Ukraine Commentary

10 March 2022

Western governments have been clear that they do not plan to intervene militarily in Ukraine, either by enforcing a no-fly zone, or by sending troops to fight. Opposition to military action has come primarily from the Biden administration in the US, supported by the UK Conservative government and NATO itself.

Two main reasons have been given in public for this, one of legal principle and one practical. But there is an additional unspoken reason connected with public opinion. Let's look at all the reasons individually and jointly to see what the overall picture is.

NATO obligation

The first stated reason for non-intervention in Ukraine is that it is not a NATO member, and there is only a treaty obligation to defend other NATO members. The unspoken implication is that there is a corresponding obligation not to defend non-NATO members. But this is not true in international law or practice. NATO countries have previously intervened in Kuwait (1991), Bosnia (1999) and Afghanistan (2003), all of which are non-NATO members.

Russian forces in South Ossetia, Georgia (August 2008)
Russian forces invading South Ossetia, Georgia (2008)Photo: Yana Amelina

So there does not appear to have been a general principle of non-intervention in non-NATO countries. And, if this is a new principle, it has some problems in practice. The public statement of the policy sends a message to potential belligerents that NATO would never defend non-NATO countries and give them a green light to invade or threaten invasion. There are significant non-NATO countries in and around Europe including: Georgia, Moldova, Finland, Sweden and Austria. Some of these have already suffered Russian-inspired incursions, similar to Ukraine before 2022, and could suffer more if this non-intervention principle is established.

This principle offers comfort, in theory, to NATO members such as the Baltic states and the countries of central Europe. It suggests that they would be defended against Russian incursion. But the next reason undercuts that assurance.

Escalation risks

The second stated reason is a nervousness about escalation. If NATO air or land forces are sent to Ukraine, then the Russians might escalate the situation into a wider European conflict. The fact that Russia has tactical and strategic nuclear weapons is highlighted by the Kremlin as a deterrent against western escalation.

Russian bomber near Scotland (April 2014)
Russian bomber near Scotland (2014)Photo: Royal Air Force

While such matters require serious and careful handling, the current position of western governments is close to a policy which appears reluctant to engage militarily with Russia. This immediately undercuts the NATO 'security guarantee'. If NATO is too nervous about escalation to defend forty million Ukrainians, does it really have the stomach to fight Russia to protect (say) three million Lithuanians, or even forty million Poles.

And in the wider world, this policy could be understood as a refusal to fight any opponent with nuclear weapons. That would give a green light to any aggression from North Korea, China or Pakistan, and also encourage nuclear proliferation. If possession of nuclear weapons gives immunity from NATO, then it quickly becomes a desirable objective for rogue states.

US Public Opinion

The unstated reason for lack of intervention may be public opinion. Let's start in the United States, as President Biden and his secretary of state Antony Blinken have been leading proponents of the non-intervention strategy.

A recent YouGov poll for the Economist found that only around 20% of Americans were in favour of either air strikes or sending soldiers to fight Russians in Ukraine. There was much larger support for economic sanctions.

And it's possible that Biden is following US public opinion on this more than he is leading it. But the fact remains that the US public is pretty opposed to military intervention in Ukraine. This contrasts with the 79% support from the US public for the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait. There could be many reasons for this decrease in support for neo-liberal intervention. But there are three reasons which might be the main drivers:

But given where US opinion is, it appears unlikely that major military involvement will happen in Ukraine.

UK Public Opinion

In Britain, Electoral Calculus and Find Out Now ran a poll on public opinion this week. The main findings are:

Public opinion in the two countries is fairly similar. The British public were overwhelming supportive (76%) of oil and gas sanctions, which was a similar figure to US support for economic sanctions in general. Sending soldiers to fight was supported by 25% of British respondents, which is also similar to the corresponding figure in the US.

Public attitudes to no-fly zone

There was more a difference on the question of a no-fly zone. In Britain, 40% of all respondents (and 52% of those who expressed an opinion) were supportive, whereas only about 20% of Americans are in favour.

Despite that, the British political and military leadership have opposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and have kept in line with US policy.

Full details of our poll are here.


American and (partly) British public opinion is more pacific than it has been historically. This has led western leaders to eschew military intervention, even in a conflict with a clear moral purpose. The problem with this is that the fact of this reluctance, plus the reasons stated to justify it, may lead to further aggression and nuclear proliferation, which can make the world a progressively less safe place.

Until events or leadership change those public opinions, then countries with aggressive neighbours will have to live with increased uncertainty and fear.