The Pulse

Let’s Sit This One Out

Western publics have little appetite for getting tough on Putin for Moscow's Crimean invasion.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While Western leaders scramble to devise a response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and pundits fulminate about a new Cold War, European and American publics have spoken. They empathize with Ukrainians’ plight, but they do not want to get involved.

About two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans say Russia’s intervention in Ukraine was unjustified. Nevertheless, more than half want Washington to stay out of the situation, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Meanwhile, separate European surveys show a similar disinclination to take forceful action. Germans, in particular, oppose economic sanctions against Russia.

In the days and weeks ahead, as the West calibrates its response to Moscow’s actions, leaders in Washington and Europe face a domestic challenge. Their publics are wary of a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

More than half (56 percent) of the American public says that the most important thing for the U.S. government to do in response to the situation in Ukraine is to not get too involved. And this is a bipartisan reaction: 50 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of Democrats, and 62 percent of independents hold this view.

Only 29 percent of the public wants Washington to take a firm stand with the Russians on Ukraine. That includes the 19 percent that would consider only economic and political options and just 8 percent who back military action.

A separate new CNN survey asked different questions but found much the same public reluctance to get involved. Roughly six in 10 (59 percent) Americans in the CNN poll say they would support economic sanctions against Russia. But only 46 percent back economic aid to Ukraine and only 23 percent support military assistance. Just four in 10 say the G8 summit to be hosted by Russia this year should be canceled. And only a very small portion of the public is in favor of U.S. military strikes (17 percent) or the introduction of American ground troops (12 percent) in response to Russia’s actions.

Another recent survey, this one done by ABC News and the Washington Post, found that just 40 percent of Americans support economic sanctions against Russia if the United States is forced to impose them alone. That proportion rises to 56 percent if sanctions are imposed in conjunction with America’s European allies.

But early indications are that the Europeans are not that supportive of taking action. Close economic ties with Russia appear to make them more wary of coming to Ukraine’s aid or getting tough with Moscow.

Russians bought 38.1 billion euros in exports from Germany in 2012, making Russia a better market for Germany than Spain, Japan, or India, according to German government trade statistics. And Germans imported 42.8 billion euros in goods and services from Russia, much of it in the form of natural gas. Fully 35 percent of the gas Germany uses to heat its homes and power its generators comes from Russia.  

Given that dependence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s apparent reluctance to get tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to reflect the sentiment of her citizens. Just 12 percent of Germans back military cooperation with Kiev, according to an early March survey by Infratest dimap for German public broadcaster ARD and the newspaper Die Welt. Only 38 percent say they favor economic sanctions against Russia. Moreover, 77 percent oppose exclusion of Russia from the G8 group of advanced economies and 92 percent oppose severing diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Germans are, however, willing to back the new Kiev government with money: 72 percent support economic help for Ukraine.

The United Kingdom has its own economic ties with Russia that appear to curb public enthusiasm for getting tough over Ukraine. A great deal of Russian money flows through British banks (according to one study Russians spent over 500 million pounds on London property in 2012 alone). Given such economic ties and lukewarm public sentiment, it is little wonder that a British government document was recently photographed outside the prime minister’s residence that read that Britain "should not support, for now, trade sanctions …. or close London’s financial centre to Russians."

As Europe and the United States struggle to come up with a unified response to Russia’s military encroachment in Ukraine, one of their biggest challenges may be to convince their publics to take any strong action at all.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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