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What Americans Think About The Crisis In Ukraine

UPDATE (Feb. 24, 7:52 a.m.): Russia has now launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. (For the latest developments, follow the ABC News live blog.) Russia’s dramatic escalation of the conflict since we published the article below could shift public opinion around the world, including in the United States. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine comes against a backdrop of a U.S. public that is skeptical of American intervention. On Wednesday, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released a survey finding that only 26 percent of American adults said the U.S. “should have a major role in the situation”; 52 percent said “minor role,” and 20 percent said “none at all.”

For days now, there have been reports that Russia could attack Ukraine at any moment, although it’s possible continued diplomatic talks could avert military conflict. Russia is seeking concessions, such as a promise from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the coalition and/or reductions in NATO’s troop presence and missile deployment. But as the leading nation in NATO, the United States must now grapple with how it will help protect its allies, many of whom are located near Russia, while managing its relationship with Ukraine, which has become closer to the West in recent years.

In light of these challenges, President Biden has promised further support for Ukraine, but U.S. public opinion may affect just how far his administration is willing to go to aid the beleaguered nation. As with many foreign policy issues, Americans don’t necessarily have well-established views on how the U.S. should respond, and in some cases their attitudes are mixed. For instance, polls suggest Americans would prefer to avoid becoming heavily involved in the conflict, but many support taking Ukraine’s side against the Russians. There is also a significant amount of variation in how and to what degree Americans want to assist Ukraine as well as a number of partisan- and age-related divisions over potential American responses. Those splits might reflect broader views on the country’s role in world affairs.

When asked about the U.S. position in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Americans at first glance prefer to remain above the fray. In a CBS News/YouGov survey conducted last week, 53 percent of Americans said the U.S. should stay out of the situation by siding with neither Ukraine or Russia in ongoing talks, while 43 percent said the U.S. should back Ukraine (only 4 percent wanted to side with Russia). A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted earlier in February found a similar split, with 49 percent of respondents wanting to avoid taking sides and 46 percent preferring to back Ukraine (just 5 percent said Russia). 

But in the same poll, Americans demonstrated how their views on the larger geopolitical situation are muddled: When asked which of two statements came closer to their opinion, 40 percent said it was in the U.S.’s best interest to stop Russia and help Ukraine, compared with 33 percent who said the conflict was “none of America’s business” (although a sizable 27 percent said they didn’t know which position was closer to their view).

Despite the mixed opinions on the broad contours of American foreign intervention, some of these questions also exposed partisan and age differences in public attitudes. For instance, in both surveys, about 3 in 5 Democrats preferred supporting Ukraine over staying out or backing Russia, while about half of Republicans and more than half of independents preferred to support neither country. But while Americans under 45 tend to be more Democratic-leaning, they were more likely to say the U.S. should support neither country — or that they weren’t sure — while older Americans felt more strongly that the U.S. should support Ukraine. 

The age splits could reflect lingering anti-Russian views among older Americans who remember the Cold War. Polling from The Economist/YouGov last week found that about half of Americans ages 45 or older viewed Russia as an “enemy” of the U.S., while only around a quarter of those under 45 said the same. The divide may also reflect the skepticism that many young Americans have toward American military intervention, as many came of age during the lengthy and troubled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked about specific policy ideas, though, more Americans than not tend to favor providing assistance to Ukraine through diplomatic or economic means. Last week, 50 percent of Americans told The Economist/YouGov that it was a good idea to implement economic sanctions against Russia — including 50 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats — while only 20 percent viewed this as a bad idea. That was the most popular policy The Economist/YouGov asked about, but pluralities of slightly more than 40 percent also said allowing Ukraine to join NATO and sending Ukraine financial aid were good ideas, too. 

And polls suggest that Americans look askance at Russian diplomatic demands: 58 percent told Yahoo News/YouGov that Putin’s desires for NATO to withdraw from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from joining NATO were unreasonable, compared with 12 percent who said they were reasonable.

At this point, economic sanctions and aid for Ukraine are still more popular, too, than military-based interventions. It’s true that Morning Consult found last week that registered voters were about evenly split on whether the U.S. should send weapons to Ukraine’s government while the U.S. continues to seek a diplomatic solution with Russia, with 41 percent supporting the move and 42 percent preferring to not send weapons. But a solid plurality, 49 percent, opposed sending additional troops to Eastern Europe while talks with Russia were ongoing, compared with 36 percent who supported doing so. Moreover, there was just one scenario in Morning Consult’s polling where more respondents preferred deploying troops to Eastern Europe over imposing sanctions against Russia: If Russia invaded and occupied all of Ukraine.

That said, Americans may be open to sending troops to the region or even Ukraine proper. The U.S. has already deployed 3,000 more soldiers to NATO defenses in nearby Poland, and sending troops to Eastern Europe but not Ukraine as part of a larger NATO operation did get support in Morning Consult’s poll. Similarly, 61 percent expressed support for sending troops directly to Ukraine as part of a NATO coalition, compared with only 37 percent if the U.S. acted on its own. And among American adults more broadly, a plurality (40 percent) said they supported sending troops to support NATO allies in the Economist/YouGov poll. On all these questions, older Americans had more favorable attitudes toward military assistance than their younger counterparts.

It’s unclear what will happen in Ukraine at this point, but for now more Americans support continued diplomacy or economic sanctions versus sending military assistance to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion. But Americans are also open to U.S. military action under some circumstances, and in such a volatile situation, public opinion could change quickly depending on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine.

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Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.