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US public prefers diplomacy over war on Ukraine

A handful of recent surveys have found that Americans generally oppose a militaristic approach to the brewing conflict in Eastern Europe.

Analysis | Europe

Alarm bells are ringing throughout Washington about the Russian buildup on its border with Ukraine. The Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on “high alert,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested that Putin must choose between the “preferred path of diplomacy and dialogue” or “Russian aggression and massive consequences.” The New York Times reports that Biden is also considering warships and aircraft to nearby NATO allies, “in what would be a major shift from its restrained stance on Ukraine.” Tensions are high.

What does the American public think?

While surveys are snapshots in time and question wording varies from survey to survey, recent results suggest that the public prefers diplomacy to military action if Russia invades Ukraine. Additionally, many of the polls suggest that many Americans are unsure about what to do regarding the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border. This presents an opportunity for advocates of restraint to pitch a more restrained and less militaristic foreign policy vision for the United States to the American public.

First, Americans seem attentive to the ongoing tensions. A December 2021 Morning Consult poll found that 54 percent of adults reported hearing, seeing, or reading about Russia massing forces along the border with Ukraine. Sixty-five percent of adults reported being “somewhat” (39 percent) or “very” (26 percent) concerned about the issue.

A YouGov poll of 4,428 U.S. adults released on Monday suggests that Americans are pessimistic about the prospects for peace. Forty-seven percent of respondents reported thinking that Russia will invade Ukraine, while only 15 percent of respondents thought that Russia would not invade Ukraine (38 percent were not sure).

Who is responsible for protecting Ukraine? The American public appears split, according to YouGov: 35 percent of respondents thought that the “U.S. has a responsibility to protect Ukraine” while 33 percent of respondents thought that the “U.S. does not have a responsibility to protect Ukraine.” A further one-third of respondents expressed that they were not sure. Democrats were slightly more likely to suggest that the U.S. has a responsibility to protect Ukraine (44 percent) than Republicans (36 percent). 

Turning to the prospects of a US war with Russia, a December 2021 YouGov poll commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute found that only 9 percent of Americans strongly favor and only 18 percent “somewhat favor” “going to war with Russia to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” These data clearly signal a reluctance on the part of the American public to get further entangled in costly wars abroad. 

Similarly, a recent Trafalgar Group/Convention of States Action (COSA) poll asked 1,081 likely general election voters “what level of involvement should the U.S. have if Russia invades Ukraine?” The poll found that only 15.3 percent of Americans favor “providing US troops as boots on the ground.” All other options were more popular: “provide only diplomatic area pressure” (30.5 percent) and “provide supplies and military weapons” (31.1 percent) were about equally as popular alternatives to U.S. troops on the ground, while 23.2 percent of respondents thought that the U.S. should “provide U.S. military advisors.” 

These results largely parallel, albeit with different question wording, the results of a recent Morning Consult poll, which asked respondents: “if the United States were to consider taking one of the following actions in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that Russia invades Ukraine, which option do you prefer, even if none are exactly right?” A plurality suggested “diplomatic negotiations with Russia (34 percent), followed by imposing sanctions on Russia (22 percent), and only 17 percent thought that “offering direct military support to Ukraine” was the option that they preferred (27 percent did not know or have an opinion).  

Moreover, the U.S. public rightly thinks that a war against Russia would be costly. YouGov asked “If the United States were to go to war against Russia, who do you think would win?” A plurality — 41 percent — of respondents stated that “neither side would win” while 26 percent thought that the U.S. would win and 10 percent thought that Russia would win. 

More broadly, recent survey results paint a picture of an American public that seeks domestic renewal rather than foreign policy pugilism. Only 10 percent of respondents in a December 2021 YouGov poll thought that the United States should be “more militarily engaged in conflicts around the world,” while 40 percent thought that the United States should be “less engaged.” Similarly, the 2021 Chicago Council for Global Affairs survey and report “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” finds that Americans “say they are personally more concerned about threats within the United States (81%) than threats outside the country (19%).” As the pandemic rages on and inflation pushes grocery bills up, the public seems lukewarm at best on the prospects of military engagement abroad. 

Finally, throughout the survey results presented here, many Americans report being “not sure” about the prospects for conflict and the best policy options moving forward. This suggests that there is still time and space for restrainers to make their case and build public support for a diplomacy centered strategy. Younger Americans in particular seem to express more uncertainty regarding what the best responses to the situation would be (though when they do express an opinion, it tends to be for more diplomacy than military action). These results regarding U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and Ukraine are consistent with broader generational findings that Millennials see a less threatening international environment and are more supportive of international cooperation than older generations.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin participate in a tete-a-tete during a U.S.-Russia Summit on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
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