Catarina Thomson, Matthias Mader, Felix Münchow, Jason Reifler and Harald Schoen summarise the findings of their recent article which digs into levels of support for Ukraine across Europe and what the public think about NATO. They find that while support for Ukraine is strong, opinion is more mixed on the approach NATO should take and whether Ukraine should become a member.
As Putin ‘plays for time’ in the hopes that weary publics lose interest in supporting Ukraine, our 2023 study finds widespread backing for Ukraine across Europe. We identify three distinct groups, which vary in just how supportive they are of the Ukrainian cause.
While levels of public support will likely wane in 2024, these groups are based on long-held political attitudes and are consistent across a wide range of issues. They should continue to be useful categories with which to interpret European public opinion, in terms of assistance to Ukraine and also in terms of views on the future of NATO (where European publics are more divided).
The UK public is among the staunchest supporters of Ukraine, together with Eastern European nations and countries who applied for NATO membership following the Russian invasion (Finland and Sweden). This corresponds with the UK’s longstanding support for military options compared to citizens in other European countries.
A second group includes France, Germany, and Spain, where citizens also blame Russia for the war and are strongly in favour of standing by Ukraine. A minority of voters believe Ukraine should be urged to accept territorial losses that could help end the war or that economic sanctions against Russia should be lifted.
Figure 1: Public perceptions of war responsibility
Responses to question: Who bears responsibility for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine? For each of the following actors, please indicate to what extent you believe they are responsible for the outbreak of the war: A) Russia, B) Ukraine, C) The United States, D) The European Union, E) The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Responses coded from (1) Not at all responsible, to (7) Extremely responsible. Figure 1 reports percentages of respondents indicating that actor is responsible to some degree (5, 6 or 7 on 7-point scale).
However, in this second group of countries we find some pockets of pro-Russian sympathy in far-right populist parties (as well as among some groups of leftist parties with a history of close relations with the Soviet Union). Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) illustrates this; 55% of their supporters attribute some responsibility for the war to Ukraine, and 56% would urge Ukraine to concede some territory to Russia.
Figure 2: Views on policies vital to war outcome
Responses to questions: Please say whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements: A) Sanctions against Russia should be removed as they are hurting [COUNTRY]’s economy too much, and B) [COUNTRY] should urge Ukraine to accept territorial losses in order to end the war as soon as possible. Responses categories are: (1) Strongly agree, (2) Agree, (3) Neither agree or disagree, (4) Disagree, and (5) Strongly disagree. Figure 2 reports percentages of respondents agreeing with each policy (who responded (1) or (2) on 5-point scale).
Public opinion in Italy and Hungary constitutes a third group, that supports Ukraine but remains ‘nearer the fence’. While, as in all the other countries we surveyed, blaming Russia for the war is the most popular response in these countries, over 40% of Italians attribute some responsibility for the war to Ukraine, as do 55% of Hungarians. In contrast, 20% or less attribute some responsibility to Ukraine in the UK, Eastern European countries, Finland and Sweden, as do between 25%-35% in France, Germany and Spain.
The role NATO should have in the conflict has been hotly debated – and avoiding action that might be perceived as escalatory has been paramount. Many including its secretary-general have argued for augmented capabilities on NATO’s eastern flank. We find that European public opinion is divided on the issue, certainly when compared to cross-national majorities that are generally supportive of maintaining economic sanctions against Russia and not wanting to urge Ukraine to make territorial concessions.
Figure 3: Views on NATO policies
Responses to questions: Please say whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements: A) NATO should admit Ukraine as a member, and B) [COUNTRY] should encourage NATO to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe. Responses categories are: (1) Strongly agree, (2) Agree, (3) Neither agree or disagree, (4) Disagree, and (5) Strongly disagree. Figure 3 reports percentages of respondents agreeing with each policy (who responded (1) or (2) on 5-point scale).
Even among the staunchest supporters of Ukraine we don’t find a clear consensus regarding building up NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe. While large majorities in Estonia and Poland favour the measure, public opinion is more divided in Finland, Sweden and the UK. While a very slim majority in the UK backs the plan, this isn’t the case among the public in NATO’s newest potential member states. The proportion of members of the public supporting this policy is lower in France, Spain and Germany (hovering between 35% and 40%), dropping to just 29% in Italy and 26% in Hungary.
Whether Ukraine should join NATO is a more controversial issue – and entirely implausible until all parties declare the war to be over. Post-war, even if Ukraine’s path to membership sidesteps a membership action plan (as has been the case for other former Soviet states), democratic and security reforms will have to be met.
The complexities above notwithstanding, public opinion can play a key role for a state hoping to join NATO as illustrated by evolving views in Finland and Sweden. It would have been very difficult indeed to imagine just a few years ago that these longstanding neutral states would have wanted to join NATO.
European public opinion has no shared position on whether Ukraine should become a member of NATO. Support varies from substantial majorities in Poland, Estonia, the UK, and Finland, to less than 40% in France and Germany, to just about one-third in Italy and one-quarter in Hungary. As the unanimity principle provides member states with a veto when admitting new members, NATO accession for Ukraine would be politically fraught indeed.
Not only do we observe these significant cross-national differences in NATO member states, we find that public opinion is divided across generational lines within these countries. In all countries, older citizens are more supportive of increasing troop presence in Eastern European and admitting Ukraine to NATO than younger ones. This difference is likely rooted in different socialisation experiences before and after the end of the Cold War.
The impact of age is most noticeable in countries that are generally the most supportive of Ukraine. This highlights the importance of not just looking at headline general figures and suggests that if governments in these countries want to endorse either strengthening NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, or admitting Ukraine into NATO, targeted communication for younger constituents will be needed.
In Estonia, 83% of those aged 60 and above would like Ukraine to join NATO, as do 66% of those in this cohort in Poland, 65% in both the UK and Finland and 56% in Sweden (compared to an average of 48% among the youngest cohort of 18- to 29-year-olds in these countries).
While the current conflict brings up questions about NATO’s strategy and structure, at least in the eyes of the public supporting the war in Ukraine is perceived as a goal in itself that does not necessarily translate into broader changes to existing security alliances.
Given this, if governments wish to keep support levels high keeping a well-defined focus on the actual conflict is paramount, especially as the gap between the expectations citizens had for the Ukrainian counteroffensive and what it actually delivers widens. Additionally, our research indicates trying to reach groups we have found to be less supportive, such as younger audiences, or members of populist right-wing parties or groups, will also be crucial.
By Dr Catarina Thomson, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Exeter, Dr Matthias Mader, Associate Professor of International Politics, University of Konstanz, Felix Münchow, Research Associate, University of Mannheim, Jason Reifler, Professor of Political Science, University of Exeter, and Harald Schoen, Professor of Political Science, University of Mannheim.
The full article “European public opinion: united in supporting Ukraine, divided on the future of NATO” in International Affairs can be accessed here.