Perspectives from the American Experience on Russian Public Opinion on the Ukraine War

The data suggests that Russian support for the war in Ukraine will decline.

The United States has fought long wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq since WWII. It remains to be seen whether Russia's operation in Ukraine will be similarly expanded. However, if that happens, history from America's wars gives lessons—and non-lessons—for judging Russian sentiment on the conflict in Ukraine.

The comparison implies that, regardless of the effects of media coverage, antiwar demonstrations, censorship and propaganda operations, or military events in the war, a fall in support is to be expected following a rally around the flag effect at the start of the conflict. This will also lead to a greater willingness to tolerate failure or even calamity in the conflict, as well as a strong desire to avoid similar endeavors in the future. However, there is a significant difference in the experiences, one that could be significant: although the ordinary American was mostly unaffected personally by the wars, the same may not be true for the average Russian.

Support at the Start

Even when civil freedoms were restricted, initial Russian public support for the war appeared to be relatively high—probably about 70 or 75 percent. Except for the war in Afghanistan, which began immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and received close to 90% support at the onset, the same number approximately applies to American wars.

People have a proclivity for believing what they want to believe. The high initial support for all of the wars was almost certainly due to a rally around the flag effect, in which the publics overwhelmingly desired to believe that their governments' actions were justifiable, wise, and necessary.

The Russian government's propaganda operations and its controlled media have been repeatedly blamed for the high initial support for the Ukraine invasion among the Russian populace. Those same forces, on the other hand, have spent years trying to persuade Russians of the importance of Sputnik, the Russian anti-covid vaccination. Nonetheless, there has been a lot of pushback to that message. We'd all be driving Edsels and sipping New Coke if extensive and targeted promotion could ensure acceptance—legendary marketing flops in 1958 and 1985 by two of the (otherwise) most successful corporations in history: the Ford Motor Company and Coca-Cola.

It's not uncommon for people to accept false information in such situations. A majority of Americans felt Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks at the start of the Iraq war, prompted by the Republican administration. Despite the fact that the nudging ended, 30 to 40 percent of those polled remained convinced for more than seven years. Furthermore, the public believed that a loss in Afghanistan would lead to more 9/11s, that al Qaeda posed an existential threat to the US and had infiltrated the country with thousands of trained operatives, that the Vietnam and Korean wars were necessary to prevent World War III, and that Saddam Hussein would come to "dominate" the Middle East with his remarkably inept army and/or hand off weapons of mass destruction to friendly terrories. Arguments that could be made to refute such claims failed to gain traction.

Support is Weakening

According to American data, Russian support for the conflict in Ukraine will diminish quickly in the initial months as hesitant supporters drop out, then more gradually as the remaining supporters become harder core backers. The accumulation of casualties—particularly combat deaths—by their forces is the most crucial factor in this decrease.

However, it shouldn't be expected that poll respondents have a good idea of the actual number of casualties or battle dead, and their predictions on the subject don't always match up with support or opposition to the war. Rather, individuals appear to perform a crude cost-benefit analysis, weighing the worth of the war as they view it against the cost of American lives thus far.

What has mattered most to American public opinion in all of this has been American losses, not those of the people defended. Despite the fact that the number of Iraqis killed as a result of the US invasion has surpassed the hundreds of thousands, the only cumulative corpse count that matters to American public opinion and is routinely reported is the American one.

This issue is not new: Americans backed the wars in Korea and Vietnam because they saw them as necessary for countering the communist menace, and defending South Koreans or Vietnamese was never considered a priority. This effect may be different in the current battle due to the historical closeness of Russians and Ukrainians ("our brothers"). However, it seems important to note that, despite the fact that fully 60% of Americans believe the Iraqi people are blameless for their leader's policies, Americans have given little attention to Iraqi deaths in the conflict.

For each conflict, the public did not calculate the stakes in the same way. The United States had suffered around 19,000 fighting dead when support for the wars in Vietnam and Korea fell below 50%. Using the same metric, that level of support was obtained in Iraq after about 1,500 people were slain. This reduced tolerance for losses is likely attributable to the fact that the stakes in Iraq were viewed as significantly less important than those in Korea and Vietnam, which were seen as crucial aspects in the Cold War. It's still unclear how such a calculation will affect Russians today.

For the most part, specific events throughout the conflict appear to have had little long-term impact on the decreasing trend. As a result, a decline in popularity in 2004 following the revelation of American soldiers abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq was mostly reversed in a matter of months. When there was a noticeable upward change in support after Saddam Hussein was captured, the same thing happened: support quickly went back to where it had been before, and then continued on its downward trend.

More broadly, as the arrest of Saddam Hussein demonstrates, if people believe the war is not worth fighting, gains on the battlefield will not increase support for the war. During the surge in Iraq between 2007 and 2008, for example, the percentage of those who believed the US was making major success increased from 36 to 46, while the number who believed it was winning the war increased from 21 to 37. Despite this, support for the war did not rise—there was no change in responses to questions on whether the war was worth the effort, whether it was the correct decision or a mistake, and whether respondents preferred to stay as long as it takes. Successfully waging a war, it appears, is unlikely to persuade those who have already decided that the expenses are not worth it.

If the drop in support is primarily due to the invading forces' rising deaths, media and propaganda operations, as well as public antiwar demonstrations, will be ineffective. This effect is likely to be true in the Ukraine conflict as well.

No amount of censoring or skewed reporting will be able to mask the two most essential factors in the public's decision-making process: the war is still going on, and our people are dying as a result of it. A comparison of the Korea and Vietnam Wars—costly anti-Communist wars on the outskirts of Asia—suggests that noisy public antiwar demonstrations often fail to persuade and may even be destructive. Despite the fact that there were few, if any, antiwar demonstrations during the Korean War, support for the war dwindled, just as it did during the Vietnam War, when antiwar protests were common and conspicuous.

Even if an antiwar movement succeeds in electing like-minded officials to power, the war's conduct may not be significantly altered. Instead of repeating the mistakes of their Vietnam War counterparts, opponents of the Iraq War worked hard within the Democratic Party, and in 2008, they were the cornerstone of the triumph of Barack Obama, the only major presidential candidate in the field who opposed the war. But he was a disappointment: he chose no one who had publicly and explicitly opposed the Iraq war before it began, left the war on George W. Bush's timeline, and passed the war in Afghanistan over to his successor.

The Consequences of the Support Decline

Although dwindling support for the conflict does not always lead to its end, it can nonetheless have implications.

For example, the reduction influenced military strategies to lower the rate of American casualties in all four wars, despite projections that lower fatality rates would raise support for the fight.

Another result could be the formation of a politically favorable environment for disengagement and even disaster. This may be seen in the public's acceptance of Afghanistan's unexpected and humiliating collapse last year. The population, for the most part, accepted the calamity and had no interest in sending troops to try to fix it. And President Joseph Biden's political status appears to have been unaffected by the catastrophe. The acceptance of the United States' complete failure in Vietnam in 1975, which led to a Communist takeover, was a similar event. In reality, President Gerald Ford, who presided over the disaster, tried to utilize it to his advantage in his reelection campaign the following year, claiming that "we are at peace." Tonight, there isn't a single young American fighting or dying on foreign soil." Despite the lack of polling data, the Russian public appears to have accepted the Soviet catastrophe in Afghanistan under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and the history suggests that they would accept a humiliating pullout from Ukraine in the same way in the future.

Third, the Ukraine war is unlikely to have an impact on the reduction of international war, which is one of modern history's greatest triumphs.

Until Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Europe has been free of major international conflict for the longest time since the term "Europe" was coined over 2500 years ago. The rest of the world has mostly followed suit, and the use of war to settle international disputes has almost entirely vanished—though other methods such as intervening in civil wars, imposing economic sanctions, attempting covert regime change, poaching fish, and waging armed border disputes in remote areas continue to be used.

Some fear that the conflict in Ukraine may destroy this tremendous achievement. But the aversion to such wars is far more likely to persist, as evidenced by the fact that the war has been nearly universally denounced and that other countries are unlikely to be inspired by the costly and messy precedent, regardless of how the war ends.

Most of America's conflicts resulted in a significant public aversion to repeating the event. There were no replays of the Korean or Vietnam wars, and following its major overreactions to 9/11, the country appears to have adopted an Iraq/ Afghanistan syndrome. This pattern shows that Russia's incursion into Ukraine may be a one-off rather than a precursor. "Let's not do that again," as in the United States, will most likely be the primary answer.

Direct Pain to the Public: A Potentially Significant Difference

Aside from individuals who participated in American wars and those close to them, the general population was never forced to pay a high price or pay a fee to support them. Russians, on the other hand, may endure significant economic hardship and even collapse as a result of their invasion of Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin, the war's principal architect, claims that Russia will be able to absorb any economic losses. However, even before the conflict, the Russian economy was not looking so rosy. In 2014, a long period of expansion in this century came to an end, and growth has been sluggish since then. Some of this was triggered by the reaction to Putin's 2014 annexation of parts of Ukraine, which triggered what amounted to an economic doomsday machine. Russia's currency has depreciated as a result of its shenanigans, as has capital flight, a reduction in its stock market, and a dip in foreign investment. And, probably most importantly, there was a significant decline in trust among investors, purchasers, and sellers around the world, alienating, in particular, the European Union, Russia's greatest trading partner and direct investor for a long time. In addition, other countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and unconnected to the crisis, oil prices on the international market plummeted, a scenario that was particularly damaging to Russia, as oil and gas sales account for roughly 36% of the country's yearly budget. As a result, between 2014 and 2017, real disposable income plummeted by 15%. While aspirational purchases such as mansions and vehicles gave way to purchases that were more practical.

As a result, even before the Ukraine crisis, experts were predicting "poor" development prospects for Russia over the next decade, and the war in Ukraine is expected to exacerbate the problem, particularly if oil prices fall from their current highs. Customers in Europe have stepped up their efforts to wean themselves off Russian natural gas and oil, and there has been a concerted effort to impose harsh economic sanctions. Furthermore, a large number of foreign, primarily western, companies have abruptly exited the Russian economy, and few are likely to return anytime soon, particularly as long as Putin stays in power. This might be especially costly because, as Barack Obama mockingly, though undiplomatically, stated in his final press conference as president in 2016, "their economy doesn't produce anything that anyone wants to buy, except oil, gas, and arms." They don't come up with new ideas."

Although nothing similar occurred in any of the four American wars, the economic consequences of Russia's war are likely to be felt directly by the Russian people as currency becomes unstable, travel is restricted, jobs are lost, incomes fall, opportunities are snuffed out, shortages erupt, the quality of life plummets, corruption worsens, businesses fail, government coffers become empty, and talent is hemorrhaged. Russia may be able to weather the storm, but there is a distinct risk of tragedy.

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