Foreign Policy

A Skeptical Public May Stop War With Russia

After disappointment in Afghanistan, Americans show no eagerness for a new conflict.

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War has an irresistible magnetic draw for government officials who are in some sort of trouble. It's often an effective way to redirect a public that's out for political blood toward a new target. For the Biden administration, that designated enemy is Russian and its Bond-villain leader, Vladimir Putin, which seems like a safe distraction from high inflation, domestic tensions, and tanking popularity. Inconveniently for the president and his little helpers, the public may not be all that well-disposed toward Russia's leadership, but it isn't interested in getting into a shooting war.

"I'll be moving U.S. troops to Eastern Europe and the NATO countries in the near term," President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday about America's response to Russia massing forces on the Ukraine border.

"The United States and our Allies and partners continue to prepare for every scenario," the White House doubled down on Monday. "The world must be clear-eyed about the actions Russia is threatening and ready to respond to the risks those actions present to all of us."

This came after Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented that a Russian invasion of Ukraine "would result in a significant amount of casualties….It would be horrific."

The United States, it seems, is staggering toward a conflict with Russia, a diminished but still potent military power. Ukraine is a sympathetic victim, but it's in an almost impossible position given its long border with Russia, its relative vulnerability, and the distance it lies from potential assistance.

Worse, the United States can't expect much help from its NATO allies in shoring-up Ukraine's defenses. Germany not only blocked the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, its naval chief resigned under pressure after suggesting that Putin deserves respect and that Ukraine is a lost cause. "The Crimea Peninsula is gone: It will never come back — this is a fact," he commented. French President Emmanuel Macron takes a similarly independent line, saying "it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia."

Conflict in Eastern Europe with minimal support from key allies looks like a disaster waiting to happen.

The problem is that Biden faces disaster at home, too, and desperately needs something to rally Americans around his presidency if his party is to avoid, or even mitigate, a miserable showing in the mid-term elections. Inflation is now running at the highest rate in 40 years, bringing budgetary misery to millions of Americans. The public is unhappy with the president's handling of the pandemic. Biden "has the second-lowest approval rating of any president one-year in," FiveThirtyEight's Geoffrey Skelley and Jean Yi noted, with his poll numbers exceeded in awfulness only by his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. This wouldn't be the first White House to conclude that domestic woes might be alleviated by prodding the public into shared hate of an overseas adversary. But that only works if the public is amenable to a convenient new war, and that's not the case.

"The White House is grappling with a U.S. population weary of foreign wars as it weighs a response to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine," The Hill's Ellen Mitchell observed this week.

That's no exaggeration. After two decades of fighting and thousands of lives lost, "71% of Americans say the U.S. role in Afghanistan was a 'failure' including majorities of Democrats (66%), Republicans (73%), and independents (75%)," an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found last September.

That war-weariness translates into deep hesitancy about picking a fight with a foe much more capable than the Taliban. Pew Research finds that roughly half of Americans view Russia as a "competitor" to the United States. That's nine points more than the share of the population that views Russia as an "enemy." That predominant view of Russia as competition cuts across members of both major political parties. And while you might go to war with an enemy, you challenge competitors on the sports field, in business, and in diplomacy, not in life-or-death combat.

It's no surprise, then, that "only 31% of Likely U.S. voters think that if Russia attacks Ukraine, U.S. combat troops should be sent to help defend Ukraine," according to polling by Rasmussen Reports. A Trafalgar Group poll put support for troops on the ground even lower, at 15.3 percent.

So, when the Biden administration contemplates war against Russia, it must contend with long supply lines, lukewarm allies, and also a resistant public that has recent and unpleasant memories of the country's last military adventure. 

That doesn't mean that Americans are unsympathetic to Ukraine. It's an underdog country with a bully next door. And wobbly as the country's institutions are, its people are trying to implement something resembling a functioning open society. Ukraine is also not the country massing troops on its neighbor's border. It's a much more appealing party in this conflict than Russia. But even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Biden and company to tone down the drum-beating.

"Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday other world leaders have been overstating the likelihood of war between his country and Russia, causing 'panic' and destabilizing Kyiv's economy," CNN reported. "When asked about his conversation with Biden, Zelenskyy thanked the US President for his support, but said the Russian troop build-up was not much more significant than what he had seen in the past."

"I'm the President of Ukraine, I'm based here, and I think I know the details deeper than any other President," Zelenskyy cautioned. "We don't have any misunderstandings with President Biden. I just deeply understand what is going on in my country just as he understands perfectly well what's going on in the United States."

Unfortunately, what Biden understands is that he and his policies are deeply unpopular with the public. He appears to hope that war might bring the public together against a common enemy and, not incidentally, in support of national political and military leaders.

So far, the American people are unpersuaded. This country just finished (mostly) one unpleasant overseas conflict and the public shows no enthusiasm for embarking on another one that looks even less promising. Ultimately, the best hope for peace with Russia might be the U.S. population's deep weariness with war.