A year into Vladimir Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, public opinion in the UK remains resolute, even hawkish, particularly in comparison to some of our European neighbours. According to YouGov, 81 per cent of Britons say they want Ukraine to win, compared to just three per cent for Russia. Moreover, it is an issue is of high importance to voters, with 75 per cent saying it matters to them who wins the war, including 44 per cent who say it matters “a great deal”.
This is in line with the views expressed by the Prime Minister in Munich last month, when he said the aim of the West should be to enable Ukraine to win the conflict. A majority want us to support Ukraine in its efforts against Russia until such time as that country withdraws, even if this means that the war and its effects last longer. Despite the amount that has been spent on help so far, over half of Britons feel that the West is not doing enough to prevent Putin from winning the war in Ukraine. It is a clear and unambiguous picture of British opinion.
But what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic among the electorate of the single biggest donor to the military effort supporting Ukraine – the United States? Here the picture is less clear.
In recent years, American opinion has become more isolationist. This is particularly true of Republican voters, taking their cue from Donald Trump. Democrats, by contrast, have become less isolationist. It appears that the trend is due less to a sea change in public opinion and more to a reflection of the increasingly tribal nature of US politics.
On the specific issue of Ukraine, according to the Pew Research Centre, 31 per cent of Americans say the US is providing the right amount of support, while 20 per cent would like to see the US give additional assistance. The share of those who say the US is providing too much aid, however, has increased by six per cent since September 2022, and a full 19 per cent since shortly after the invasion. Again, this is mostly among Republican voters. It is also pertinent to point out that, unlike in the UK, Ukraine is not a top foreign policy concern of American voters generally. Terrorism comes top with 49 per cent and immigration second with 45 per cent; Ukraine came behind cyber-attacks, drug-trafficking and climate change at only 24 per cent.
So where does that leave the politicians? We can roughly split them into two groups: those already in authority, and those seeking to be in authority in the future. Those currently in positions of power take a tough and uncompromising line, while those seeking election take a range of more nuanced views. For Republican presidential hopefuls, this means trying to adopt firm defence and security positions without alienating the more insular Trump-influenced base.
While Biden was criticised initially by some on the right as being too slow to provide the military equipment Ukraine wanted, the Administration has committed more than $31.7 billion in security assistance since the start of the 2022 war- by far the biggest contribution of any ally. According to the President, “It’s simple. If Russia stopped invading Ukraine, it would end the war. If Ukraine stop defending itself against Russia, it would be the end of Ukraine. That’s why together, we are making sure Ukraine could defend itself”.
On the other side of the aisle, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has been a staunch and vocal supporter of military aid. He has also been more than willing to take on those elements of his party who claimed that the US has been too generous in its military support. Last week, he said that “reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” and that “my party’s leaders overwhelmingly support a strong, involved America and a robust transatlantic alliance”. His views are strongly echoed by those such as the Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, and the senior Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham ,who praised the President’s recent surprise visit to Ukraine as “the right signal to send at the right time.”
In terms of potential presidential candidates on the Republican side, these tough views are echoed by the former Trump administration ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Her arguments have a Reagan-esque feel when she says that “if Russia takes Ukraine, he said Poland and the Baltics are next and we’re looking at a world war. And if Russia wins, you can bet China’s gonna take Taiwan, Iran is gonna get the bomb”.
Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, another likely presidential candidate, has also defended the position in terms of national interest. “Helping America,” he said, “means helping a sovereign nation that is prepared to defend itself from an invasion … with civilians being killed by Vladimir Putin. We should be doing everything the Ukrainians are asking us to do.”
Others have used the crisis to blame what they see as the weakness of the Biden administration. The governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, probably the front runner for the Republican nomination, said that “I don’t think any of this would have happened but for the weakness that the president showed during his first year in office, culminating, of course, in the disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan.” This echoes a wide view on the political right that Putin was emboldened in his ambitions in Ukraine by the humiliating withdrawal from Kabul. While DeSantis may appear less supportive of American aid to Ukraine, it would be a mistake to read too much into this, given that he is a great champion of the Reagan years and has a conservative track record second to none – and there is a perceived political need to counter the manoeuvring of another potential candidate, Donald Trump.
As ever, Trump has been somewhat Delphic in his pronouncements. As President, in September 2019, he spoke at the United Nations saying: “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure. He added: “will we slide down the path of complacency, numb to the challenges, threats, and even wars that we face? Or do we have enough strength and pride to confront those dangers today so that our citizens can enjoy peace and prosperity tomorrow?” Of course, Trump being Trump, he has been critical of the Biden administration, and recently claimed that “my personality kept us out of war… Putin would never ever have gone in. And even now I could solve that in 24-hours”.
While the Democrats in Congress have generally supported the President’s position, some cracks have appeared on the far left of the party, the so-called ‘progressive Democrats’. In a letter to Biden, around 30 of them called on him to make “vigorous diplomatic efforts” towards a “negotiated settlement and ceasefire” with “a rapid end to the conflict.” The letter produced a frosty response from the White House and was hastily retracted.
How do we interpret all of this? At both ends of the political spectrum, there is a tendency to isolation. However, the bipartisan consensus on Ukraine is generally strong. The most powerful policy makers, in particular, take a robust attitude to Russia and see military support for Ukraine as essential to defend the interests of the US and its allies. It is impossible to predict where public opinion will go, but there is a strong recognition that falling public support would only help Putin. So, the consensus is likely to hold. For the foreseeable future, at least.