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War With Russia Has Pushed Ukrainians Toward The West

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.


For the past eight years, it’s been pretty easy for most Americans to forget about the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But the war — which began in 2014 when Russian forces annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine — is suddenly front and center, after Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched around 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine. Now a conflict that has already claimed roughly 14,000 lives could be poised to escalate dramatically, with President Biden and other European leaders promising support for Ukraine if Russia invades.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky is urging residents to stay calm. “What’s new? Isn’t this the reality for the past eight years?” he said in an address last week. But polling from Ukraine suggests that Ukrainians have grown increasingly suspicious of Russian aggression as the conflict has dragged on. They also remain firmly committed to their own sovereignty — the vast majority of Ukrainians do not want to be part of Russia. At the same time, several polls suggest that Ukrainians are more open to an alliance with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) than they were in the past. That possibility isn’t formally on the table right now, but experts on Ukrainian politics and public opinion told me that support for NATO membership is often a rough stand-in for Ukrainians’ feelings about a military alliance with the west. Most Americans are also wary about Russia, according to recent polling — but they’re more divided about whether U.S. involvement is a good idea, and whether the conflict is a threat to U.S. interests.

In the over thirty years since Ukraine became an independent democracy, the country has been through a fair amount of turmoil — a revolution in 2004, an economic crisis a few years later, another revolution in 2014, and of course the ongoing conflict with Russia. Experts told me that Ukrainians have been forming a stronger national identity over that time, including in eastern parts of the country where Russian is spoken widely. Putin has argued that Ukraine is historically and culturally part of Russia — a claim that underlies his repeated efforts to expand Russia’s influence — but all of the experts I spoke with told me that this isn’t the way most Ukrainians see things. “More people say that they feel strongly Ukrainian, they’re proud to be Ukrainian citizens — even if they continue to speak Russian language,” said Tymofii Brik, a public opinion researcher and assistant professor at Kyiv School of Economics. “There is a very strong feeling of sovereignty and national identity.”

That doesn’t mean that Ukrainians have a history of hostility toward Russia. As the chart below shows, Ukrainians held very positive feelings toward Russia as recently as 2008. But all of that changed when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began a long, grinding war on the country’s eastern border. According to data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia got much more negative around the time of the invasion of Crimea, and haven’t recovered since. “It’s not that Ukrainians are anti-Russian,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “What Putin is saying is that there is no such thing as Ukrainian nationhood — that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people. But for us, what it means to be Ukrainian isn’t about your ethnicity or your language.”

Meanwhile, as the war on the country’s eastern border has dragged on, Ukrainian views toward NATO have gotten more positive, according to Olga Onuch, a political scientist at the University of Manchester who studies Ukraine. Survey data from Onuch and a group of colleagues shows that support for joining NATO has increased substantially, from around 30 percent in May 2014 to 55 percent in January 2021. Other surveys show similar trends.

Asking about membership in NATO is a little complicated because as a former Soviet state, it’s not clear if Ukraine will ever be invited to join. Perspectives on the prospect are changing, though. Some Ukrainians who were on the fence — perhaps because they associated NATO with foreign influence thanks to its role in the Cold War, or worried that closer ties would provoke Russia — may be warming to the idea, Onuch told us. Those views have likely changed in part because of the war, she said, but also because Zelensky — a native Russian speaker from southern Ukraine, a part of the country with more Russian ties — has gone out of his way to emphasize the need for cooperation with the west. 

Ukrainians aren’t sure, though, that the war is about to escalate. According to a recent KIIS poll, just under half (48 percent) of respondents say they believe Russia will attack, although another poll conducted by the Razumkov Center, a Ukrainian think tank, found that 71 percent of Ukrainians think the country is already in a war with Russia. In December, KIIS found that a sizable share of Ukrainians say they’re either prepared to fight Russia (33 percent) or protest (22 percent) if the war starts — although, Brik pointed out, willingness to fight was much higher in the western part of the country, which is not where the violence has been concentrated so far.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. the war in Ukraine is just coming back onto more Americans’ radar as Biden threatened sanctions and put troops on alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe. In general, Americans don’t have an especially friendly attitude toward Russia either. According to weekly YouGov surveys that have been conducted since 2017, the share of Americans who see Russia as an enemy has increased from 60 percent to 75 percent. A Pew Research Center poll conducted from Jan. 10-17 asked the question slightly differently, but it found that 49 percent of Americans see Russia as a competitor to the U.S. and 41 percent see Russia as an enemy. Only seven percent said Russia was a partner of the U.S.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Americans support military assistance to Ukraine. A YouGov poll conducted on Jan. 24 found that Americans were divided on whether the U.S. has a responsibility to protect Ukraine: 35 percent said that it does, 33 percent said that it doesn’t and 33 percent were unsure. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that the Pew poll, which was conducted before NATO committed to sending military support, found that most Americans don’t see the Russian buildup near Ukraine as a sizable threat to U.S. interests: 26 percent said it was a major threat and 33 percent said it was a minor threat. Only seven percent said that it was no threat at all, though, and a significant chunk (33 percent) said they just didn’t know how Russia’s actions toward Ukraine affect U.S. interests.

As more Americans find out about the conflict, those views could change. Pew found that half (49 percent) of people who said they had heard a lot about the military buildup saw Russia’s actions as a threat to the U.S., compared to 26 percent of those who had heard a little, and nine percent of those who had heard nothing at all. At that point, only 23 percent of respondents had heard a lot about the military buildup, so there’s plenty of room for attitudes to shift. But it’s not exactly clear how that will happen. Some Republicans are attacking Biden for not being aggressive enough against Russia, but other voices on the right — particularly Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — have been pushing the idea that the U.S. shouldn’t get involved in the conflict with Ukraine. And that, of course, follows years of former President Donald Trump speaking glowingly about Putin. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted from Jan. 20-24 found that when asked to choose, 62 percent of Republicans — and 71 percent of cable news viewers who primarily watch Fox News — said they believe Putin is a stronger leader than Biden.

For Ukrainians, though, one thing is key — as the conflict moves forward, it’s their country’s sovereignty that’s at stake. “The conflict is always perceived in terms of the Cold War — it’s between the United States and Russia, and Ukraine is in the middle,” Brik said. “But a lot of Ukrainians don’t feel that’s how it is. They have their own identity, interests, and agency, and after seven years of war, they want to decide how things move forward.”

Other polling bites

  • Most Americans are now aware of the metaverse. Both Ipsos and the Harris Poll found that just 31 percent of Americans hadn’t heard of the term. But the metaverse remains abstract and confusing to Americans, and this could pose barriers to widespread use. According to the Harris Poll, 52 percent of Americans felt overwhelmed by the concept of the metaverse, and 60 percent didn’t understand its purpose.
  • Many Americans believe the lack of affordable housing is one of the greatest problems facing their community. In a recently published survey from Pew Research Center, 49 percent of Americans called it “a major problem” in their own community — up 10 percentage points from 2018. In fact, it surpassed other problems that people were concerned about, like drug addiction (35 percent), the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and health (34 percent and 26 percent, respectively) and crime (22 percent). Americans living in lower-income households (57 percent) were more likely to label this a major problem than Americans in middle- or upper-income households (47 percent and 42 percent, respectively), but the biggest differences were regional. Over two-thirds (69 percent) of those living in the West found lack of affordable housing to be a major problem — a much higher rate than among those living in the Northeast (49 percent), South (44 percent) or Midwest (33 percent).
  • Almost 50 years after the constitutional right to abortion was established in Roe v. Wade, abortion remains a polarizing issue. A recent Fox News poll found that only 31 percent of Americans wanted the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, in line with 30 percent from a recent CNN/SSRS poll. Most Americans — 63 percent according to Fox News and 69 percent according to CNN/SSRS — didn’t want the court to overturn Roe. But the fact that a clear majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade obscures what the country is really divided about: the specific circumstances under which abortion should be legal, such as the number of weeks of gestation at which the procedure can take place.
  • While President Biden’s favorability ratings have been declining, American’s view of his character is complicated. A majority of Americans still saw him as likable (60 percent) and intelligent (59 percent), according to a January poll from Gallup. However, opinion of him as a leader has soured — particularly among independents and Democrats. From Sept. 2020 to Jan. 2022, the share of respondents who said Biden “can manage the government effectively” declined by 19 points among Democrats and 21 points among independents.
  • Americans widely support the Biden administration’s initiative to provide free masks and tests. More than four in five (84 percent) supported the government both mailing out free at-home COVID-19 tests and providing N95 masks through pharmacies and health clinics, according to a recent poll from Axios/Ipsos. One reason for this high support may be that Americans continue to face barriers to getting tested. Of the 21 percent who said they took a COVID-19 test within the last week, 24 percent reported trying and failing to buy an at-home test, 21 percent reported waiting in a long line and 18 percent reported being unable to get an appointment.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 41.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 53.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.6 points). At this time last week, 41.9 percent approved and 53.4 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -11.5 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 43.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.8 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Republicans currently lead by 1.9 percentage points (44.2 percent to 42.2 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 1.6 points (43.3 percent to 41.7 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 1.3 points (41.9 percent to 43.2 percent).

CLARIFICATION (Jan. 28, 2022, 12:13 p.m.): An earlier version of this article’s second chart listed one of the sources as Nadiya, but her full name is Nadiya Kravets. The chart has been updated with her surname.

Footnotes

  1. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  2. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jean Yi is a former politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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