Poll: Willingness to defend allies from attack low in some NATO states

German soldiers assigned to Jaeger Battalion 291 scan their surroundings while waiting in a Boxer Multi-Role Armored Vehicle before a situational training exercise at the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, June 9, 2015. The soldiers are participating in Saber Strike 15, a long-standing USAREUR-led cooperative training exercise.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 10, 2015

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — More than half the public in Germany, Italy and France doesn’t support using military force in response to a Russian attack on a NATO member, according to a survey that reveals the fragility of the alliance’s bedrock principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, showed that citizens in NATO countries are unified in viewing Russia as the culprit in the conflict in Ukraine, and consider Moscow a threat to neighboring states. However, there are sharp divisions when it comes to countering Russia should Moscow ever attempt an attack on a member of the 28-nation alliance.

“Many allied countries are reluctant to uphold Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires NATO members to defend an ally with armed force if necessary,” according to the survey released by the Pew Research Center Wednesday.

Pew’s findings are likely to stir a sense of angst in the three Baltic states that were long under the Soviet Union’s domination. They view their NATO membership as the linchpin to their collective security. Rattled by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have all asked NATO to position a brigade of ground troops across the region as a means of shoring up NATO support.  A NATO brigade of 5,000 troops would be roughly equal in size to the ground forces of each Baltic state, where military budgets pale when compared to their larger NATO allies.

The Pew survey found a median of 48 percent of the public in eight NATO countries say their nation should use military force if Russia gets into a serious military conflict with a neighboring nation that is a NATO ally, while 42 percent were opposed. Five of the eight countries surveyed were among the 12 founding members of NATO in 1949: The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. The other three were Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, Spain and Poland, a former Warsaw Pact country that since the Ukraine crisis started has been pushing NATO to bolster defenses on its eastern rim.

In Germany, which traditionally has had strong economic ties with Russia, 58 percent of the public oppose the use of military force in response to a hypothetical Russian attack on an allied state. Opposition in France and Italy was 53 and 51 percent, respectively.

In the U.S., 56 percent support a military response. Canada was the only other country where more than half the public was in favor with 53 percent endorsing such action. Even in Poland, where political leaders have been vocal about the need for a stronger NATO military posture in light of Russian action in Ukraine, public opinion is mixed, with 48 percent of those polled supporting a military response and  34 percent opposed.

From the report






While many in Europe expressed reluctance to see their countries come to the aid of an ally, 68 percent of people surveyed think the United States will come to the defense of an ally.

For NATO critics, the survey results seem to underscore a common complaint that allies in Europe continue to underinvest in their own defense and are overly reliant on the U.S. to guarantee their security. 

Meanwhile, there also is little public support among allies for lending more military aid to Ukraine, which for more than a year has been fighting a civil war against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Just 41 percent support delivering arms to assist Ukraine in its fight.

Yet while the conflict presses on, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to enjoy popular support at home.

“Overwhelming majorities in Russia approve of Putin’s performance on a range of domestic and international issues,” Pew stated. “This support holds despite the fact that Russians are less happy about the country’s current economic situation than in 2014 and are now more likely to say that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are tarnishing Russia’s image worldwide.”

Russian nationalism is also at an “all-time high” with 63 percent holding a very favorable image of their own country, up 34 percentage points since 2013 and up 12 points in the past year, according to Pew.

Half of Russians say NATO is a major military threat, according to the poll.

Pew surveyed 11,116 respondents in eight NATO member countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Russia and Ukraine. The survey was conducted from April 6 to May 15 and included both phone and face to-face interviews.

Margin of error is between 3 and 4 percentage points, according to Pew.