‘This is the Balkans on steroids,’ commented James Clapper, the former US Director of National Intelligence, and a retired Air Force lieutenant general, on 5 March on CNN. ‘The images of wanton barbarity will have an impact.’
That impact is already evident in recent US public opinion polling in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Americans have become more supportive of Ukraine and more willing to help Kyiv.
But pre-war surveys found profound American unwillingness to get involved in Ukraine’s defence, raising doubts about the sustainability of both US military support of the beleaguered nation and current and any future economic sanctions on Russia.
Americans voice support for Ukraine
As the spectre of a nuclear confrontation with Moscow grows and the damage sanctions impose on the US economy becomes more evident, will Americans stay the course or revert to self-interested indifference about a ‘quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing’? (before the crisis, only one-third of Americans could find Ukraine on a map.)
In the wake of almost non-stop cable news coverage of the Ukraine conflict, Americans have voiced support for Ukraine. In a late February CBS News poll, a strong majority of Americans said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine matters a lot to the US.
Three-quarters of the public supported economic sanctions on Russia, including an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats, and two-thirds backed sending weapons and supplies to Ukraine.
Moreover, such sentiment is rising. In a February 22-23 Ipsos survey, 69 per cent of the public voiced the view that the US should impose economic sanctions on Russia. A week later such support had risen to 77 per cent. Even when confronted with the prospect of higher fuel and gas prices, 58 per cent championed sanctions, up nine percentage points from a week earlier.
The ephemeral nature of public opinion
Washington’s allies should take heart from the American public’s outpouring of support for Ukraine in its hour of need. But they should also be wary of the ephemeral nature of public opinion, especially in a society where isolationist sentiment has such deep roots, where the public is so divided along partisan lines, and where a Congressional election is rapidly approaching.
Americans have only begun to feel the impact of the war and the sanctions on their lives and on the global economy. As of 6 March, the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded gas was $4.01, up from $2.76 a year ago, the largest short-term price increase in at least two decades. But this is still lower than the average price of $4.11 in mid-July 2008.
And food costs are soon to rise. Russia and Ukraine account for about 29 per cent of global wheat exports. International grain traders and shippers have suspended operations. Wheat stocks in major exporting countries are already at low levels, and US wheat prices are already at their highest level since 2008. Worse is yet to come. The Chinese agriculture minister predicts that China’s winter wheat crop could be the ‘worst in history’.
Rising energy and food prices will contribute to American inflation, which is already running at a 7.5 per cent. Eight-in-ten Americans told Economist/YouGov pollsters in mid-February that rising prices are a serious problem, and half said they are a better indicator of the health of the economy than the near record low unemployment rate or the near record high stock market.
Partisan divides in public opinion
Given public preoccupation with inflation, as prices rise will Americans’ earlier desire to distance themselves from the Ukraine crisis re-emerge? Already, the general public’s willingness to pay higher gas prices to defend Ukraine masks a partisan divide. While 75 per cent of Democrats express a willingness to pay more at the pump, only 50 per cent of Independents and just 43 per cent of Republicans are so inclined.
And before Russia launched its invasion, an early February CBS News poll found that half of those surveyed thought Washington should stay out of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, a fairly low bar of engagement. And such views were highly partisan, with a majority of Republicans and Independents saying stay out of such diplomacy. Notably, the Cold War generation, those over the age of 65, was the only age group who backed US participation.
Slightly more Americans (57 per cent) favoured economic sanctions on Russia in a pre-invasion YouGov poll, but only four-in-ten supported sending weapons to Ukraine, something Washington was already doing.
The sustainability of the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine may depend on the blowback in domestic American politics. Biden’s public approval stands at 42 per cent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of the ten most recent polls. And half the public blame the president for inflation.
Ukraine weighs heavily on public judgement of Biden. Just 41 per cent approved of his handling of Russia and Ukraine in a late February CBS survey. And there is a deeply partisan nature of such judgement: 71 per cent of Democrats, but only 35 per cent of Independents and 17 per cent of Republicans said the president was doing a good job in the crisis. This only underscores that Biden’s management of the war has the potential to be a major campaign issue in the autumn.
The Ukraine crisis comes at a time when the Democrats’ Congressional election prospects were already dire. Registered voters say they prefer Republican Congressional candidates over Democrats by seven percentage points. And among those who claim they are certain to vote that margin grows to 13 percentage points.
Democrats appear almost certain to lose control of the House of Representatives, where they only hold a six-seat majority. Since the late 1940s, in the seven US elections when the sitting president’s approval was less than 50 per cent, his party has lost an average of 43 seats in the House. A Republican landslide may be in the offing. In the Senate, which is currently evenly divided, the election outcome is still difficult to predict.