The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are united on Ukraine — and in their uncertainty about what’s next

While leaving the White House on March 2, Ash Wednesday, President Biden responded to questions about the war in Ukraine and the season of Lent. (Video: The Washington Post)
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One thing is plainly evident right now: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united the American body politic in a way few things have in recent years, at least broadly speaking. High-profile conservatives who until very recently promoted a nuanced view of Russia and President Vladimir Putin — and even apologized for them and their territorial ambitions — have seen that view quickly fall out of favor. President Biden seized upon that unity at Tuesday’s State of the Union address and drew sustained, bipartisan applause for his lines about combating Russia and standing with Ukraine.

But while that unity is nice and is worth plenty, it masks the tough decisions that lie ahead. And a new poll reinforces how tough those decisions will be. Because just as our views of the conflict are largely bipartisan, so, too, is uncertainty about what comes next.

An Economist/YouGov poll shows huge majorities of both parties approve of the sanctions that have been levied against Russia to date. But large numbers also doubt those sanctions will be sufficient to halt the invasion. Thus, another idea that crosses partisan lines is the desire to do more — to get “tougher” on Russia. Fully 61 percent of President Donald Trump voters and even 51 percent of Biden’s voters agree with that statement. That is significant — the idea that even Biden’s supporters think more should be done.

Exactly how that should be manifested is another matter.

Americans generally agree that directly fighting in the war, which Biden has said he won’t do, is a non-starter. Combat troops and airstrikes — either using aircraft or drones — earn more than 2-to-1 opposition.

But there are instances in which people are willing to be more forceful.

One of them is to send soldiers to help Ukraine without engaging in combat. Overall, 33 percent say that’s a good idea, while 38 percent say it’s a bad idea. (Democrats are more in favor, and many people are understandably not sure about where they stand.)

Americans are also split 35-35 on whether to launch cyberattacks against Russia.

Perhaps the most provocative idea that garners significant support is a no-fly zone, which 45 percent support and 20 percent oppose. But most casual observers probably don’t realize how likely it would be that this could lead to a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia; no-fly zones, after all, require enforcement, and the White House and experts have acknowledged this would be akin to going to war with Russia.

There is also bipartisan resolve behind not giving Russia some of the big concessions that some have floated. The poll asked about several concessions that could be given to Russia in exchange for ending its invasion, but Americans aren’t biting. They oppose allowing Russia greater influence over former Soviet countries 65 percent to 9 percent, rolling back NATO troop deployments in Eastern Europe 48-16, and promising that Ukraine won’t join NATO 48-17. That last one is a position supported by some Republicans such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), at least before the invasion.

Americans oppose all three, it bears emphasizing, with the potential end of the invasion on the other side of the scale. That certainly reinforces the desire to get tough.

Also looming over it all is how much sacrifice Americans are truly willing to offer in the name of getting tough. While there is broad support for sanctions, the poll reinforces how that support drops significantly if and when it leads to higher domestic gas prices. While two-thirds support additional sanctions, just 40 percent say they would support those additional sanctions if it meant higher gas prices. And this, too, is bipartisan, with support for sanctions that lead to hikes in gas prices falling below a majority for both Democrats (49 percent) and Republicans (40 percent). (This is not the first poll to suggest rising gas prices could compromise our currently united posture.)

So if you’re the Biden administration, you’re left with some not easily reconcilable choices: a public that overwhelmingly supports Ukraine and wants to do more to help but without obvious choices on how to do so. At least for now, there seems to be a significant level of agreement about what is and isn’t wise. But that doesn’t mean the result is going to be satisfactory — and that goes exponential if Ukraine’s military is unable to keep exceeding expectations in repelling the Russians.