Could Russia win a public relations war against the West?

Foreign wars tend to be most popular at the outset, particularly if they are “marketed” to the American public effectively in morally unambiguous terms, but unless they end fairly quickly in decisive victory, achieved at reasonable cost, public support and policy consensus begins to erode, sometimes swiftly. This appears to be happening with the war in Ukraine.  

Not since Pearl Harbor — which burst upon American consciousness with shocking suddenness and was instantly perceived as a clear case of good versus evil, in which American national interest faced a clear existential threat — has a war so immediately galvanized near seamless public support as occurred following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal February invasion of Ukraine.

Public support for a major U.S. role in Ukraine polled in the mid-60s in March, but in the latest AP-NORC survey on May 16 this only commands a 45 percent plurality. Similarly, President Biden’s “handling of U.S. relations with Russia” commanded a strong majority in March but is now “underwater,” with 45 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving.

At the same time, the New York Times, previously a strong advocate of “victory” for Ukraine and stern “punishment” for Russia, now appears to exhibit growing skepticism about the U.S. goals in the war. The Times editorial board on May 19 declared that Ukraine’s regaining all territory seized by Russia since 2014 “is not a realistic goal. … Russia remains too strong.”  Biden should make clear that there are “limits to the arms, money and political support Ukraine can expect,” the Times said. Reinforcing this viewpoint was Henry Kissinger’s speech delivered virtually to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, calling for a ceasefire with a return to “status quo ante.” Extending this dangerous conflict, Kissinger said, risks it becoming “not a war about Ukrainian freedom but a war against Russia itself.” 

Simultaneously, the heretofore skimpy and universally negative reporting of Putin’s intentions has begun to morph into a dawning perception that the Russian leader’s strategy of conquering a land bridge to Crimea and gaining a chokehold on the entire Ukrainian economy, via total control of the Black Sea coastline, is not quite as inept as previously reported.

Another element of the conventional wisdom now crumbling is the idea that the crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union nations would soon bring the Russian economy to its knees. Instead, there is evidence that the opposite may be occurring, with sanctions doing more damage to Western economies than to Russia’s. Far from being the “rubble” predicted by President Biden, the ruble hit a two-year high in May and Russian energy and agricultural exports were producing record high revenues, in large part because Europe and much of the rest of the world can’t do without them.

Related to these phenomena is the utter unreality of the war’s foundational myth — namely that the United States has rallied almost the entire world against a nearly totally isolated Russia. In truth, of the world’s 195 countries only 65 have agreed to join the American sanctions regime — meaning that 130 have refused, including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, most of Asia, Africa and Latin America, countries that together constitute the vast majority of the world’s population.

Consider also that the nations the U.S. currently targets with sanctions represent a powerful bloc strongly opposing what they regard as America’s economic bullying. A striking example of the rejection of U.S. assumptions of dominance was a recent meeting of the world’s leading financial nations — the G-20 Summit — when the U.S. delegation walked out on a speech by a Russian delegate and only three of the other 19 delegations followed suit. All of this tells any objective observer that it is not Russia that is the world’s most isolated superpower but perhaps the United States itself.

Not long ago, talk of victory (“In it to win”) or potential regime change (Putin “cannot remain in power”) and “Ukrainians should decide” final war aims was common parlance throughout the West. Now, the U.S. and its allies appear to be in a different posture, struggling to find an acceptable path toward a compromise to end the war. 

With nearly all Western nations in varying degrees of economic crisis, and the U.S. government on the brink of a massive political repudiation by Americans who consistently tell pollsters their highest priority is fixing their own economy and retrieving the fast-shredding American Dream, the world is changing in unexpected and profound ways. 

William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University.  He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.