Who does the world blame for the war in Ukraine?
A look at public opinion among nations belonging to NATO and the Global South.
Since no one just debates issues on the merits anymore, one of the more persistent arguments on the left have been about what other people think about the war in Ukraine in other parts of the world. This also happens to be one of the most evidence-free debates I have ever seen. There’ve been a number of United Nations votes on related issues since February, but there are all kinds of interpretive moves you can make with them to arrive at whatever conclusion you like. Two of my favorite:
Neutral votes can always be interpreted as a vote against the side you oppose.
You can insist on one-country-one-vote scoring, or insist that votes should be weighed by the size of the country.
You would think that second move in particular would remind everyone that UN votes and public opinion aren’t the same thing. If say you want to know what people in India think, you can’t just look at a UN vote and extrapolate from there that 100% of the population takes any particular stance. Or even that a plurality of the population takes a particular stance. If you want to know what people around the world have to say about the war in Ukraine, there just isn’t any shortcut around asking them.
The bad news is that we still don’t have a comprehensive survey of global opinion. But the good news is that a few months ago, YouGov and Cambridge conducted the biggest one to date. That’s a lot of data to go through, so in this post I’m just going to focus on what seems to me the most important question: who do people blame for the war in Ukraine?
Since YouGov / Cambridge didn’t provide any information about their country selection methodology, it’s difficult to say whether we should regard this as a representative sample of global opinion or just the largest one we have. One conspicuous (and probably inevitable) omission in their set, for example, is China; but if there are enough predictable regional similarities in public opinion, you could conceivably omit it as long as the other countries you select (like India) make up for it. I’ll update this piece when I hear back from YouGov; but even given what we do know, we can draw some preliminary conclusions.
One more caveat. This survey also includes three countries — Australian, Japan, and Mexico — that are typically categorized as part of the Global North (for example by the UN), but that are not members or aspiring members of NATO. I’ve left them out to simplify this analysis, but their inclusion doesn’t significantly change any of these conclusions.
Here, I’ve plotted out the margin of blame for the war in Ukraine by country:
A few takeaways:
1) Just about everyone places most of the blame for the war in Ukraine on Russia. In addition to plotting out the margins in each country, I also calculated overall opinion in NATO nations and the Global South, weighting by country populations. In NATO nations, most people blame Russia for the war in Ukraine by a margin of about 51%. And in the Global South, most people blame Russia as well — though by a much smaller margin of just 7%. Only two outliers in this survey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, place more blame on Western Nations than on Russia — by margins of 1% and 10%, respectively.
One can, of course, argue on the merits that the West bears primary responsibility for the war in Ukraine, and that’s exactly what so various state actors around the world and “heterodox anti-imperialists” in the West continue to do. But there just isn’t any evidence that this reflects prevailing opinion among most people — even in the Global South, where what data we have shows most people placing most of the blame on the Russian Federation.
2) Popular opinion isn’t polarized between NATO and the Global South. Most countries in both regions fall within the narrow spectrum of opinion between Thailand (18%) and Spain (61%). That’s about a fifth of the chart. Just about everyone is clustered within the “this is mostly Russia’s fault, but the West bears some blame too” zone, and if you looked at those data points without labels you’d have trouble guessing who belongs in NATO and who in the Global South.
3) NATO nations are not following the lead of public opinion in the US. Americans fall very near the center of public opinion among NATO nations, placing blame on Russia for starting the war by a margin of 55%. This is above average globally, but it doesn’t match the intensity of blame on Russia in the Nordics, Poland, and the UK, or even in Canada and Spain. Whether other governments are following the lead of the US government is a different story, of course, though we’d do well not to overstate that either.
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