WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Despite the intensifying fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists before the cease-fire agreement Thursday, Americans place the conflict low on the list of critical threats to U.S. interests in the next decade. Islamic extremists, commonly known as the Islamic State or ISIS, along with international terrorism in general, loom much larger in Americans' minds as a critical threat.
The Islamic State has continually been a focal point on the world stage over the past several months as it has brutally executed hostages -- including several Americans, leading 84% of their fellow citizens to rank the terrorist group as a critical threat. Americans place the threat from international terrorism in general at the same level.
Only two other issues are considered critical threats by a majority of Americans. Although the U.S. has been conducting talks with Iran to reduce or eliminate Iran's nuclear capabilities, 77% of Americans still view the development of nuclear weapons by Iran as a critical threat. Sixty-four percent view North Korea as a critical threat.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, when placed in the context of other global challenges, is not as much of a critical concern to Americans. Yet the situation in Ukraine has severely tested U.S.-Russian relations -- to the point that one year ago, half of Americans said they thought the U.S. and Russia were heading back to a Cold War. The U.S. has backed Ukraine's new government, while Russia has advocated for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Thousands have already died in nearly a year of fighting between Ukraine and the separatists. But this violence intensified in recent weeks to the point that many policymakers, including possibly President Barack Obama, are considering providing "lethal defensive weapons" to Ukraine. However, Obama said he would wait for the outcome of this week's negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, before deciding.
These results come from the Feb. 8-11 Gallup Poll Social Series World Affairs survey, with interviewing completed before the announcement of the cease-fire agreement.
Before Cease-Fire, Americans Split on Military Aid to Ukraine
Even before Thursday's announcement of the cease-fire that is set to begin Sunday, most Americans (54%) opposed the sending of U.S. military weapons and equipment to Ukraine's government to help combat the separatists. Four in 10 Americans say they favor sending such military assistance, which policymakers and defense analysts often refer to as "lethal aid."
Americans Hold Favorable View of Ukraine, With a Third Unfavorable
Gallup has asked Americans about their views of Ukraine on two occasions: this past week, and almost exactly a decade ago, during the country's "Orange Revolution." In 2004-2005, Ukrainians revolted against alleged election fraud, and the protests resulted in a new presidential election. In the midst of this, 67% of Americans said they had a favorable impression of Ukraine, while today that figure stands at 52%. This decline in favorable ratings may be a result of the protracted conflict in Ukraine.
In contrast, 70% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia, with 24% viewing it favorably. As recently as 2011, a majority of Americans viewed the former Soviet republic favorably.
ISIS and international terrorism loom largest in Americans' minds as critical threats to U.S. interests. In a winter that has seen acts of unspeakable terrorism, with Obama seeking authorization for military action against the Islamic State, Americans are clearly concerned about Islamic militants and terrorists. The conflict in Ukraine may not worry Americans as much because they see it as more of a threat to Europe than to the U.S.
Americans prior to the cease-fire opposed the idea of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Obama has said that sending U.S. troops is unlikely, but that advanced weapons and arming Ukraine's military are on the table should the peace falter. In this combative part of the world, whether the U.S. will wade into the conflict in the near or long term is still an open question. However, with a majority of Americans opposed to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, it appears Obama could have a difficult time of selling a military approach to the American people.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 8-11, 2015, with a random sample of 837 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.
Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.
Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.