How much do Americans care about Russia′s war on Ukraine? | Americas | North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 25.02.2022

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How much do Americans care about Russia's war on Ukraine?

As the world reels from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the US continues to play a role in the response. But just how important is what's happening in Ukraine to Americans? And how far are Americans willing to go?

Demonstrators hold a Ukrainian flag as they protest in support of Ukraine, in Times Square New York, on February 24, 2022

In the US, protests sprung up in support of Ukraine, such as here in Times Square

Ask any American to find Ukraine on a map of Europe, and only about one in three can do it. Yet, despite Americans' notoriously bad geographical skills, the shock waves of Russia's invasion of Ukraine have rolled across the United States, as well, galvanizing views there. 

"America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are," President Joe Biden said in an address on Thursday. 

Biden is refining the US's Ukraine policy with pointed sanctions on Russia, although their effects may be delayed. More broadly, many are wondering where US involvement in the region is likely to head down the line.

How important is Ukraine to Americans?

A poll completed the day before Russia invaded Ukraine found that 69% of Americans supported economic sanctions against Russia, with 77% very or somewhat concerned about the prospect of Russia's invading Ukraine.

Americans on the streets of Washington, DC, Thursday certainly expressed great concern. 

Dee, 27, described the invasion as a threat to sovereignty everywhere. "Americans should care, because what's happening in Ukraine could happen anywhere in the world," he told DW. "I think that if we don't support countries like Ukraine, countries with greater power will continue to try take what they assume to be their own territory."

Syndey, who is 23, told DW that "I don't know if Americans are prioritizing it, but it should be a priority." She added: "This affects America for sure."

"We need to show leadership, keep peace and protect health," 43-year-old James said. "That's why it's important to America."

Beyond alarm over Ukraine, Americans are very worried the rising costs of living and how gas prices could go up in the short term because of the Ukraine invasion. 

Biden also acknowledged that "Americans are already hurting." 

"I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump," Biden said. "This is critical to me."

In line with Biden, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leadership denounced Putin, in addition to urging military aid to Ukraine. Earlier this week, Texas Republican and frequent Biden critic Senator Ted Cruz expressed support for sanctions. 

Yet former President Donald Trump made the unprecedented move of praising Putin, calling him "pretty smart" and saying: "He's taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions."

Some Republicans blame Biden for the invasion or are playing down the significance of the conflict in apparent reluctance to break with Trump.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands

Trump fostered a special relationship with Putin, described at times as an aspirational 'bromance'

How effective is US Ukraine policy? 

Biden announced a robust package of sanctions on Thursday in response to the invasion, following a round of sanctions on Tuesday after Russia declared separatist regions of Ukraine independent. 

New sanctions have cut off some of Russia's largest financial institutions and companies from US markets and barred the export of American technology to Russia, as well as frozen the assets of some Russian elites. 

The United States is also sending more troops to Eastern Europe. Yet Biden stood by his vow that the US military would not engage in Ukraine.

Although Biden had previously implied that sanctions should act as deterrence for Russia to invade Ukraine, he now seems to be selling his sanctions strategy as a form of punishment and economic pressure instead.

Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative-leaning Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council, described Ukraine policy to date as "a failure of deterrence." 

"Ukraine was lost by the United States and by NATO when the measures that they signaled were not sufficiently robust as to deter Russia from moving in the first place," Berman told DW.

Matthew Pauly, a history professor specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe at Michigan State University, concurred. "Sanctions are not going to push Putin back; they were all part of [Putin's] calculus of invasion," Pauly told DW.

Yet Pauly also described the US government as having limited tools to act. "The sanctions are really the only tool in the toolkit," he said. 

Watch video 02:24

Ukraine pushes for more sanctions on Russia

Where is US involvement likely to go from here?

Despite concern over what is happening in Ukraine, there is little support among the American public for military intervention. A poll conducted over the past weekend found that only 26% believe the United States should play a major role in the situation between Russia and Ukraine. About 51% believe the country should play a minor role, and 20% say the United States should not be involved at all.

"It's very clear that the American voter is tired of expending blood and treasure," Berman said.

Both Berman and Pauly said NATO was likely to be the primary military vehicle for the United States.

Putin has "just created a further reason for NATO to exist," Pauly said.

"Putin is treating this like a multicourse meal," Berman said. "He seizes territory, he needs to digest it, he needs it integrated into the Russian Federation. But there's always a next course coming. ... NATO is the principal mechanism by which you can prevent Vladimir Putin from going beyond Ukraine and thinking about other entrees that he might add to his plate."

"What we're talking about here is defense of the European heartland, sort of NATO's contours," Berman said. 

Map indicating NATO presence in eastern Europe

Then there is the issue of further sanctions, and particularly how to coordinate these with other countries. Still on the table globally is the possibility of excluding Russia from the SWIFT payment system.

"Biden is letting Europe set the pace on the severity of the sanctions," Berman explained, adding that the White House is still lacking a consensus on SWIFT. 

In terms of boots on the ground, Pauly said, "I can see it as a possibility that the United States may become more militarily involved."

That point becomes more germane if Putin were to push his "imperial project" further, Berman said. Then the question becomes "how much we're willing to countenance a continental war in Europe." 

"Thankfully, that's not a conversation we're having yet," Berman said. "But it's bound to be an acrimonious one, given the temperature of American politics."

Watch video 07:11

Petraeus: Russian threat 'has unified NATO'

Edited by: Milan Gagnon

Thomas Gordon-Martin and Isabella Escobedo contributed to reporting from Washington

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