Poll finds Nato's Europeans wary of Russia confrontation

By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent

Related Topics
image copyrightEPA
image captionThe poll suggests shaky support for any intervention against Russia in Nato states

Public opinion in some European countries could be reluctant to support collective defence for fellow Nato members if they were to be attacked by Russia, according to a new international survey.

The report by the Pew Research Center - a non-partisan US think-tank based in Washington DC - surveyed attitudes in North America and across Europe as well as Ukraine and Russia to assess public attitudes towards the current Ukraine crisis.

This is by no means the first opinion poll on the current crisis in East-West relations. But it is a major survey of opinion which covers a range of countries.

Among Western allies, it includes Europe's six largest Nato members (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK) as well as the United States and Canada.

While some of its findings are in keeping with other recent surveys, it also throws up what may be noteworthy trends.

Use of force

image copyrightAP
image captionProtection from Russia was the main reason for joining Nato for states such as Lithuania, where this exercise took place

What is particularly striking is the reluctance among many of those surveyed in Europe to get drawn into a deeper military conflict with Russia - either in Ukraine, or elsewhere on European soil.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is in answer to the question: "If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighbouring countries which is a Nato ally, should our country use force to defend it?"

This relates to a core principle of Nato's founding treaty of 1949, the "Article Five" which states that: "An armed attack on one… shall be considered an attack against them all".

This is the prime reason that small countries on Russia's periphery, like the three tiny Baltic states, sought Nato membership.

The commitment to collective security was a guarantee they were anxious to secure, so that they would not find themselves on their own if their fears of possible Russian military interference were ever realised.

Yet according to this sample of public opinion in six of Nato's biggest countries in Europe, support for actually implementing this collective security pledge is lukewarm to say the least.

On average in Europe, only 48% of those polled - less than half - backed the idea of their country using force to come to the aid of another Nato country attacked by Russia.

Among the countries surveyed Germany is the most reluctant: 58% of those polled said they did not think their country should use military force to defend a Nato ally against Russia.

France too was unenthusiastic - 53% of those polled were opposed.

Even in Britain - often seen as a staunch Nato member - less than 50% supported the idea of using force to help another member of the alliance under attack.

In contrast, more than half of those asked in the United States and Canada supported the use of force to defend allies: 56% in the United States, and 53% in Canada.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThere was no consensus among the countries polled on who is to blame for the Ukraine crisis

Who's at fault?

Also noteworthy is the wide variance of views in Nato countries about whether or not it is Russia who should be blamed for the violence in eastern Ukraine.

According to the report, 57% of people in Poland said yes, but in Germany and Italy only 29% of respondents thought so. And in many countries nearly a quarter of those polled said they didn't know.

Although the survey suggested a strong consensus across most of Europe and North America that Ukraine should be given economic aid, many of those polled said they were opposed to supplying Ukraine with arms to use against Russia.

Only in Poland was there a majority in favour of giving Ukraine arms.

Even in the United States less than half of those asked supported sending military aid to Ukraine, while in Germany those opposed to sending arms to Kiev came to 77%.

It amounts to a mixed and even confusing picture, suggesting divergent views between Western allies, and within countries too.

In Germany only 19% of those in western regions were favourably disposed towards Russia's President Vladimir Putin, compared to 40% further east. In the US, Republicans tended to be more hawkish than Democrats when it came to questions about using force.

Russian pride

In many ways, the uncertainty which the survey reveals is unsurprising. This is a complex conflict and its twists and turns have not always been easy to follow.

Moreover, it is a crisis with no easy answers, as many Western policy makers will readily admit.

Even in Ukraine itself the picture is ambivalent, suggesting strong animosity towards Russia, but criticism too of the government in Kiev and disappointment at the way President Petro Poroshenko is handling the crisis.

By contrast the part of the survey conducted in Russia suggested Russians are much more united in how they've responded to the crisis.

The picture is one of confidence in President Putin and increased pride in Russia itself (though alongside growing alarm at the state of the Russian economy), as well as rapidly plummeting support for the West.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe survey found hostility to the West in Russia, and support for President Putin

This is entirely in line with other recent surveys carried out by major Russian pollsters, which also indicate high approval ratings for Mr Putin, and increasingly negative views of the US and Europe.

But while the picture may look clearer in Russia, questions have to remain about how indicative opinion surveys are nowadays about what Russians really think.

The blanket support for President Putin and disapproval ratings for the West are in line with Russian state-controlled television coverage of the conflict, which is where most Russians gets their news from and which leaves no room for nuance.

Yet in a country where an increasing number of laws and decrees threaten to penalise those whose criticism is deemed to be a threat to national security, why should any Russian with private reservations reveal his or her misgivings to a pollster, no matter how many assurances are given that views expressed will remain anonymous?

Better surely, to take your cue from Russian TV, sound loyal and play safe.