April 17, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

Less is More: American Views on Ukraine

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

In today's post, we would like to highlight two surveys that were conducted in late March that have not been amplified as much as Pew, Gallup, and other polls about American attitudes on the situation in Ukraine. One survey was conducted by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute between March 26-31, and the other was conducted by the Reason Foundation and the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation (the Reason-Rupe poll; fieldwork by Princeton Survey Research Associates International) between March 26-30. While the Reason Foundation's mission statement includes "advancing a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles," their survey questions are objective and do not lean libertarian, and PSRAI is an excellent polling firm.

Approval Ratings

Robert Kagan's recent editorial "President Obama's Foreign Policy Paradox" in the Washington Post (explaining why Americans dislike the foreign policy they desire) left us wondering what Americans think of the President's management of the situation in Ukraine. Specifically, how do American approval ratings of Obama’s policy on Ukraine mesh with actions they would actually applaud him for doing (or not doing) in this particular case.

The Quinnipiac poll found that more disapprove (47%) than approve (41%) of the way the president has handled "the situation involving Russia and Ukraine." The Reason-Rupe survey similarly found just slightly more disapproving (40%) than approving (37%) of the "way Barack Obama is handling the situation in Ukraine." There are wide partisan differences on this question, as you might expect. In both cases, solid majorities of Democrats approve of the President's management of the Ukraine crisis, while solid majorities of Republicans disapprove (a plurality of Independents also disapprove).

According to Reason-Rupe data, there is a great deal of overlap between the portion of Americans who approve of Obama’s job performance as president (overall, 43% approve and 51% disapprove) and assessments of his handling of the Ukraine situation. Seven in ten of those who approve of his performance as president also approve of his policy on Ukraine; seven in ten of those who disapprove of his performance as president also disapprove of his policy on Ukraine. Only one in ten Americans differs from this pattern.

Too Tough, Too Weak, or Just Right?

The problem with approval-disapproval type questions is that it is difficult to discern from toplines alone whether people are critical because they feel the US should be doing more, less or something different. Fortunately, the Quinnipiac survey asked a separate question and found that Americans think it is more important to avoid getting "too involved" in the situation (54%) than it is "to take a firm stand against Russian actions" (39%). Similarly, another Quinnipiac question found that a plurality say that Barack Obama's dealing with the situation has been about right (45%), versus not tough enough (36%) or too tough (6%). In a standoff between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama, Americans are equally divided on who is the stronger leader (42% for both).

Let's look more closely at support for the possible array of options available (or at least, those available in polling questions).


The Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of Americans support the US and its European allies imposing economic sanctions against Russia, while slightly smaller majorities supported sanctions in this case in March 5-9 CNN/ORC (59%) and in March 7-9 ABC News/Washington Post (57%) surveys. But ABC/WP reported that only 40 percent supported sanctions if they were imposed by the US alone. The CNN/ORC poll also found a majority opposed to canceling the summit meeting between "Russia and the US and its Western allies" (58% oppose, 40% favor).

Beyond Sanctions

Few Americans support more forceful action. One in three (31%) says they would prefer the US to continue imposing economic sanctions given Russia's "invasion of Ukraine," though 58 percent say they would prefer to stay out of the situation between Russia and Ukraine altogether (8% prefer to send US military troops).

Other polls show similar results: The CNN/ORC survey showed large majorities opposed to sending US ground troops (88%), US airstrikes but no ground troops (82%), or the US sending weapons and other military supplies to the Ukrainian government (76%). None of these questions asked about a multilateral military action, however, which is a far more likely option than unilateral US military action. This doesn't mean that Americans don't care about the situation in Ukraine. Several surveys show that majorities of Americans are following the situation at least somewhat closely and a majority in the Quinnipiac survey express concern that the current situation "could develop into a larger regional conflict that could lead to the US military getting involved" (80%, including 39% very concerned). But while a plurality consider Ukraine a friendly country (47%), only 17 percent consider Ukraine to be an "ally" according to a March 22-23 Gallup poll.

With an eye to the future, the Reason-Rupe poll asked respondents about possible actions if Russia invades additional parts of Ukraine. In this case, 61 percent would favor imposing stricter economic sanctions, but no more than a third would favor sending US military aid and weapons to the Ukrainian government (33%) or sending US troops (20%).

Unpacking Disapproval

Recapping the range of results, then, roughly 40 percent of Americans seem to disapprove of Obama's handling of the Ukrainian situation. Yet, no more than about a third of Americans would support sending troops or military equipment, and multilateral sanctions are the only tool that Americans seem to endorse at this point. Furthermore, only 17 percent of Americans characterize Ukraine as an ally.

On the surface, it seems that some of the criticism about US policy on Ukraine must be based either on a desire to stay out of the situation altogether and/or on partisan disdain for the President overall. Thankfully, the Reason-Rupe poll also released a number of crosstabulations, letting us look a bit deeper into the data.

As the figure above illustrates, whether or not Americans approve of the President’s handling of the Ukraine situation, they are more inclined to want to stay out of the conflict altogether; this is especially true of those who disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the situation (47% among those who approve, 61% among those who disapprove). Those who approve of his policy are more likely than those who disapprove to support continuing sanctions (42% among those who approve, 26% of those who disapprove). Only about one in ten of those who approve and disapprove supports sending US military troops and assets.

Looking at the options by partisan divides, opinions are even more similar, with nearly six in ten among Republicans, Democrats and Independents opting to stay out of the conflict (see figure below). So in this case, why don’t American’s like the President’s foreign policy on Ukraine? Very few seem to disapprove because they want the President to do more. Rather, it seems that they either want him to do even less--or they just might not like the President.



The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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