Polls show US support for Ukraine waning as Biden administration steps up aid
26 May 2022|

Within days of Russian forces entering Ukraine on 24 February, pollsters were taking the pulse of US public opinion on the Biden administration’s response. The initial results revealed a high degree of caution about sending direct military support—no boots on the ground or jets in the air—while declaring high levels of moral support for the Ukrainian people and equally high levels of outrage over Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion.

That public opinion was broadly reflected in the Biden administration’s measured (some would say tardy) response to Russia’s military advances—sending financial and select military hardware to Ukraine, while ruling out any measures that could provoke direct combat between US and Russian forces.

Yet, despite what seems like a close alignment between the American public and the US administration on how to respond to Russia’s invasion, public opinion generally marked President Joe Biden down sharply on his handling of the crisis. That likely reflected a degree of latency in US opinion in assessing the administration’s failure to deter the invasion, and a combination of misstatements (a ‘minor incursion’ anyone?) and prematurely ruling out direct military support.

On a purely political level, while the polls showed that Americans had been following events in Ukraine closely, their top concern remained runaway inflation, with 40% of respondents rating ‘inflation or increasing costs’ as their main worry.

By the end of March, however, significant changes were emerging in US popular attitudes towards the scale and scope of America’s response. According to a poll conducted by Reuters, 74% of Americans—including solid majorities of both Republicans and Democrats—said the United States and its NATO allies should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine, even though such a move would likely pit the US military against Russian forces in Ukraine and adjacent areas. An equally bipartisan 80% of Americans said the United States should stop buying Russian oil, despite the likely inflationary impact on petrol prices.

That conundrum—support for Ukraine, but worries about inflation—was reflected in polling which showed a majority of both Republicans and Democrats would choose candidates in the mid-term elections who are in favour of providing military aid to Ukraine and who also indicate they support sanctioning Russia. At the same time, the polls reveal very high levels of concern about the impact of sanctions on prices, particularly among more economically vulnerable Americans and among women voters—both groups that tend to lean towards the Democrats.

So, support for Ukraine presents a wicked problem for the Democrats as they head to mid-term elections later this year: supporting Ukraine (very popular) means imposing an oil embargo on Russia, which will trigger rising fuel prices and increase costs across the whole economy (very unpopular).

By this month, another trend was emerging: an increase in Americans concerned that the US is doing too much to support Ukraine. A Pew Research poll found that 12% of Americans felt the US was providing too much support, up from 7% in March, even as majority support for increased military aid remained consistent at around 55%. This seeming contradiction could be explained, at least in part, by ‘sticker shock’ over the growing cost of US aid—the poll came hard on the heels of Congress approving a US$13.6 billion aid package. But that trend could be expected to continue as Congress pushes through even more aid for Ukraine, signing off on another US$40 billion just last week.

At the same time, Americans are becoming less inclined to feel the US has an obligation to defend Ukraine. According to polling firm Morning Consult, for the second week in a row in May the share of voters who believe the US has such an obligation is down, falling to 44% from a high of 50%. Republicans (32%) are the least likely to believe the US has an obligation to defend Ukraine, compared with 57% of Democrats and 40% of independents.

Only one in four Americans now say the US is doing too little to support Ukraine, a record low since Morning Consult began tracking the numbers, and down from a high of 37% in mid-March.

Whatever the reason, the trend is concerning. While solidarity with Ukraine remains strong within Congress and the Biden administration, it clearly has limits with the American electorate.