitimates the action. Some go further and give the episode a Nazi-frame, referring to it as an ‘anschluss.’

Framed within the longstanding rhetorical formulas of ‘self-determination’ produces a very different reality. A ‘Crimean people’ living in a recognizable and clearly bounded territory exercised their self-determination right and choose to (re)join the Russian Federation.

We term this essentially contested condition the Crimea conundrum.

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Borderization: A Critical Geopolitics

Gela Merabishvili and I wrote an article on the geopolitical enterpreneurship within Georgian surrounding ‘borderization,’ the construction of a physical barrier to free movement by a de facto state to assert its claim to create an ‘international’ border. The article is one-sided in that it only examines the issue in Georgian political life. A fuller study would examine the issue in South Ossetian political life and within North Ossetia and the Russian Federation more broadly. Nevertheless it is a start on developing a critical geopolitics on an important topic. It is available free access for a limited time at the Caucasus Survey journal website.

Observant readers will know that the front cover of Near Abroad features a Georgian group protesting borderization.Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 7.05.00 PM


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