By Tom Brown
There’s little support among Americans for a major U.S. role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, according to a new poll, even as President Joe Biden imposes new sanctions and threatens a stronger response that could provoke retaliation from Moscow.
Biden has acknowledged a growing likelihood that war in Eastern Europe would affect Americans, though he has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine. Gas prices in the U.S. could rise in the short term. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has a range of tools he could use against the U.S., including cyberattacks hitting critical infrastructure and industries.
“Defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home,” Biden said Tuesday. “We need to be honest about that.”
Just 26 percent say the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Fifty-two percent say a minor role; 20 percent say none at all.
The findings are a reminder for Biden and fellow Democrats that while the crisis may consume Washington in the coming months, pocketbook issues are likely to be a bigger priority for voters heading into the midterm elections. A December AP-NORC poll showed that Americans are particularly focused on economic issues, including rising inflation.
The Biden administration has argued that supporting Ukraine is a defense of fundamental American values and has made a concerted effort to declassify intelligence findings underscoring the dangers it sees for Ukraine and the wider European region. But the survey shows widespread public skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict, 32 percent to 22 percent. Overall, the poll shows 43 percent of Americans now approve of Biden’s handling of the U.S. relationship with Russia, a downtick from 49 percent in June of last year.
Despite the clear reluctance about major involvement in the conflict, Americans are hardly looking at Russia through rose-colored glasses. The poll finds 53 percent say they’re very or extremely concerned that Russia’s influence around the world poses a threat to the U.S., an uptick from 45 percent in August 2021.
Jennifer Rau, a 51-year-old mother of three adopted teenagers who lives on Chicago’s South Side, said she listens to local public radio for her world news. But in recent days, when the news turns to Russia and Ukraine, she has started to turn it off.
“I’m so frustrated. It’s enough. We’re bombarded,” Rau said. “There are other stories in Chicago that need to be covered.”
Rau is a political independent who voted for Biden. But she believes the U.S. gets involved in foreign wars to make money. She is more concerned about rising crime in Chicago, the prevalence of guns, and systemic racism that affects her three children, who are Hispanic.
“I just feel like there’s a war going on in the United States, every day, in Chicago,” she said. “And it is really scary. And I feel like no one helps us.”
Edward Eller, a 67-year-old retiree from Shady Valley, Tennessee, said the White House needs to focus on lowering oil prices.
“They want to send millions of dollars of ours to stop a war that we have nothing to do with,” he said. “I’m sorry they’re involved in a mess, but it’s not our problem.”
The poll was conducted Friday to Monday during a period of rapidly escalating tensions, culminating with Putin recognizing the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, widely seen in the West as a step toward a wider war. Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked since 2014 in fighting that’s killed 14,000 people.
Asked on Tuesday why people in the U.S. should have to sacrifice for the conflict, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “This is about standing up for American values.”
“We have repeatedly throughout history been leaders in the world in rallying support for any effort to seize territory from another country,” she said.
Russia has massed at least 150,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine and continues to establish bridges, camps, and logistics necessary for a protracted invasion. U.S. officials believe Putin could attack Ukraine at any time. A full-on war in Ukraine could result in thousands of deaths and huge numbers of refugees fleeing for the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs with more measures possible this week.
The White House has warned in increasingly strong words about a Russian invasion while trying to persuade Putin against launching one. It has declassified Russian troop positions and detailed allegations of “false-flag” plots that could set a pretext for a military attack on Ukraine.
However, the poll shows there remains skepticism among Americans of the U.S. intelligence community. Only 23 percent said they had a “great deal of confidence” in intelligence agencies. Another 52 percent say they have some confidence and 24 percent have hardly any.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, says the intelligence he’s received on Ukraine “has been very, very good. Sadly, it’s been accurate.” But he often hears from constituents who are uninterested in Ukraine and more focused on health care and the coronavirus pandemic.
Over time, Quigley said, he has developed comments about why Ukraine matters to the U.S.: its role as a strategic ally and a “sovereign democratic nation at Putin’s doorstep,” and how a new war could hit already disrupted technology supply chains that use exports from Russia and Ukraine.
Among Russia’s biggest threats to Americans is its capability to wage cyberwarfare. Previous Russia-linked cyberattacks have cut off services at hospitals and breached the servers of American government agencies. A ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline linked to a Russia-based hacking group temporarily shut down gas stations across the East Coast. And Russia was accused of interfering in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
“I think it’s an incredibly difficult time to message because of everything else that’s topping the list of what Americans care about. It’s hard to bump COVID, inflation, safety issues away,” Quigley said. “But you’ve got to try.”