How Would the American Public Respond to a Russian Invasion of Ukraine?
President Joe Biden has said that Russia would experience “enormous consequences” if it invaded Ukraine, but that he has “no intention” of moving military forces into the country. Opinion polls suggest this might be more or less what the American people want. Across the political spectrum, a strong majority supports tougher sanctions, while only 27 percent of Americans favor going to war with Russia in response to an invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, opinion is evenly split on whether the United States should use troops in this situation, with roughly half the country in favor and half opposed.
Of course, public opinion should not be the sole basis for U.S decisions on how to respond if Russia does invade Ukraine. But public support is often a key ingredient of success in foreign policy crises, and so it behooves U.S. leaders to be attuned to what the public thinks and how its thinking might evolve as the crisis plays out. Americans broadly supported efforts to wind down military campaigns in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and do not necessarily want to launch a new one in Eastern Europe. As one foreign-policy analyst recently wrote, “With Russia and Ukraine now potentially on the verge of major war, again most Americans have little appetite for shedding blood on behalf of a putative partner.”
But this does not mean Americans are indifferent or want their leaders to be. Across the political spectrum, sizable percentages of Americans favor taking steps short of war to help defend Ukraine should it come under attack from Russia. At the same time, many Americans remain uncertain about how the United States should respond to Russian aggression, and public attitudes will likely shift as the confrontation plays out.
What Do Americans Want?
In July 2021, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that 50 percent of Americans favored the use of U.S. troops if Russia were to invade the rest of Ukraine, whereas 48 percent of Americans opposed deploying troops in this situation. In a sign of bipartisanship on the issue, the shares of support for deploying troops were similar across party lines (54 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Republicans, and 46 percent of Independents in favor).
These levels of support are up considerably from previous years, as only 30 percent of Americans favored using U.S. troops if Russia invaded the rest of Ukraine following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The uptick reflects growing alarm about Russian behavior in a variety of domains, from military adventurism to interference in U.S. elections. The Chicago Council found last year that 66 percent of Americans see Russia as an adversary or rival. Gallup polls have also found rising disapproval of Russia: The percentage of Americans with an unfavorable opinion of it rose from 45 percent to 77 percent between 2010 and 2021.
The significant public backing for military action does not seem grounded in perceptions of a direct military threat from Russia to the United States. While Gallup reported an increasing share of Americans describing Russia’s military power as a critical or important threat to the vital interests of the United States (from 75 percent in 2010 to 90 percent in 2021), a January 2021 Chicago Council survey found only 11 percent of Americans consider Russia to be the greatest threat to the United States. A Pew survey this January found that only a quarter of Americans consider the Russian military buildup around Ukraine to be a major threat to U.S. interests, with one-third of Americans considering it a minor threat.
Liberal Democrats were especially supportive of using troops in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine in last summer’s Chicago Council survey (60 percent in favor versus 47 percent of moderate Democrats). This may seem surprising given that liberals typically prefer diplomatic, rather than military, approaches to international problems and have strongly favored withdrawing the U.S. military from post-9/11 wars. For instance, the same Chicago Council survey found that 70 percent of Americans favored the decision to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.
The counterintuitive backing of liberal Democrats for a strong response to Russian aggression could be motivated by concern about authoritarian leaders undermining democracy in the context of Trumpism at home and democratic backsliding abroad. Last summer’s Chicago Council survey found that liberal Democrats supported the use of troops in response to hypothetical military aggression against democratic allies and partners by other authoritarian countries too. For instance, 58 percent of liberal Democrats backed using U.S. troops if China invaded Taiwan and 69 percent did if North Korea invaded South Korea — rates of support that exceeded the rates among moderate or conservative Democrats and were similar to the rates among Republicans, even though Republicans generally tend to be more hawkish than Democrats.
Overall, 52 percent of Americans now support using U.S. troops if China invades Taiwan, up from just 28 percent in 2015. As with the trend line concerning military responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine, this jump reflects increased concern in Washington and among the American public about Chinese behavior in areas including security, economics, and human rights. These public attitudes are also consistent with a broader phenomenon in which the public is more supportive of military action in response to aggression by another country than of military action to foster political change within another country.
Other surveys have also found that sizable portions of the American public favor strong steps in response to a Russian attack on Ukraine, though many Americans are unsure about how the United States should respond. An Economist-YouGov poll in December found that 64 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans place greater importance on the United States taking a strong stand so that Russia does not take over Ukraine by force than on maintaining good relations with Russia, whereas just 22 percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats instead prioritize the latter goal. In a similar vein, the same survey found that 41 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans thought the United States should help protect Ukraine with military force if an armed conflict arose, while just 18 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans said the United States should not do so. However, four out of ten respondents to this question said they did not know enough about the topic to make a judgment on it, suggesting that the views of many Americans may evolve depending on how a conflict unfolds and what positions U.S. and other leaders take on it.
A YouGov-Charles Koch Institute survey in December found weaker support for defending Ukraine, finding that just 27 percent of Americans favored going to war with Russia in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, whereas 48 percent of Americans opposed doing so. These divergent results may have been influenced by the question wording’s direct emphasis on going to war with Russia and by preceding questions in the survey suggesting that the United States was bearing too much of the burden of Europe’s defense, which may have led some respondents to think that Europe should handle the problem. But the differing results highlight the rather malleable character of public attitudes on an issue about which many Americans do not have well-established or deeply entrenched views.
Polls Under Pressure
Collectively, these data provide valuable snapshots of American attitudes regarding potential military action in response to a Russian invasion, but they should be interpreted with a grain of salt. In the event of an actual Russian invasion, the views of Democratic and Republican members of the public — particularly those without strong pre-existing views — will likely shift depending on how aggressively Russia acts and how U.S. and other leaders respond.
When developing attitudes on foreign policy issues, the public takes cues both from the behavior of foreign governments and from the positions of domestic leaders. Certainly, a more intrusive Russian invasion of Ukraine would prompt greater public support for a forceful U.S. response than would a less intrusive one. But the statements of political leaders in the United States will also matter. For instance, if Biden opts not to intervene directly against Russia and Republican leaders charge that he is not doing enough to address the crisis, Democratic voters will probably become less supportive of intervention and Republican voters will probably become more supportive of it. Conversely, if Biden does intervene directly and Republican leaders accuse him of taking the United States into war unnecessarily, support for intervention may rise among Democratic voters and fall among Republican voters.
Following a Russian invasion, the debate over U.S. intervention would also shift from the hypothetical use of force to the grim reality of what taking up arms against Russia might actually entail. Survey questions about the hypothetical use of force do not typically go into detail about the precise character of intervention. In the context of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, this may mean leaving unsaid whether U.S. military action would involve, for instance, deploying troops to NATO allies bordering Ukraine, sending military advisers into Ukraine in support of Ukrainian troops, or sending combat troops to the front lines to fight against Russia.
Options short of direct military action against Russia are likely to garner more public support than steps that would bring the United States directly into war, given the former’s lower risks to U.S. troops. Such options include stepping up military aid to Ukraine and Eastern European allies, as well as imposing large-scale sanctions on Russia. The Chicago Council’s survey last summer found that only 41 percent of Americans favored selling arms and military equipment to Ukraine, a figure consistent with a general public hesitancy to sell weapons to other countries. But a 2018 Washington Post-ABC poll found that 74 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans thought the United States should impose tougher sanctions on Russia. As the crisis unfolds, public debate will likely pit military aid and sanctions against direct military action. The lesser risk and cost associated with the former options may make them increasingly appealing as alternatives that could impose heavy consequences on Russia without bringing the United States into war with a major military power.
Overall, the available data indicate that the public is more supportive of a strong response to Russian aggression than inward-looking caricatures of the American people would suggest. This should enable Biden to rally much of the public behind him if he responds forcefully to a Russian invasion, which in turn may strengthen his ability to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine in the first place. At the same time, public support for a tough U.S. response does not necessarily translate into public backing for very costly forms of military intervention, and Biden should not assume that public attitudes will not change.
Jordan Tama is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence