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How united is the West on Russia?

Public risk perceptions in NATO countries shifted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our surveys found

A worker places flags outside the NATO Summit building on June 27 in Madrid. (Manu Fernandez/AP)
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NATO leaders meeting in Madrid last week announced a surge of troops to defend the alliance’s eastern borders and endorsed the alliance’s new Strategic Concept. As our new public opinion data show, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a convergence of views among NATO’s most powerful members.

In the Strategic Concept, NATO allies describe Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” Surveys now show people in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States have become more willing to push back against Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point

Our Munich Security Index analyzes public risk perceptions in the G-7 nations, as well as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the BRICS — through surveys conducted by Kekst CNC, a global communications firm. Participants from the adult population are drawn from online research panels using a random stratified design aimed at producing a sample that’s representative of age, gender and region. Previous editions of the index were based on two waves in March and November 2021, respectively.

What to watch for at this week’s NATO summit

In the run-up to this year’s G-7 summit and NATO summit, we conducted a new wave of surveys solely in the G-7 countries to find out how public risk perceptions have changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This effort was funded in part by the German government’s Press and Information Office. The May results, with around 1,000 participants in each G-7 country, indicate that between 60 and 70 percent of respondents agree with the statement that “the invasion of Ukraine represents a turning point in world politics” — a “Zeitenwende” or watershed moment.

Absolute majorities in all countries surveyed also say that “we are entering a new cold war with Russia.” These findings are in line with other polls, including one suggesting that “Europe’s break with Russia is irreversible, at least in the short and medium term,” and another that tallied record unfavorable opinions of Russia.

G-7 citizens are willing to push back against Russia

Compared to a November 2021 version of the index, respondents have become far more willing to see their country oppose Russia, both economically and militarily, as the figure below shows. Previous differences in how to continental Europeans and the English-speaking members of the G-7 favored how to approach Russia have almost disappeared. In fact, respondents in Italy, the most reluctant to stand up to Russia in November 2021, are more hawkish now than U.K. respondents — the most hawkish in that month’s survey — were at that time.

Respondents are also willing to provide military support. NATO countries have given Ukraine weapons, intelligence and nonmilitary support to fight off the invasion. Other than Italy, an outlier in other surveys as well, more respondents say their country should do more to support Ukraine with weapons. People in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. are significantly more supportive of doing more than those in continental Europe, however.

Is there a difference between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ weapons?

G-7 citizens seem less concerned about escalation than their leaders. Some officials fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin may see the supply of advanced systems as a reason to attack NATO countries, and thus continue to argue about the type of weapons that NATO members should send to Kyiv.

In contrast, relative majorities in Italy (38 percent), Germany (44 percent), France (48 percent) and the United Kingdom (50 percent), as well as absolute majorities in Canada (51 percent) and the United States (53 percent) agree with the statement that “NATO members should push back harder against Russia even if the risk of military escalation between NATO and Russia increases.” The only countries in which more than a quarter of respondents disagree are Italy (27 percent) and Germany (26 percent).

Ramping up NATO defenses

Respondents also seem ready to consider a major overhaul of NATO’s eastern flank, one of the key issues discussed at the summit. While a considerable part of the public in the NATO members surveyed remains undecided (from 31 percent in Germany to 41 percent in Canada and Italy), pluralities in Canada (43 percent), France and the U.K. (both 46 percent), Germany (48 percent) and the U.S. (49 percent) say that their country “should massively increase its military presence at NATO’s eastern border.”

In the absence of clear public opposition, politicians in Canada, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. can thus build on general support for a major change in NATO’s strategic posture. These are the four countries leading the multinational battalions stationed as NATO’s forward presence in Poland and the three Baltic nations.

Expand the alliance?

NATO leaders again reaffirmed the alliance’s general decision from 2008 that “Ukraine will become a member of NATO” — without offering a timeline. For now, NATO membership for Ukraine is not a realistic option due to the ongoing conflict with Russia and fears of escalation.

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But supporters outnumber opponents in G-7 countries when it comes to whether Ukraine should be able to join NATO, we found. The net scores (those who support Ukraine’s bid minus those who oppose it) we tallied are generally slightly lower vs. questions on E.U. membership for Ukraine, but continental Europeans vs. other NATO members diverge in their views. We found net scores on the question of Ukraine’s joining NATO lower in Italy (+14), Germany (+16) and France (+28), compared to scores in the U.S. (+44), the U.K. (+44) and Canada (+58).

At the summit, NATO leaders decided to invite Finland and Sweden to become members. Net scores in each NATO country we surveyed on whether Finland and Sweden should join the alliance indicate a high level of support — from Italy (+44) to Canada (+65).

Overall, respondents appear ready to support measures going beyond the policy framework that has long guided the Western approach toward Russia. These survey results suggest people believe we’re in for a long confrontation with Russia and are increasingly willing to oppose Russia economically and militarily. Respondents also appear open to expanding NATO’s membership to include more countries bordering Russia. At least for public opinion, it is a “Zeitenwende” indeed.

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Tobias Bunde (@TobiasBunde) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security (@Hertie_Security) and director of research & policy at the Munich Security Conference (@MunSecConf). He is the co-author, with Sophie Eisentraut, of a new Munich Security Brief, “Zeitenwende for the G7,” which discusses the results of the most recent edition of the Munich Security Index, in the context of Germany’s current G-7 presidency.

Tom Lubbock (@tmlbk) is a public opinion specialist at Kekst CNC and co-founder of J.L. Partners, having previously worked as a political scientist at the University of Oxford.

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