Divided US support shows time is not on Ukraine’s side

Growing public opinion evidence and uncertainty about the future of the war suggests that continued American support for aiding Ukraine should not be assumed.

Expert comment Published 17 February 2023 4 minute READ

One year into Russia’s war on Ukraine, fears that American support for Kyiv would rapidly wane have proven demonstrably wrong. Western financial and military backing has been robust thanks to allied unity and an unexpectedly mild winter. But, as financial analysts constantly remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

People like to back winners. If the anticipated Russian spring offensive looks successful or the counterpart Ukrainian offensive is uninspiring, expect louder US voices calling for a negotiated settlement. The warning signs are already here.

American officials privately express growing apprehension that there will be an early resolution of the conflict. As one White House official recently observed to me, by the end of the year the war could well be about where it is today. And a plurality of Americans intuitively grasp this: 46 per cent believe neither Russia nor Ukraine currently has the advantage in the conflict.

Momentum matters  

In public opinion, perception of momentum matters. Americans’ support for the Vietnam War waned as the conflict persisted, falling from six-in-ten Americans in 1965 to four-in-ten in 1973.

Similarly, backing for the Iraq war fell from more than seven-in-ten in 2003 to barely four-in-ten in 2008. And with Afghanistan, as the war dragged on, support for US involvement fell from more than nine-in-ten in 2002 to less than five-in-ten in 2021. Notably, once the American public turned on these wars, support never returned.

Of course, Americans were fighting and dying in those wars, which is not the case in the Ukraine conflict. But initially the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan war support was buoyed by the belief that continued US engagement was justified, otherwise American sons and daughters had died in vain. With no American lives at stake in Ukraine, only financial and military resources, there is a growing wariness of throwing good money after bad.

In the last year, the share of Americans who say the United States is doing too much for Ukraine has nearly quadrupled, from seven to 26 per cent. And the portion that believe Washington has not done enough has halved, from 49 per cent to 17 per cent.

Sentiment about Ukraine support has become increasingly partisan. In March 2022, nine per cent of Republicans and five per cent of Democrats said the US was doing too much for Ukraine. By January 2023, 40 per cent of Republicans but just 15 per cent of Democrats complained Washington was doing too much.

In the last year, the share of Americans who say the United States is doing too much for Ukraine has nearly quadrupled, from 7% to 26%.

This erosion of Americans’ support for Ukraine does not bode well for the future. Less than half (48 per cent) of the public in November, compared to 58 per cent in July, believed Washington should support Ukraine for as long as it takes, even if it means American households have to pay higher gas and food prices as a consequence.

A similar share, 47 per cent – up from 38 per cent in July – said the United States should urge Ukraine to settle for peace as soon as possible so the costs aren’t so great for American households, even if that means Ukraine will lose some territory.

A partisan divide

The partisan divide over Ukraine is largely driven by Republican political rhetoric during and after the 2022 midterm elections. Current Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy observed last October: ‘I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine.’

More recently, in the wake of Ukrainian president Zelenskyy’s December speech to Congress, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, whose vote was pivotal in making McCarthy Speaker, tweeted: ‘Hemorrhaging billions in taxpayer dollars for Ukraine while our country is in crisis is the definition of America last.’

In January, newly-elected Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance told a Cleveland radio station that it was ‘ultimately not in our national security interest’ to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, despite the fact that they will be built by his constituents in Ohio.

In addition, ten Republican members of the House of Representatives have introduced legislation asserting ‘that the United States must end its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and urges all combatants to reach a peace agreement.’ 

And this month former President Donald Trump said: ‘That war has to stop, and it has to stop now, and it’s easy to do’ and it ‘can be negotiated within 24 hours’. Why worry about continued support for the war if it’s about to be over?

The road to 2024

With the 2024 US presidential election already revving up, Americans’ appetite for continued backing for Ukraine may hinge on how voters judge the Biden administration’s handling of the conflict.

Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans (61 per cent versus 27 per cent) to approve of the Biden administration’s response to the Russia invasion, suggesting Ukraine will be yet another partisan talking point as the campaign heats up. Notably, men are much more likely than women to approve of Biden’s efforts, as are older Americans compared with younger Americans.

Gender and age differences cont.

These gender and age differences are at cross purposes with overall approval of the president. Women have proven to be more supportive of Biden generally than are men and younger people tend to be much more approving of Democrats.

As Washington’s support for Ukraine deepens in the months ahead, opinion data suggests women and younger Americans may give Biden a pass on Ukraine policy, disagreeing with what he is doing but not punishing him for it.

However, there is another possibility. Disagreement over such a highly visible administration policy among some of Biden’s strongest supporters could begin to erode the president’s overall support.

And, as the 2024 election looms ever closer, electoral politics may begin to wear more heavily on US Ukraine policy, not just as a talking point for Republican politicians but for some in the Democratic Party base.

If the war looks like a losing bet, or at best a frozen conflict, trends over the last year suggest Americans’ desire for a negotiated settlement is likely to grow.

It should not be forgotten that 30 progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives issued a letter in October calling for a ‘proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire’. While they rapidly withdrew the missive, these sentiments could surface again depending on developments on the ground in Ukraine.  

Public opinion is notoriously fickle. If Kyiv appears to be winning the war by midyear, when the Biden administration will need to turn to Congress again for funds for Ukraine, a majority of the public is likely to be supportive and enough Republicans will go along to approve a new tranche of support.

But if the war looks like a losing bet, or at best a frozen conflict, trends over the last year suggest Americans’ desire for a negotiated settlement is likely to grow. Time is not on the side of Ukraine or transatlantic solidarity.