03.02.23 Review

Is the West Experiencing War Fatigue? What Opinion Polls Tell Us About the Willingness of America and Germany to Extend Military Support to Ukraine

Polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that US public support appears to have waned slightly when it comes to sending further military assistance to Ukraine. Across the American media landscape, there is increasing talk of society’s war fatigue. At the same time, in light of Russia’s mass mobilisation and Putin's plans to launch another large-scale offensive against Kyiv, Ukraine urgently needs to be supplied with ultra-modern weapons, including tanks, air defence systems and long-range missiles. Yet these supplies largely hinge upon the support of two countries — the US and Germany — where there is no public consensus on the issue of increasing military aid. Nevertheless, an analysis of changing public sentiment indicates that the citizens of these two countries still largely agree on the need to stop the Kremlin from achieving its goals. A shift in the balance of power on the frontlines in favour of Russia will lead to widespread public support for military aid for Ukraine.

Polling by the Pew Research Center (PRC) indicates certain shifts in American attitudes regarding the supply of military assistance to Ukraine. According to the centre, in January 2023, the proportion of Americans who believed that this assistance was excessive reached 26%, compared with 20% in September and just 12% in May 2022. The issue of support for Ukraine still enjoys broad bipartisan support from both the Democrats and Republicans, yet neither party can reach a consensus when it comes to the issue of how much aid should be supplied. Polls demonstrate that Republicans are more likely to characterise the aid sent as excessive: in January, 40% of GOP supporters polled were of the opinion that the amount of support already offered to Ukraine was excessive. This is an increase from the 32% who expressed this view in the autumn, while in May it was just 17%. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to vote in favour of providing more aid. Although the number of Democratic Party supporters who believe that the United States is not providing sufficient assistance has stabilised at around 20-23%, this is a decrease from the 30% of polled Democrats who held that opinion in May.

There has also been a shift in the way that the American public evaluates the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an existential threat to the United States. According to PRC polling, in March 2022, 51% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats believed that the invasion posed a serious threat to U.S. interests. But by January 2023, the number of Republicans who agreed with this statement had fallen to 29%, while the number of Democrats also declined, although to a lesser extent (to 43%). This can be explained by the fact that, as the conflict develops, Americans have begun to view Russia as a much weaker country than they had imagined prior to the war. This is reflected in their changing attitudes towards the conflict itself, which appear to have become increasingly removed and pragmatic.

These changing views mark a distinct trend in American public opinion, but this shift does not appear to be critical at this point. In general, according to the PRC data, 43% of Americans approve of the current administration's policy regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, compared with 34% who disapprove. However, in the context of a protracted war and Ukraine’s growing need for larger quantities of modern weapons, this trend is starting to emerge as an obstacle for the current US government when it comes to sending military aid.

RAND Corporation experts Rafael Cohen and Gian Gentile have set forth a number of arguments as to why the idea that American society has grown tired of the war and that the Biden administration will react accordingly is more myth than reality. First,  despite the Republican’s pre-campaign rhetoric, support for Ukraine remains a matter of bipartisan consensus. Congress has already passed several bipartisan aid packages to Ukraine, including last week’s package worth $45 billion. Second, Cohen and Gentile argue that Americans do not like to lose, and they will only distance themselves from the conflict in the event of the combination of heavy losses and significant financial expenses. Providing aid to Ukraine is incomparable to the financial and human losses the US suffered as a result of three years of conflict in Korea, almost nine years in Iraq, and twenty years in Vietnam and Afghanistan. To add to this, Americans are not feeling the burden of the European energy crisis. Finally, the experts note that fluctuations in public opinion are greatly influenced by the current media cycle, and people’s engagement with the war has been affected by a lack of notable media events. As such, if Russia engages in any shocking tactics, such as using weapons of mass destruction or once again trying to capture Kyiv, this will lead to both renewed anti-Russian sentiment, and to a revived willingness to support Ukraine. This final point is crucial: having betted on a war of attrition, the Kremlin hopes that the international community’s attention will eventually wane. We are beginning to see signs of this fatigue, but this is only because the war is currently at a stalemate.

Experts at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs have also predicted that further support for Kyiv has a direct relationship with public perceptions of who is winning the war. Their November polls indicated that there is an equal number (26%) of Americans who believe that Russia holds the advantage on the battlefield and who believe that Ukraine is winning. The remainder are of the opinion that neither side is at an advantage. According to the think tank’s data, an overwhelming majority of Americans continue to support arming Ukraine (65%), providing it with economic assistance (66%) and toughening sanctions against Russia (75%). At the same time, almost half of respondents (47%) believe that Washington should attempt to convince Kyiv to sue for a peace agreement as soon as possible, in July only 38% supported this idea. 

American public support for Ukraine remains strong, and people continue to believe that the US needs to provide Ukraine with assistance. The main issue is to what extent Americans are willing to extend that aid, particularly in regards to sending more powerful weapons, as this move may potentially be interpreted as a potential trigger for escalation. There is also the issue of the additional expenditure on the production of these weapons, as existing stocks have been depleted.

The second key power in the Western coalition — Germany — raises these same issues. According to a survey conducted in early January 2023 by ARD-DeutschlandTrend, the number of Germans who believe that the current levels of military aid being supplied to Ukraine are insufficient has risen (it stands at 25%, up by several points compared to November). On the other hand, 26% of Germans surveyed believe that the amount of aid that has already been supplied to Kyiv is excessive, while 41% find the current level of support adequate. This data suggests that German society has failed to reach a consensus regarding the supply of additional arms to Ukraine. Nonetheless, there has been a significant change in public opinion since March 2022, when 67% of Germans approved of supplying light weapons to Ukraine, but only 31% of respondents supported the supply of heavy weapons. In January 2023, after intense public debate, Germany quickly changed its legislative rules, announcing a u-turn on the supply of tanks to Ukraine. To add to this, according to data from the ARD-DeutschlandTrend survey, German society appears to have accepted this move as part of the ‘new normal’.