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What Do the Polls Really Tell Us About Americans’ Support for Ukraine?
Plus: The Ukrainian counteroffensive keeps making slow but steady progress.
ALMOST FROM THE FIRST DAYS of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the narrative of Ukraine’s fortunes in its war of self-defense has been a rollercoaster ride. Ukraine is doomed; Ukraine is succeeding brilliantly against the odds; actually, Ukraine isn’t doing nearly as well as we think it is; the Ukrainian counteroffensive is a triumph; Ukraine’s war effort is stalled and morale is sinking; any day now, the new Ukrainian counteroffensive will smash the occupiers.
Meanwhile, the question of public support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine looms large over this optimism/pessimism cycle: Will Americans continue to support assistance for Ukraine even if it’s not yielding the expected results? Right now, American media and punditry are hovering between cautious optimism and anxious pessimism, about both the course of the war and the battle for public opinion in the United States. Yet, always discounting for the risk of wishful thinking, the real picture on both counts may be considerably better than the pessimistic narrative suggests.
Earlier this month, Ukraine watchers were jolted by a CNN poll which found that a majority of Americans opposed additional funding for Ukraine’s defense. According to the network’s analysis of its findings:
Overall, 55% say the US Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine vs. 45% who say Congress should authorize such funding. And 51% say that the US has already done enough to help Ukraine while 48% say it should do more. A poll conducted in the early days of the Russian invasion in late February 2022 found 62% who felt the US should have been doing more.
Obviously, the drop in the percentage saying that the United States should be doing more to help Ukraine from February 2022 (when we had done relatively little) to July 2023, when we had given $75 billion, is not necessarily indicative of lower support. Still, majority opposition to new funding, coming primarily from Republicans, is worrisome—at least for those of us on Ukraine’s side. The anti-Ukraine squad was, of course, ecstatic:
But do the CNN findings tell us anything new? A look at polls over the course of the past year shows that fluctuations in support levels are normal. In late January, an Associated Press/NORC poll found that 48 percent said they favored the United States providing weapons to Ukraine, while 29 percent were opposed and 22 percent were undecided. In June, however, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 65 percent of respondents (including 56 percent of Republicans) saying that the United States should continue arming Ukraine. In another June poll of 1,203 registered voters by Hart Research, three quarters felt that the United States should continue providing weapons to Ukraine: 40 percent agreed “strongly,” 34 percent with “mixed feelings.”
Also in June, 62 percent of Americans told Gallup that the United States should “support Ukraine in reclaiming territory Russia has captured, even if it results in a more prolonged conflict between the two nations” while only 36 percent favored trying to “end the conflict as quickly as possible, even if it means allowing Russia to keep territory it has captured from Ukraine.” (Republicans were close to an even split on the question, 49 to 47 percent in favor of ending the conflict quickly in apparent shift from January, when the split had been 53 to 41 percent the other way; there was also a 5-point shift in favor of a quick end to the war among independents, but 55 percent of them still supported continued aid even in a prolonged conflict.)
It’s worth recalling that in polls as in many other things, small changes in wording can make a big difference. In the Hart survey, one question meant to gauge support for U.S. aid to Ukraine came in two versions: Some respondents were asked whether “the United States is doing too much, too little, or the right amount to help Ukraine in the war with Russia”; of those, 26 percent picked “too much” while 20 percent picked “too little.” However, when the verb “doing” was changed to “spending,” the share opting for “too much” shot up to 38 percent while the share opting for “too little” dropped to 16 percent. In the CNN poll, it’s possible that the dip in support for aid to Ukraine might have been triggered by the specific phrase “additional funding.”
ASIDE FROM LINGUISTIC VARIATIONS and statistical noise, fluctuations in support for aid to Ukraine may be related to current events. The uptick in the Reuters/Ipsos poll in June may have been related to the mutiny by Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, which at least briefly created the impression that the Putin regime might be tottering (and that it might be potentially replaced by something even scarier). The downturn in July, mostly among Republicans, may have been a reversion to earlier levels. Or it may have been a reaction to reports that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is going badly.
The problems plaguing the counteroffensive—formidable Russian fortifications including minefields and trenches; losses of military hardware and more importantly human lives; arguably, failures of training provided by Western allies and based on methods that cannot be expected to work without air support; finally, exhaustion and discouragement—have been widely reported and discussed since the start of summer. Those problems are all too real, as Ukrainians acknowledge, and candidly discussing them is important. (The suppression of bad news is usually more damaging to morale than the bad news itself, a fact plenty of Russian military personnel could confirm.) But amid all these problems, it’s important to note that some things are going well—and that reports of the “collapse” or “failure” of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, enthusiastically trumpeted by Russian propagandists and their witting or unwitting shills, are not only exaggerated but baseless.
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No, Ukraine has not been able to replicate its fall 2022 feat of sweeping in and retaking thousands of square miles of territory. But by and large, the Ukrainian troops have been making slow and steady progress (recently energized, according to open-source intelligence researcher Ruslan Leviev, by the deployment of newly activated reserves). New weapons such as cluster munitions, which can offset the artillery shell shortage, appear to be making a difference as well. The dramatic breakthrough remains elusive, but here are just some of the recent successes by the Armed Forces of Ukraine:
In the past four days, they have liberated the village of Urozhayne in the Donetsk region and partly or completely liberated nearby Robotyne—land that counts for something even if the villages themselves are now husks emptied of residents. These gains also get Ukrainian troops closer to the two major cities seized by Russia in early 2022 and still under Russian control, Mariupol and Melitopol.
They are gaining ground in the vicinity of Bakhmut, the now-legendary town whose remnants fell to Russia in May after an eight-month siege, and have just thwarted an attempted Russian counterattack in the area, destroying three tanks.
They are successfully holding off a Russian offensive toward Kupyansk, which Russia seized in the war’s early days and lost in last fall’s Ukrainian counteroffensive. (The main purpose of Russian maneuvers near Kupyansk may be to try to seize the initiative and draw Ukrainian forces away from other areas where they are successfully advancing.)
They have carried out an impressive raid across the Dnipro on the Russian-occupied town of Kozachi Laheri (“Cossack Camps”) near Kherson. The captured prisoners include a battalion commander, Major Yuri Tomov, who is now providing the Ukrainians with useful information on Russian positions and fortifications.
They have escalated strikes on the Kerch Bridge and used underwater drones to attack and disable Russian ships.
Ukraine may have made its share of mistakes, among them inflating expectations for the long-awaited counteroffensive. The protracted and grinding war, which includes not only combat casualties but depressingly regular deaths of civilians in Russian bombings, cannot have failed to take a toll on morale. But it’s indisputable that the morale problems on the Russian side are worse. While it’s true that the Russians have learned from some of their mistakes and have shown a fair amount of efficiency in building their fortifications, complaints about virtually untrained recruits still abound (most recently from Major Tomov), and the Russian Army is still doing dumb things like gathering a lot of soldiers in one highly visible place and having them stay there long enough to get pulverized by a HIMARS rocket. What’s more, as journalist Michael Nacke points out, the Russian Army is constantly hampered by lack of “feedback”: The Kremlin’s increasingly draconian use of wartime laws against “discrediting the armed forces” is forcing even many pro-war voyenkory—“war correspondents” or milbloggers—to moderate if not muzzle their reporting on the errors and failings of the Russian military. The arrest of Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, an uber-hawk fiercely critical of Russian military command who was charged with “extremism” in July, had a particularly chilling effect on that group of bloggers.
For all of Putin’s bluster about the alleged failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian political establishment certainly isn’t acting victorious. Even some guests on Russian propaganda shows admit that the counteroffensive hasn’t actually failed (consoling themselves by pointing out that it’s not going “according to plan”) and that “we’re fighting in difficult conditions.” Putin’s bizarre threats to Poland late last month, asserting that some of its territories are “a gift” from Joseph Stalin and implying that they could be taken back if Poland misbehaves, reeked of desperation: a combination of tough-guy posturing and attempt to scare Poland out of supporting Ukraine. Those comments were followed by an even more bizarre episode in which Putin’s ally, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, made obviously scripted remarks in a public meeting with Putin about the Wagner mercenaries, camping out in Belarus in the wake of Prigozhin’s insurrection, itching for a “trip” to Poland. Lukashenko later walked back the comments as a joke—and it now appears that the Wagner group may be leaving Belarus. If there’s a strategy here, it remains well hidden.
This is not the time to hedge on our commitments to Ukraine, or to press for peace talks when Russia continues to insist that it will settle for nothing short of making its land grab legal. Ideally, we would be giving Ukraine long-range missiles and speeding up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets. But even without such steps, good news from the counteroffensive is likely in the coming months—particularly after the first Abrams tanks roll out onto Ukrainian battlefields in September and the first F-16s follow by the end of the year. The West’s goal must remain a victory for Ukraine decisive enough to hold the Putin regime accountable for its criminal war.