What do Ukrainians Think About the Prospects for a Peaceful Settlement with Russia?

By: Anna Pechenkina, Daniel Silverman, and Austin Knuppe

Austin Knuppe is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Utah State University. His research examines conflict dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing on how civilians navigate regime and insurgent violence in their local communities

Austin Knuppe
@AJKnuppe on X
@austinknuppe.bsky.social on BlueSky

“for those living in conflict-affected communities, wartime violence affects not only personal survival decisions but also broader political ones.”

What shapes people’s attitudes during wartime, and what makes them support peace? While broad, public support for ending wars is not a guarantor of enduring peace, it is a key ingredient.  Despite the critical importance of understanding public support for peace during conflict, scholars and policymakers alike have much to learn about how civilians think and act during wartime. In this post we describe civilian attitudes during wartime, with a special focus on the conditions under which ordinary people will support a peaceful settlement with an adversary. Specifically, we examine how wartime violence shapes the different mindsets that individuals subconsciously rely on in order to make life-and-death decisions during wartime.

How do civilians think about peace in the face of wartime violence?

Civilians’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shape not only individual survival prospects, but also wider conflict dynamics. Nevertheless, the experience of ordinary people in wartime is seldom the primary locus of attentions for scholars, soldiers, or policymakers.  In conflicted-affected communities, civilians are often caught between two competing mindsets—composed of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and past experiences—for thinking about war and its potential resolution. On the one hand, an “injustice mindset,” centres on people’s collective identity—be these national, ethnic, religious, or ideological—and their efforts to ameliorate grievances and achieve justice during the war. Injustice-based framings cast war in moral terms, as a struggle on behalf of the righteous goals of one’s community. Group ambitions may be nationalist in nature, such as Ukrainians wanting to defeat Russia’s occupation, or may correspond with sub-national identity groups, such as many Sunni Arabs in Iraq wanting to avoid victimisation from the Iraqi Security Forces during the 2014 ISIL insurgency.

At the same time, ordinary people also engage with survival-based mindsets during wartime. Survival-based thinking eschews collective moral and political considerations to focus on people’s basic desires to see themselves and their loved ones safe from violence. Indeed, some analysts identify this basic concern with physical safety is seen as a first-order priority for civilian populations, particularly in research on the effects of exposure to wartime violence. Survival-based thinking harkens back to classic models from psychology in which fundamental needs like survival were seen as the strongest engines of human action when left threatened or unfulfilled. For example, a Pakistani journalist notes that for residents in the tribal areas of Pakistan where U.S. drone strikes frequently occur, “drones are not just some abstract talking point. Just getting through the day has become a high-stakes game.”

The implications of the injustice-versus-survival tradeoff are simple but powerful: where one falls along the spectrum explains one’s willingness to make painful concessions toward peacefully resolving conflict. At first glance, the base desire for personal survival and concerns about the welfare of the broader ingroup appear to be at odds. In the next section, we examine some empirical evidence from Ukraine to explore the scope of conditions under which different mindsets are most salient.

What do ordinary Ukrainians think about the Russian Occupation?

Drawing on survey research in wartime Ukraine between 2022 and 2024, Anna Pechenkina, Daniel Silverman, and I uncover evidence of how local residents made competing tradeoffs between the injustice and survival mindsets. We discovered that personal exposure to wartime violence was a strong predictor of attitudes toward peace, especially for civilians living near the frontlines. Respondents most concerned with personal survival were more likely to support a range of peacetime settlements. In contrast, those insulated from the reality of wartime violence are more likely to double-down on the injustice mindset. However, neither mindset is mutually exclusive—individuals can and do engage in both types of thinking in war at the same time. Indeed, injustice- and survival-based outlooks fluctuate over the course of the conflict and people’s idiosyncratic circumstances.

While most Ukrainians leaned toward an injustice mindset, a nontrivial portion viewed the war through a survival lens—notable given its high stakes and early stage for Ukraine. This variation was strongly linked to civilians’ support for peace and compromise in the war with Russia across a range of different outcomes. Moreover, respondents’ attitudes toward peace were not sensitive to experimental manipulations designed to shift those mindsets. Personal experiences with wartime violence predicted support for compromise more than external indicators, such as datasets aggregating violent events. While seemingly consistent, our findings reveal that diversity of personal experiences existithin the same community.  In other words, people confronting wartime violence have different levels of risk acceptance, exposure to threats, and interpretations of collective experience. In fact, as Anastasia Shesterinina shows in the context of the Georgian-Abkhaz war, ordinary people come to understand risk differently based on their prior experiences, as well as the conflict dynamics occurring in their community.

Implications for Civilian Protection

Our results strongly suggest that civilians’ general mindsets on conflict—that is, whether they understand it through more of a survival or an injustice lens—are powerful influences that undergird and shape their wartime attitudes. Our analyses also suggest a key insight: that these mindsets appear to be quite “sticky” and hard to move or manipulate after sustained exposure to war. This raises several questions, including, where do these mindsets come from? And, what are the implications of these results for the case of Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia?

Our work suggests that Ukrainians’ tendencies toward injustice versus survival-oriented mindsets are meaningful but not easily movable via wartime messaging or policy. Indeed, broad wartime mindsets may hold the key to when civilians rally enthusiastically behind one “side” in a war or simply look for ways to survive the fighting regardless of its outcome. Key wartime actions such as volunteering for a combatant or informing to pro-government militias or paramilitaries are likely to follow.  Ukraine for example was reportedly overflowing with civilians volunteering for its defense forces and seeking to contribute to the war effort in other ways after Russia invaded, particularly during the earliest stages of the fighting. Many of these no doubt were initially motivated by a strong injustice-oriented mindset as they looked at the horrors of Russia’s occupation. And yet we find ample variation in how Ukrainians use this prism to understand how to survive the conflict. Injustice versus survival tradeoffs will undoubtably influence how committed Ukrainians remain in sacrificing material resources for the ongoing war.

Our study also demonstrates the blurred lines between the roles of “civilian” and “combatant” in many contemporary armed conflicts. As one peace builder in Iraq once conveyed, “Someone can participate in violence one day, rescue victims of violence the next, and have family members victimized by violence on the third day.” Combatants too may experience these shifts—for example, there are innumerable stories of soldiers rushing off to war full of zeal for their side’s cause but eventually finding little meaning in the fight. In sum, for those living in conflict-affected communities, wartime violence affects not only personal survival decisions but also broader political ones.