Restraint Amid Russian Aggression

Following the global unity accompanying the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the world was witness to what Secretary of State John Kerry referred to as “an act of aggression” by Russia. The ongoing international crisis between Russia and the Ukraine over Crimea has heightened diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia, while simultaneously grabbing the public’s attention.  The effects of the crisis have created speculation and indecisiveness among the public about the best course of action to mitigate the impact on diplomatic relations with Russia.

Fully 69% of Americans have heard “a lot” or “some” about Russia sending in troops to the region and Crimea’s referendum to declare independence and join Russia (CBS News Poll, March 2014).  And, while awareness surrounding this issue is high, there is equally strong condemnation towards Russia’s actions.  Three-fourths of Americans (72%) do not believe there is any justification for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while 81% consider it a violation of international law (CNN/ORC Poll, March 2014).

As a result, the consequences of Russia’s actions have impacted the way American’s perceive the country as a whole.  Prior to the military intervention, 44% of Americans considered Russia to be an ally or at least friendly to the United States, while 50% believed them to be unfriendly or an enemy (Gallup Poll, September 2013).  After Russia sent troops into Crimea, this number jumped to the point that now 68% of Americans view Russia as unfriendly or an enemy, and only 26% consider them an ally/friend (Gallup Poll, March 2014).

To put this drop into greater context, consider Russia’s last “act of aggression” when they invaded Georgia in 2008. A year prior to sending troops into Georgia, 54% of Americans believed Russia was not friendly or an enemy to the U.S. (Harris Poll, July 2007).  Following the conflict, a relatively unchanged 53% of Americans viewed Russia as unfriendly or an enemy (ABC News/Washington Post Poll, August 2008) – indicating the Georgia-Russia conflict did little to influence American opinion of Russia in the same way the situation in Crimea has impacted perceptions.

Further, as a result of the Crimean conflict, 69% of Americans view Vladimir Putin unfavorably, which is the highest unfavorable rating of any Russian president since the fall of the Soviet Union (Gallup Poll, March 2014). In comparison, the lowest point in Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, based on American sentiment, was during the First Chechen War where 44% had an unfavorable opinion of him (Gallup Poll, January 1995).

The question is, in the midst of condemnation of Russia’s actions, what do we do from here?  In terms of American public opinion, the answer is not clear.

Despite 69% of Americans believing that the situation between Russia and Ukraine will become a more widespread conflict involving neighboring countries (CBS News Poll, March 2014), the general consensus among the public is to show restraint.  Only 35% believe the U.S. needs to take a firm stand against Russia, while 52% agree we should not get too involved (Pew Research Center, March 2014).

The underlying reason for resistance to any significant involvement is both a perceived lack of impact and responsibility.  57% of Americans believe the situation is beyond the control of the U.S., while most Americans (61%) feel we do not have a responsibility to do something in Crimea – including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents (CBS News Poll, March 2014).

When considering options on how to handle this situation – through diplomatic means or otherwise – the only consideration that carries any support among the public is sanctions.  Fully 56% of Americans approve of the U.S. and Europe placing sanctions against Russia in response.  However, support for this initiative is half-hearted as only 32% of Americans believe the sanctions will be effective and 58% think the sanctions will ultimately be ineffective (CBS News Poll, March 2014).

For more or less the past decade, Americans have had relatively positive views of Russia. But when Russia acts aggressively, we see fluctuation and old concerns reemerge.  According to the most recent Gallup poll, 50% of Americans think the U.S. and Russia are heading back towards a Cold War (Gallup poll, March 2014).  Similarly, the situation in Georgia created the same concern in 2008, where 62% were very or somewhat concerned about headed towards a Cold War (ABC News/Washington Post Poll, August 2008).

With uncertainty about the best course of action, the public finds itself embracing restraint over involvement.  In general, 58% of Americans do not think the U.S. should take the leading role in trying to solve international conflicts (CBS News Poll, March 2014) – a sentiment reaffirmed in the current situation.  Any instances of Russian aggression mix new and old politics, keeping Americans observant and cautious as events unfold. But, the public consensus is to remain uninvolved and engage only in sanctions to avoid direct U.S. participation in the Crimean conflict.

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