ATHENS, Ga. — With the likelihood of Russian forces invading Ukraine still “very high,” according to President Biden, the threat of a military conflict has many Americans on edge. Although thousands of American troops are already in the region, a new study reveals why the public shouldn’t expect the United States to actually intervene if Russia invades. Simply put, researchers found such a conflict would be largely unpopular — since the U.S. has no formal defense treaty with Ukraine.
A team from the University of Georgia explains that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning America doesn’t have a specific obligation to step in and help should the Russians attack. At the moment, the Biden Administration is signaling that U.S. troops will only make sure any potential bloodshed between Ukraine and Russia doesn’t spill over into NATO countries.
“What the United States is doing makes perfect sense to me, given what we found in our study,” says Jeffrey Berejikian, the study’s corresponding author and a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, in a university release.
“When Russia first invaded Ukraine, President Obama said the red line is NATO, where we have an alliance. We will defend NATO. Biden has been very clear to articulate the same thing. There just isn’t any way to get public support behind the idea without an alliance in place.”
According to two surveys conducted by the researchers, the study concludes that finding public support for military action to save Ukraine would actually be a difficult job for politicians. Results show that Americans express more support for military action, and even sacrificing American lives, when they know the U.S. has a formal treaty with a nation in danger.
Would love to help, do we have a treaty?
Study authors surveyed two groups with 1,500 people in each poll. In the first survey, researchers told the group about a fictitious crisis between North and South Korea. However, the team only reminded half the poll about America’s alliance with South Korea. In this case, respondents who knew about the treaty were more likely to support a military conflict to protect South Korea. Political independents were also the most likely to back that decision.
In the second survey, researchers gave each person more specific details about the treaty the U.S. had with South Korea, including the portion that says America has an obligation to protect the tiny nation from an attack. Results show that, with even more information, respondents from all political parties supported the decision to send troops in. Respondents in this survey were also more accepting of both civilian and U.S. military deaths if it meant saving South Korea.
“What we found is that depending on how you frame a problem, you can drive public opinion,” Berejikian says. “If you see political leaders being very specific about American legal obligations to NATO, Japan or South Korea, they’re probably trying to shift public opinion in support of that policy. It doesn’t mean that they want to go to war. But it might mean that they think we may have to.”
How does this word game impact Ukraine?
“It turns out that when you remind the public of a prior alliance commitment, the public thinks that we’re morally bound to live up to our word,” Berejikian continues. “The other reason for supporting military action was a more practical concern: If the U.S. makes a promise and then breaks it, our reputation will be damaged.”
Researchers note their findings are particularly relevant to the current crisis in Ukraine and how far Americans should expect the U.S. military to go in the coming weeks and months.
“In some ways, you’re enhancing the credibility of your willingness to go to war when it’s important to you if you say, ‘Here’s where we’ll stand and here’s where we won’t,’” Berejikian concludes. “I think that’s where we are: providing support in a way that doesn’t undermine our promise to NATO by overpromising to countries that don’t have an alliance with us.”
The findings appear in the journal Contemporary Security Policy.