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Russian mutiny further polarizes American public support for Ukraine

Findings from real-time poll

Former President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko and his wife Kateryna listen while Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) speaks during a press conference on the Ukrainian Victory Resolution on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 25, 2023. REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson

As the mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group unfolded in Russia, there was wall-to-wall coverage of the events in the American media, with much speculation about their likely impact not only in Russia but also on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Our University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll with Ipsos was already in the field tracking American public attitudes toward the war. We decided to extend the poll for several more days to capture any change in American public attitudes, before and after the mutiny, in real time. We ended up with 863 respondents before the mutiny and 576 after, enabling a meaningful comparison.

The poll was conducted from June 21-27 among 1,439 respondents from Ipsos’s probabilistic KnowledgePanel (the Wagner mutiny took place June 23-24). The margin of error is 2.9%.

Here are some key findings.

Before and after the mutiny, in real time

Among those polled, the partisan divide on Ukraine appeared larger after the mutiny. On several measures, Democrats’ support for Ukraine increased by a few points, but not so among Republicans; in fact, on some measures, Republican support for Ukraine slightly declined. Before the mutiny started, 54% of Democrats said that the United States should stay the course in supporting Ukraine, compared to 61% in the days after the mutiny started; Republicans who said the same went from 34% before the mutiny to 26% after.

Figure 1
How long should the U.S. stay the course in supporting Ukraine?

Similarly, Democrats and Republicans diverged slightly in their reactions to the mutiny in their views on the level of support for Ukraine. Among Democrats, the biggest change was that those who said the current level of support was “too much” went down from 14% before the mutiny to 8% after; among Republicans, the biggest change was that those who said the current level of support was “the right level” went down from 25% before to 19%, with the difference going mostly to the “I don’t know” response.

Figure 2
How do you feel about the current levels of U.S. military expenditure in support of Ukraine?

One reason for this divergence in the reaction to the mutiny between Democrats and Republicans may be that we are entering our presidential campaign season, which is always polarizing. If the mutiny is seen as a possible success for President Joe Biden’s policy in Ukraine, this could further encourage Democrats to stay the course and raise Republican fears that events will help Democrats in the election. Even at the outset of the war in Ukraine, our polls found that Republicans tended to identify Biden as their most disliked world leader more frequently than they did Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In this case, the mutiny may have projected a weakened Putin and the prospect of a strengthened Biden. As the U.S. presidential campaign has kicked off, limiting support for Ukraine has found resonance in the political rallies of the leading Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.

Change from April to June

The Russian mutiny aside, there was an overall increase in public support for staying the course in Ukraine in the new poll in comparison to a similar poll we conducted in March-April. Despite the partisan split before and after the mutiny, overall, more Americans, 43%, said the United States should stay the course in the June poll than did in the March-April poll, 38%, with a bipartisan increase in support.

Figure 3
How long should the U.S. stay the course in supporting Ukraine?

This is likely a function of the public’s assessment of Russia and Ukraine’s performances in the war, which we have found to be highly correlated with attitudes on the level of support for Ukraine. We found a small change since March-April, with more Democrats and Republicans saying Russia is failing and Ukraine is succeeding, which is likely the result of the announcement that Ukraine had initiated its long-anticipated counteroffensive, muted by reported modest success.

Figure 4
What is your impression of the following parties in the war in Ukraine?

Finally, there was only a small change in the public assessment of what the U.S. objectives in supporting Ukraine should be: Only 7% of Republicans said the U.S. objective should be to weaken or defeat Russia, compared to 9% in March-April; 14% of Democrats said the same, compared to 10% in March-April. 23% of Republicans said the aim should be to help Ukraine return to the status quo preceding the Russian invasion, compared to 20% in March-April; 22% of Democrats said the same, compared to 26% March-April.

On the one objective over which Democrats and Republicans disagreed the most — helping Ukraine liberate all the territories occupied by Russia — there was no change among both groups from March-April to June: 12% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats said they backed such an objective in both polls.

Figure 5
Which of the following should be the primary U.S. objective in Ukraine:

To conclude, two major factors are likely to continue to impact American public attitudes toward supporting Ukraine in the coming weeks and months. The first is the public’s assessment of developments on the battlefield. The more the public believes that Russia is losing, and Ukraine is winning, the more they are likely to back staying the course in Ukraine. The next few months will be critical, as expectations have been high about the impact of the Ukrainian counteroffensive on the battlefield. The second significant factor is the U.S. presidential campaign season, where support for Ukraine is emerging as a deeply polarizing issue that may affect public views. There are imponderables on each side, as Republicans, including elected officials and presidential candidates, have been divided on the issue, with Trump and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene questioning the level of support, while others, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Lindsey Graham, take a more supportive view. On the Democratic side, most Democrats have backed Biden’s policy, but their views could be affected not only by their assessment of the battlefield but also by policy decisions such as the administration’s intent to supply controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine, which has generated a backlash among many Democrats.