Poll: Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

IR scholars think Moscow is likely to use military force, but they suggest Washington should exercise restraint.

A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of tanks in the snow.
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of tanks in the snow.
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of tanks parked at a base near Klugino-Bashkirivka, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Jan. 31. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

In the past six weeks, Russia has increased its military deployments surrounding Ukraine, threatening action if the United States and NATO do not meet its diplomatic demands: specifically, a legally binding commitment that NATO will not grant membership to Ukraine and will halt further expansion toward Russian borders. In December 2021, the United States responded that the alliance’s open-door policy would not change.

Although a series of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and Russian diplomats have followed, more than 100,000 Russian forces remain near the border with Ukraine. Even as they search for ways to deter military force, many analysts and even the U.S. President Joe Biden have predicted that Russia will take such action. Other observers confidently assert that Russia is bluffing and likely will not attack.

What do international relations experts predict will happen next, and how should the United States respond? The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project at the College of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and the Sie Center at the University of Denver asked IR scholars at U.S. universities and colleges for their views on the Russia-Ukraine crisis as part of a larger survey. The results we report below are based on responses from 362 experts between Dec. 16, 2021, and Jan. 27.

In the past six weeks, Russia has increased its military deployments surrounding Ukraine, threatening action if the United States and NATO do not meet its diplomatic demands: specifically, a legally binding commitment that NATO will not grant membership to Ukraine and will halt further expansion toward Russian borders. In December 2021, the United States responded that the alliance’s open-door policy would not change.

Although a series of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and Russian diplomats have followed, more than 100,000 Russian forces remain near the border with Ukraine. Even as they search for ways to deter military force, many analysts and even the U.S. President Joe Biden have predicted that Russia will take such action. Other observers confidently assert that Russia is bluffing and likely will not attack.

What do international relations experts predict will happen next, and how should the United States respond? The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project at the College of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and the Sie Center at the University of Denver asked IR scholars at U.S. universities and colleges for their views on the Russia-Ukraine crisis as part of a larger survey. The results we report below are based on responses from 362 experts between Dec. 16, 2021, and Jan. 27.

The respondents expect Russia to use military force in Ukraine by about a 3-1 margin, although an important minority expressed genuine uncertainty. Despite this, IR scholars generally think the United States should avoid a direct military confrontation. Perhaps surprisingly, the responses did not vary much over the period of study, suggesting these predictions were not sensitive to headlines or day-to-day changes on the ground. (Complete results can be found here.)

The Biden administration may be thinking along the same lines as the IR experts: A Russian invasion of Ukraine is more likely than not, but significant uncertainty remains. The challenge it faces is to select responses that impose costs on Russia but limit the risks of escalation. On that score, IR scholars widely endorse some of the steps the United States has taken so far, including sending military aid to Ukraine and threatening significant new economic sanctions on Russia.


How likely is war?

When asked if Russia will use military force against Ukrainian troops or in any unoccupied parts of Ukrainian territory in the next year, 56 percent of IR experts said yes, and only 20 percent said no. Although 56 percent does not represent an overwhelming consensus, it certainly does not provide comfort for those hoping for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The expert response suggests chances are high that armed conflict will intensify in Ukraine.

Respondents who reported having deep expertise in international security were more likely to predict that Russia will use force (62 percent) than their colleagues who do not specialize in international security (51 percent). Meanwhile, area studies specialists with expertise in Russia or Eastern Europe did not make substantially different predictions from their colleagues: 60 percent of regional experts said Russia will use military force, versus 58 percent of other respondents.


What should the United States do about it?

IR scholars overwhelmingly agree the United States should exercise restraint if current deterrence efforts fail and Russia uses military force in Ukraine. The survey provided six policy responses, allowing respondents to check all that apply.

The results show no appetite among the experts for direct military action against Russian forces; fewer than 3 percent of respondents selected this option. The IR scholars’ foreign-policy tool of choice appears to be sanctions: Nearly 90 percent of respondents advocate the use of sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion.

Respondents were also widely supportive of so-called lethal aid, with 73 percent saying the U.S. should send additional arms and military supplies to Ukraine. A significant minority (41 percent) also support initiating offensive cyberoperations against Russian military forces, and 27 percent of respondents said the United States should send military forces to the wider region.

Finally, 22 percent of scholars say the United States should “formally guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” This finding is difficult to interpret, especially given the nearly unanimous opposition to the use of direct military force. A formal guarantee could mean granting Ukraine NATO membership, but it could also simply mean continuing the status quo. The United States (and all United Nations member states) already formally recognize the territorial integrity of other member states.

Conventional wisdom suggests that IR scholars and the bipartisan U.S. foreign-policy establishment are overwhelmingly internationalist in their orientation. In this view, world order requires U.S. leadership, whether the goal is to protect human rights, freedom of navigation, a stable global monetary system, or the sovereign borders of nation-states. In the past 30 years, realism and restraint have been in short supply in both the academy and among U.S. decision-makers.

However, despite the growing prevalence of liberal internationalist arguments within the academy, the experts surveyed appear wary of any policy that risks military escalation by enforcing international norms in the face of Russian aggression. These results suggest that IR scholars are likely to be sympathetic to the Biden administration’s current course.

Irene Entringer Garcia Blanes is a project manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy project at William & Mary. Twitter: @EntringerIrene

Ryan Powers is an assistant professor of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Twitter: @rmpowers

Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves professor of government and international relations and the chair of the Department of Government at William & Mary.

Michael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton professor of international relations and director of the Global Research Institute at William & Mary. Twitter: @MikeTierneyIR

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