Will the American-Ukraine Consensus Start to Crack?
Polling and trends demonstrate that Western publics’ support is gradually waning.
“I am in Ukraine today,” President Joe Biden declared in his dramatic trip to Kiev earlier this week, “to reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” For most of this first year of the Ukraine war, the American public remained strikingly supportive of Biden’s Ukraine policy. But soft spots have been showing—and risk becoming cracks in the support base Biden needs to sustain that commitment.
Late 2022 polls showed 75 percent support for Russia sanctions, 57 percent for Ukrainian military aid, and only 35 percent seeing the conflict as “none of our business and we should not interfere.”
Support for military deployments to Eastern European NATO allies reached as high as 69 percent when specified “as a deterrent to keep Russia from invading those countries.” As to direct military intervention into the war itself, the public has consistently stood behind the line drawn by the Biden administration against this: in March 68 percent opposed sending troops, in August 60 percent, and in October 66 percent.
On questions geared to the then-upcoming midterm congressional elections, 69 percent were supportive of a candidate favoring continued Ukrainian military aid, while only 25 percent for a candidate advocating lifting Russian sanctions. A post-election poll showed a similar margin of 64 percent wanting their Congressional members to support Ukraine aid, while only 36 percent oppose.
Within all that, though, party differences had begun to emerge. Whereas in May only 17 percent of Republicans said Ukrainian support was “too much” support, by September this was up to 32 percent; Democrats had only gone from 8 percent to 11 percent. By January 2023, Republicans were up to 47 percent taking the “doing too much” position, Democrats only 10 percent.
Even before becoming House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy issued his “no blank check” warning. Reducing Ukraine aid was among the pledges he made to hard-right caucus members in order to become Speaker. House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committee Chairmen Michael McCaul and Mike Turner are playing the waste-fraud-abuse card—that they do support Ukraine, but just want more oversight on how the money is spent. Others, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, are more blatant and bombastic, posing questions like “Is Ukraine now the 51st state of the United States of America?,” even alleging an elaborate cryptocurrency conspiracy in which military aid for Ukraine actually funded Democrats’ campaigns.
And then there’s presidential politics. Questions explicitly identifying policies as Biden’s got much lower approval than those just about the policies themselves. The same poll that had only 26 percent saying reduce Ukraine aid got 53 percent disapproval when identifying America’s Ukraine policy as Biden’s. As the presidential race ramps up, this link will be made more and more. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a leading Republican presidential aspirant, wasted no time in criticizing Biden for the trip and deriding the Russian threat as “third-rate.”
Some of the initial willingness to bear costs was a rally effect that took effect right after the Russian invasion. Over time though, cost-bearing willingness declined. In March 2022, 55 percent prioritized sanctioning Russia even if it damaged the American economy, and only 42 percent opted to limit damage to our own economy even if it made Russia’s sanctions less effective. By last month only 36 percent still supported making sanctions effective, with 59 percent prioritizing limiting our own economic costs. With the American economy still far from out of the woods and total aid to Ukraine going over $100 billion, cost-bearing willingness is understandably under added pressure.
We also see “generational laddering” with younger generations—which are becoming the largest demographic voting bloc—less supportive than older generations. On approval of sanctions, Gen Z stands at 45 percent, Millennials at 55 percent, Gen X at 76 percent, and Baby Boomers at 86 percent. On Ukrainian financial aid, 53 percent/54 percent/60 percent/75 percent. On military aid, 44 percent/48 percent/61 percent/81 percent. On supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” 43 percent/52 percent/62 percent/66 percent.
The close collaboration of European allies has both satisfied the political preference for burden sharing and enhanced the strategic calculus for policy effectiveness. 86 percent of the American public stressed the importance of allies working with the United States against Russia. Support for sanctions has gone as high as 83 percent when posed as being imposed by both the United States and European allies. While Europe has done far better than anticipated in reducing its energy dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, the economic costs being borne from both sanctions and war still have been quite substantial. And as hard as NATO has been working on maintaining solidarity, issues like the German Leopard tanks and Ukrainian pressure on Britain for fighter jets are indicative of increasing differences over the optimal strategy for these next phases of the war. If European commitment wavers, the American public may question its own commitment.
Adding to these are signs of an emerging policy debate within the United States. While there were some dissenting views early on, these were even fewer than during the 2003 Iraq war. As long as the Russian strategy was proving flawed and Ukrainian military and society kept up their admirable will and extraordinary performance, U.S. and NATO policy generally seemed well-calibrated. But with the war becoming attritional and trench warfare-like, and Russia managing to contain economic sanctions and keep pouring troops in, concerns have been intensifying as to the sustainability of that strategy. The House Progressive Caucus’ October letter stressing the need to “avoid a prolonged conflict” was retracted for political reasons (coming on the eve of the midterms), but its policy argument lingers in the background. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley publicly questioned the prospects of a Ukrainian military victory and pushed for more diplomacy. Despite White House pressure, General Milley did some “clarifying” but only partially walked his views back. A recent RAND study was even blunter: it posed the dilemma of increased assistance emboldening Ukraine to hold out on any possible negotiated settlement on the one hand, and decreased assistance prompting Russia to ratchet up its destructiveness even further.
Relatedly, what if Ukraine starts losing as Russia mounts its next offensive? We know from other foreign policy cases that the sense a policy is working inclines the public to sustain support. That the Ukrainian resistance has held up so well has made Americans feel their money is being well spent. For example, comparing polls taken in August when Russia seemed to be gaining to October ones following Ukrainian forces re-taking Kharkiv and making other military gains, the none-of-our-business view went down from 40 percent to 35 percent, and support for providing weapons went up from 51 percent to 66 percent. But while a turn in the war towards Russia winning could strengthen the policy rationale for more support, the public may see this as throwing good money after bad, and be even less inclined to be supportive.
Alternatively, what if facing defeat Russia attacks a NATO ally or goes up the escalatory ladder toward the use of nuclear weapons? Recent polling by the Ronald Reagan Foundation found 69 percent of respondents are concerned about the threat of nuclear war—the highest indication of such fear since the Foundation first asked this question in 2018. That the threat was posed as “in the next five years” helps explain why 57 percent nevertheless still favored supporting Ukraine at the moment. It’s one thing for the public to affirm support for not giving in to nuclear threats when these are hypotheticals. It’d be quite another if the threat becomes more imminent, all the more if it’s coming from a beleaguered Vladimir Putin. Putin’s recent state of his union speech, suspending even any semblance of compliance with the New START treaty, threatening to resume nuclear tests, and announcing Russian strategic systems are now on combat duty only ratcheted up the nuclear threat higher than it’s been since the war started.
The Biden administration thus cannot count on the support that has been there for its Ukraine policy to still be there in the months to come. Soft spots in what otherwise is a consensus are more politically manageable than cracks in its base. As the war enters its second year, the political and policy challenges for maintaining Ukraine’s support, let alone increasing it, are even more formidable than they were in the first year.
Bruce W. Jentleson is a William Preston Few Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, a former State Department official, and the author of Sanctions: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2022).