U.S. voters agree Putin won’t stop at Crimea, but they’re unsure what to do

Lesley Clark

With tensions rising over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, a new McClatchy-Marist Poll finds Americans ambivalent over how deeply the United States should be involved in the situation.

American voters largely support only squeezing Russia economically and politically, even as they display strong distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They give President Barack Obama mixed reviews for his handling of Russia’s move to lop off Ukraine’s Crimea region, but they offer no clear view of how the U.S. should respond to the crisis.

“Issues very often have huge partisan polarization and some clear marching orders, but this doesn’t have that,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

Instead, voters appear to be deeply ambivalent about the situation: A majority _ 55 percent _ say Ukraine is important to U.S. national interests, but 42 percent say the U.S. shouldn’t get involved there.

Nearly half – 48 percent – say the U.S. should consider only economic and political options. Just 7 percent say the U.S. should consider military options against Russia.

Voters seem to be saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t do anything, maybe we should, but I’m not sure what,” Miringoff said.

Obama, who spoke Monday with Putin, has sought to dissuade him from expanding into Ukraine with two rounds of economic sanctions. The Obama administration has threatened more sanctions if Russian troops cross the border into Ukraine.

Critics have called the administration’s response weak and the sanctions ineffective, but Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the administration remained focused on diplomatic and economic efforts to defuse the crisis.

“We don’t see a military solution,” Carney said.

The European Union, Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine are to meet for talks in Geneva on Thursday and Putin said the two presidents “agreed to continue efforts to seek diplomatic cooperation.”

Vice President Joe Biden will head to Ukraine next week to meet with government officials on a trip aimed at underscoring U.S. support for the country, the White House said. The U.S. and Ukraine signed a $1 billion loan guarantee Monday for the country.

Voters are evenly divided over Obama’s performance, with 46 approving of how he’s handled the crisis and 45 percent disapproving. There are sharp partisan differences, with 69 percent of Democrats supporting his handling of the situation, compared with just 18 percent of Republicans. Independents were evenly divided, with 47 percent disapproving and 46 percent approving.

Some European allies have been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia, and the poll found similar reluctance. Fifty percent of voters said the U.S. shouldn’t draw a hard line against Russia because it might mean losing Russia’s cooperation in other areas, such as curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and ridding Syria of chemical weapons. Forty-two percent backed drawing a hard line regardless of other issues.

That was especially true for Republicans and older Americans with memories of the Cold War, who were more likely to support taking a hard line against Russia regardless of other issues.

The findings came even as voters said they thought Russia was likely to send troops into other regions of Ukraine, with just 25 percent of voters saying they thought Russia would stop at annexing Crimea.

Obama has rejected suggestions that the standoff is a return to the Cold War, and voters were narrowly split on that prospect, with 49 percent saying the situation was unlikely to open up a new Cold War and 46 percent saying it was.

The White House has noted that Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, doesn’t control a bloc of nations or a global ideology.

Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

McClatchy Marist poll on the Ukraine
By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau