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What Would It Take For Americans To Support War Against Russia?

Poll after poll makes it clear: Americans don’t want to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. In an Ipsos/Reuters poll from March 3-4, adults opposed sending troops to Ukraine, 61 percent to 39 percent. In a YouGov/CBS News poll from Feb. 24-28, Americans opposed sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine, 71 percent to 29 percent. In a YouGov/The Economist poll from Feb. 26-March 1, they thought sending soldiers to Ukraine to fight Russian soldiers was a bad idea, 54 percent to 19 percent. And a Feb. 25-27 poll from Data for Progress found that likely voters opposed taking military action against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine, 64 percent to 23 percent.

These numbers are hardly surprising in a country not far removed from two unpopular, drawn-out foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s more of a surprise, though, is that Americans are actually open to going to war with Russia under different circumstances: namely, if Russia continues its aggression and invades one of the U.S.’s fellow members of NATO.

Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO members are pledged to each other’s collective defense — if one of them is attacked, the others must respond. And Americans want the U.S. to stick to this obligation. Sixty-one percent of respondents to a YouGov poll from Feb. 24-28 said the U.S. should maintain its commitment to defend NATO allies, while only 13 percent said this commitment was no longer necessary. A Quinnipiac University poll from March 4-6 put it even more bluntly and got an even more emphatic answer: 79 percent of its respondents supported a U.S. military response to a hypothetical Russian attack on a NATO country.

But that same YouGov poll suggested that, in reality, Americans’ appetite for war would vary depending on which NATO country is attacked. According to the poll, adults supported using military force to defend Great Britain, 58 percent to 14 percent, and France, 55 percent to 15 percent. But they were less supportive of using force to defend other NATO members, such as Latvia (35 percent to 18 percent) and Croatia (34 percent to 21 percent).

Americans have a mixed view of helping NATO allies

Share of Americans who said the U.S. should be willing to use military force to defend various countries against a hypothetical Russian attack

Country NATO member? Should Should not Don’t know
Great Britain 58% 14% 28%
France 55 15 29
Germany 51 19 30
Poland 47 18 34
Greece 46 19 35
Sweden 45 21 34
Finland 43 21 37
Romania 37 20 42
Latvia 35 18 46
Croatia 34 21 46
Turkey 33 27 40
Ukraine 31 31 37

Based on a survey of 1,000 adults conducted Feb. 24-28, 2022.

Source: YouGov

This raises the possibility that Americans are passing judgment on individual countries’ worthiness of having the U.S. rush to their defense. While some of this is probably due to Americans’ unfamiliarity with certain countries (46 percent said they didn’t know if the U.S. should defend Latvia or Croatia), it is still notable that just 14-15 percent opposed intervening if Russia attacked Great Britain or France, while about 20 percent opposed it for most Eastern European countries, and an even higher share (27 percent) opposed it for Turkey. Therefore, even in the nightmare scenario where Russia pushes beyond Ukraine and invades another country, we shouldn’t assume that Americans will automatically favor going to war over it.

There is, however, one set of poll questions that suggests Americans want to use military force against Russia right now. Multiple polls show support for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. In the Ipsos/Reuters survey, 74 percent of adults said the U.S. and NATO should impose a no-fly zone above Ukraine. And in the YouGov/The Economist poll, 45 percent of adults thought enforcing a no-fly zone was a good idea, while just 20 percent thought it was a bad idea. 

It seems likely, though, that many Americans aren’t aware that enforcing a no-fly zone would mean shooting down Russian airplanes that violate Ukrainian airspace (which, of course, could escalate into a greater, possibly nuclear conflict with Russia). In the YouGov/The Economist poll, a significant number of respondents (35 percent) said they weren’t sure whether a no-fly zone was a good or bad idea. And notably, Ipsos/Reuters didn’t even give respondents a “not sure” option, which could explain why it pegged support so high. 

It’s possible that a no-fly zone sounds to many Americans like a happy medium between two extreme options that we know from polling are both unpopular — going to war with Russia and doing nothing — and that’s why support initially registers so high. It’s impossible to know for sure, though, without more probing from pollsters. 

A separate YouGov poll from the United Kingdom (conducted March 3-4) gives us an idea of what more detailed polls might find, however. The poll explained, “Some are calling for a NATO ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine. This would mean that NATO countries like Britain would commit to shooting down any military aircraft attempting to fly over Ukraine. This could force the Russian military to stop launching air attacks against Ukraine, but it could also trigger an armed conflict between Russia and NATO countries if Russia chooses to ignore the no-fly zone.” Given this information, Britons said they opposed a no-fly zone, 39 percent to 28 percent (one-third were undecided).

To be sure, the U.K. isn’t the U.S., but the poll demonstrates how American support for a no-fly zone may be soft. After all, we already have plenty of clues that Americans may not fully grasp the gravity of a no-fly zone. According to a Marist College/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll from March 1-2, 70 percent of American adults were concerned (including 36 percent who were “very” concerned) that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would lead to the use of nuclear weapons. And according to a Feb. 25-28 poll from Canadian consumer-research firm Maru Public Opinion, 61 percent of Americans thought there was a real chance that Russia would use nuclear weapons against countries that interfered in Ukraine. Although Americans are certainly not immune to holding contradictory opinions, that doesn’t sound like a country that’s ready and willing to shoot down Russian airplanes.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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