Will the cost of supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia undermine U.S. public support for Ukraine? Rising inflation, high energy costs and fear of further escalation have led to speculation about public fatigue with the Ukrainian struggle, particularly as the midterm elections near.
U.S. support for Ukraine has been high from the outset — across the partisan divide, even as Democrats have been more supportive than Republicans. Some prominent Republicans have questioned support for Ukraine and argue against confrontation with Russia, raising the prospect of declining public support for Kyiv, especially among Republican voters.
But our latest round of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll finds that’s not the case, compared with our previous poll, in June. U.S. support for Ukraine remains high — perhaps in part because of a sharp rise in the perception that Ukraine is succeeding, while Russia is failing.
Is the U.S. public prepared to pay a price for supporting Ukraine?
The latest poll was fielded Oct. 7 to 10 by SSRS, among a national sample of 1,029 adult U.S. respondents. Surveys were collected using SSRS’s probability-based panel both online and via telephone (for non-internet and internet-reluctant respondents). The margin of error is 3.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
The survey found the American public is prepared to pay high energy costs to help Ukraine, roughly along the lines of the June results: 60 percent overall said they were prepared to do so, including 80 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans. In June, 62 percent indicated they were prepared to pay high energy costs, with 78 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans in agreement.
On inflation, 57 percent of respondents said they were prepared to accept rising prices as the United States helps Ukraine, including 74 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans (compared with 58 percent overall in the June survey and 72 percent of Democrats, 39 percent of Republicans).
Republicans in October’s survey were more willing to accept increased energy costs (a four-point change) and rising inflation (almost a six-point change) than Republicans in the June survey. Those results seem to conflict with the apparent change in the Republican public discourse about Ukraine.
It’s also notable that higher-income Americans tended to be less tolerant of the cost of supporting Ukraine. For example, 54 percent of respondents earning over $100,000 a year said they are prepared to pay higher energy costs, and 50 percent indicated they’d accept rising inflation, compared with 63 percent and 59 percent, respectively, of those earning under $100,000 a year. In part, this may be because respondents under the age of 30 tended to be more prepared to pay a price for supporting Ukraine — 72 percent said they’d accept higher energy prices and 71 percent said they’d accept rising inflation) compared with those over 30 (58 percent and 54 percent, respectively).
Most Americans remain averse to paying a cost in terms of the lives of U.S. troops. But the October survey showed a slight uptick in the preparedness to risk the lives of American soldiers: 38 percent, compared with 32 percent in June. That reflects a three-point change among Democrats, from 37 percent in June to 40 percent in October, and a greater shift among Republicans, from 22 percent in June to 35 percent in October.
Who is winning in Ukraine?
The biggest change from June to October has been the U.S. public’s assessment of which side is winning. The latest survey results probably reflect recent Ukrainian successes in reclaiming Russian-occupied territories, coupled with reports of significant Russian losses.
The October survey results indicate a substantial bump in the number of Republicans and Democrats who say Russia is failing and Ukraine is succeeding. Almost half of all Americans surveyed in October (48 percent) said Russia is failing (including 57 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans), compared with 29 percent overall in June (including 33 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of Republicans). When asked about Ukraine, 43 percent in October said Ukraine is succeeding (58 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans), compared with June’s 27 percent finding (32 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans).
Overall, those who thought Russia is failing or Ukraine is succeeding tended to be more willing to pay a price in increased energy costs and rising inflation. For example, of Americans who believe Russia is failing, 67 percent are willing to pay higher energy prices, and 60 percent are prepared to see increased inflation. Among Americans who believe Ukraine is succeeding, 69 percent are willing to pay higher energy prices, and 62 percent are prepared to see increased inflation. This is in comparison to the 60 percent and 57 percent of Americans in general who are prepared to see higher energy prices and increased inflation, respectively.
At the same time, those who said Russia is failing or Ukraine is succeeding tended to be somewhat less willing to risk the lives of American troops — bucking the trend on energy costs and rising inflation. While 38 percent of all respondents say they are prepared to risk the lives of U.S. troops, 32 percent say the same among those who say Russia is failing, and 32 percent among those who say Ukraine is succeeding.
Although it is difficult to assess the exact reasoning for these findings, it’s possible that the minority of Americans who are prepared to risk the lives of American troops prioritize the mission to help Ukraine win, and thus are expressing a preparedness to escalate the cost if current efforts fail.
As the midterm elections near, foreign policy issues — including U.S. support for Ukraine — may not be a top priority of voters. But at a time when the Biden administration increasingly throws its weight behind Ukraine, the American public continues to say they are prepared to pay for backing Ukraine, even if the cost is rising inflation, which ranks high among voters’ priorities. The increasing U.S. public perception that Ukraine is winning — and Russia is losing — may be one reason for the robust support for Ukraine eight months into the war.
Shibley Telhami (@ShibleyTelhami) is a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, professor of government and politics, and director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.