The conventional wisdom is that Americans, scarred by the country’s involvement in wars for the last two decades, are by and large done with all that. When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was never a question of whether President Biden would send in U.S. troops to assist the Ukrainians. This wasn’t just because of a war-weary public: Pitting two nuclear powers against each other was incomprehensible.
But in our latest Times Opinion focus group, 10 Americans — representing a range of political parties, ideologies and backgrounds — were clearly struggling with what the United States could or should do about the war and the daily evidence of brutality that increasingly alarms them. They had thought a lot about leadership, grit and hard decisions, especially as shown by Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and about how much they are willing to sacrifice, financially and otherwise, as the fallout from the war and Western sanctions continue.
None of the participants brought up Ukraine when we asked our first question, about their main concerns regarding America today. But when asked how much they cared about the war, on a scale of one to 10, eight participants gave scores of five or greater. There was an overwhelming sense that “America must do something” but not to the point of direct military involvement — at least unless Vladimir Putin resorted to a nuclear weapon. It reflected the unease and murkiness of what Americans think the country’s role in the world today should be. As for President Biden, several participants praised his handling of the conflict, but overall, their views of him were tepid.
This is the eighth focus group in our series America in Focus, which seeks to hear and understand the views of cross-sections of Americans whose voices are often not heard in opinion journalism. We conducted the discussion with Kristen Soltis Anderson, our focus group leader, who does similar work for political candidates, parties and special interest groups. (Times Opinion paid for the work.) This transcript has been edited for length and clarity; an audio recording and video clips of the session are also included. Participants provided their biographical details.
‘How Could We Allow This to Happen?’ 10 Americans on the War in Ukraine
Kristin Soltis Anderson: If you had to describe your biggest concern about the United States or American society today in a single word or phrase, what would it be?
Aleeta (31, Black, loan assistant from Georgia): Inflation.
Nick (25, Asian, accountant from Utah): A lack of self-reliance.
Jamie (47, white, self-described homemaker from Arizona): Division and immigration.
James (67, Black, field service technician from Florida): Disarray.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How do you feel about the war in Ukraine in one word? When I think about the war in Ukraine, I feel blank?
Dale (55, Asian, works in education, from California): Anger.
Katherine (31, Hispanic, assistant service manager from Texas): Fearful.
Aleeta: Disbelief, truly.
Karina (55, Hispanic, self-described homemaker from Arizona): Afraid.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Aleeta, why disbelief?
Aleeta: It’s disbelief that there really is a war, an active war, where innocent civilians and persons are dying.
Kieran (22, Asian, operations associate from Texas): It’s disbelief in human nature. It makes me sad to see that people are capable of this time and time again in history.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Jamie, you said terrified. Why?
Jamie: First of all, Putin’s crazy. I don’t think it’s going to stop in Ukraine. And if we don’t step in and do something and stop it before it gets out of control, we could be looking at another Hitler. We’re just sitting here, living our lives. And everybody else is over there dying and begging for help.
Charles (67, white, technical staffer from Maryland): I was going to use the word helpless. You kind of feel like you want to take some action. But most any action you take has the potential of just making things worse.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: This is on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means I really don’t care that much about this at all, and 10 means I care about this an enormous amount. What number would you assign to how much you care about what’s happening in Ukraine right now?
Aleeta: A six or a seven.
Taylor (25, white, works in data entry, from Florida): I would say five.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Tell me about your five.
Taylor: I’m more worried about our borders and inflation and gas and the fact that Biden closed down the Keystone pipeline. There’s so many other things that we should be worried about at home.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Nick, why a four?
Nick: I know that at any moment, we could get involved a bit more, but at least right now, we haven’t been affected a ton.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Dale, you were a nine, my highest number.
Dale: I have a background in the military. People don’t realize that this happens all the time, with Syria and other parts of the world. Things have been allowed to happen with us not looking as carefully as we could. So I’m just irritated to see that this is happening again, We could have done a better job in terms of the appropriate deterrence that needed to be done. That’s why there’s a sense of anger on my part here.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Jamie, tell me why you put yourself at an eight.
Jamie: The stock market’s been really bad. It fluctuates because nobody knows what’s going on. Pretty soon, people aren’t going to be able to afford to even go to the grocery store. Everything is expensive. The gas, everything, traveling. We basically don’t travel.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Is there anything in particular that you have seen, read, or heard about the war that has stayed with you and stuck in your memory? James?
James: With Putin being the bully that he is, I think it was kind of allowed. I don’t see the United Nations carrying their weight in this issue. I’m ex-military as well. And I don’t see them stepping to the plate. The players that are supposed to play with this guy, Putin, they’re standing down, for some reason.
Aleeta: I listen to N.P.R. And they mentioned that so far it’s been 183 children who have been killed and that they are attacking orphanages and maternity wards. I think that kind of just completely obliterated my faith in humanity.
Yara Bayoumy: Based on what you’ve seen, read, or heard, why do you think this war is happening?
Nick: Putin saw Ukraine as some sort of threat in their border relations. And that’s why they decided to get involved, because they didn’t want to kind of stand back any longer. Something that I read or heard, I just saw a video clip of a missile strike and, yeah, just the damage that it caused. And I play video games occasionally with my friends. And we have these war games that a lot of the youth are a part of. And they don’t really take it very seriously. But that just really opened my eyes to, wow, these are really big problems in the world. People are dying. Destruction’s happening. And we’re just kind of sitting back, so.
Karina: Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with just Putin and his ego. I think he wants to conquer another country. And I think he surrounds himself with people that let him keep thinking that about himself. He’s a madman.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Kieran?
Kieran: From what I understand, it’s basically about control and power and how Putin wants to regain Ukraine once again as part of Russian territory, so he can do whatever he wants to keep the borders safe, keep them away from NATO, the U.N.
Charles: Putin feels that one of the worst things that’s happened in the last 30 years was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And he’s trying to regather all of those satellite nations back into the fold of Russia again. How could we allow this to happen? Well, you turn it around and say, well, what could we have done to stop it? And there’s not a lot of answers that I can see that wouldn’t be just as destructive. This is a problem you have any place where you have one person get too much power and influence.
Yara Bayoumy: Dale?
Dale: I think one needs to take a look at what’s happening in the Russian media and what’s been happening over the years. They’re living in an echo chamber there. And I think his people below him are very scared to tell him what’s going on here. It’s history repeating itself. We’ve got to be very careful about that. We have to understand that we can’t stand back and allow this to happen.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What comes to mind when I say Vladimir Putin?
Taylor: I first think of Communism, like a dictator. Somewhere I wouldn’t want to live.
Jamie: I just think he’s crazy. And I do think this is repeating history. My dad was in the military. My husband was in the military. They all fought. My brother, he’s fought. Everybody I know has fought for this country. So I don’t want a war. But I don’t want to sit here, either, and watch all these people die and see people’s heads cut off and their arms and legs cut off. I don’t want to see that. And that’s what I remember. When I see stuff, that stays with me.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What comes to mind when you think of Volodymyr Zelensky?
Kieran: He looks like a badass. I think he’s doing a very good job of showing leadership right now in terms of taking an active voice and using that in the U.N. and NATO. Second, he’s doing a good job of actually being there with his soldiers on the dirt, putting his life with theirs. He’s not acting like he’s better than anyone else, which I think is a very rare quality in a leader.
Katherine: I just think that he’s a really strong leader. The fact that he’s still there — he didn’t leave or go into hiding. He’s actually involved.
Karina: Right there in the trenches with his troops and putting out great messages to the world.
Dale: I think he embodies the four key characteristics of good leadership: being first, leading from the front, being fair, firm — he’s establishing that — also being able to go with the punches and all. He’s an actor too — and acting is not — there might be a negative connotation of being an actor, but in reality, being a great actor is being able to communicate very well. And I think he’s shining right now.
Kristen Soltis Anderson Are there any things that you’ve seen Zelensky do and think, gosh, I wish other leaders did more of this?
Aleeta: Just like Dale mentioned, the leading from the front, joining the front lines, just being on hand and on call when necessary, not having so many middlemen. It’s him that’s producing this information. It’s him asking for help for his people. Our country would benefit from a more hands-on leader versus just the politics alone.
Yara Bayoumy: When you think about America’s allies in Europe, do you think that they have been doing the right thing when it comes to the war in Ukraine?
Kieran: One country that sticks out the most to me is Poland, accepting huge amounts of refugees, getting them there. I have been seeing a couple of videos of Ukrainian children go into their first day at school in Poland, which I think is really awesome
James: I don’t think everybody’s on board with all of the sanctions. I think that if the sanctions are supposed to do what they’re supposed to do, then we need 100 percent participation.
Dale: Germany and other countries are dependent on the energy that comes from Russia. I could understand it from the perspective of the leaders of those countries — you talk about inflation that we’re having in the United States, I mean, that would go through the roof. And there would be a lot of challenges for those people as well.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How would you rate President Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine?
Karina: He spoke harshly in public arenas to Putin. I think his predecessor wasn’t willing to do that. So I feel better about the administration than I did before.
Dale: I’ll raise my hand to support as well. They bungled what happened with Afghanistan, the pullout. He and his administration, with Congress, were able to coalesce NATO and parts of the E.U. to get together. When I think back, I would not think that they would be able to get NATO to actually come together and get a stronger response that Putin would not have expected. I think Putin expected that we would not be able to stand up that quickly to him.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Is there anybody who would say your opinion of President Biden is basically the same? Your opinion hasn’t really changed one way or the other. Show of hands.[Six people raise their hands.]
Is there anybody whose opinion of President Biden has gotten worse as a result of what you’ve seen since this invasion?[James raises his hand.]
James: I think it’s been political. I think he’s taken a safe position. He’s been in politics so long that he understands, where it’s almost like chess. So I’m going to move my rook over just so I don’t get my queen taken. Or I’m going to move those pieces just enough on the board where it doesn’t make me look bad.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What is the word or phrase, filling in the blank, that comes to mind: When I think about how the United States is approaching the war in Ukraine, Russia, Putin, I feel blank.
Taylor: I feel confused. I know we’re doing sanctions. But are we still buying gas from Russia? That might be a stupid question, but I feel like we’re still supporting them in a way.
Nick: I feel like the U.S. is reserved.
Dale: Two words, calculated patience.
Jamie: I’m confused.
James: I like the word calculated. But I’m going to change that to not patience, but calculated politics.
Kieran: Unsurprised. Like James and Dale have said, it is calculated. It’s very political. I think the U.S. is very isolationist. In matters like this, they take a very long time before they physically get involved.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: OK. Karina, tell me why you gave the answer that you gave.
Karina: The president can give strong speeches. And we can stand with our allies. But at the same time, we’re not putting boots on the ground, which I think is a good thing. Everything has to be thought out.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Dale, you wanted to jump in here.
Dale: I used the word patience because I would view what’s happening in Ukraine right now as the equivalent of Russia’s Afghanistan revisited, as well as Vietnam. If we want to avoid having to send boots on the ground and have any of our young volunteer people, sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen lose their lives over there;we’re being very patient about it. The Ukrainians are doing the fighting for us. We’re giving them the equipment. And if Russia gets into a situation where they’re having enough damage there, it’s going to affect the regime. So we have to be very patient in what we’re doing. There’s a calculated game that’s going on right now.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What should we be doing to support Ukraine, if anything?
Jamie: I do think we should help in any way, whether it’s medical, food, weapons. But I don’t want to have to put our people over there.
Nick: I think we should give humanitarian, medical, food relief just to help out those that are suffering. But I guess direct military involvement, I don’t think we should.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Is there anybody who thinks that we should be doing more direct military involvement?
Kieran: I don’t want to say I’m comfortable taking actual military action. But there is a large part of my brain that thinks that might be the only way to actually stop this at this point because unfortunately the U.S. is — a lot of other countries are sending humanitarian aid. We’ve given them Wi-Fi. We’ve given the Ukrainians food, weapons, everything. But one day, all the people are going to die. And there aren’t going to be the people to use the weapons.
Charles: I think that we do have to do a much better job of building a coalition to isolate Russia. On the news here in the U.S., you kind of get a sense that we are having the world come together to isolate Russia. But that’s not true with China and India and Pakistan and most of Africa. It’s almost like the world’s dividing into two major camps. Some are kind of willing to go along with Russia because they see some advantages in that to themselves in the long run. And then you have the West.
Yara Bayoumy: A lot of you mentioned the sanctions that the U.S. and other countries have imposed on Russia and Putin. Those sanctions, including the ones that the U.S. has imposed, have caused the price of gas to go up for Americans. Do you think that’s worth it? And how far higher, if at all, would you be willing to pay for a gallon of gas if it means that Putin is being further squeezed?
Charles: Well, compared to some of my European colleagues, we have cheap gas. So even before all this started, I could see people spending what would be the equivalent of $9 a gallon for diesel fuel in Germany.
Taylor: I don’t think it’s worth it. And I’m not willing to pay that much. I think we should be continuing work on the Keystone Pipeline, instead of depending on other countries for our gas. And that would solve our problem. And then we wouldn’t have to support Russia.
James: I think that if we’re going to be a superpower, if we’re going to be part of the United Nations, and we’re going to look at humanity, then we’re going to have to maybe eat that cost. And we can see a lot of things play out, even in Covid, how things changed and people start doing things in other ways.
Yara Bayoumy: What obligation do you think the United States has toward Ukrainian refugees?
Katherine: I think that the U.S. should open its borders to refugees from Ukraine and provide whatever assistance they need. That’s something that we can do to help. It’s not stepping on anyone’s toes, and not going to put us in the middle of a war.
Jamie: I think we should let them in. We can help them. We might not be able to help everybody. But we can definitely help some people. I see thousands of people coming through the border that we’re helping. And they’re all getting shipped into everybody’s state. A lot of the people that I know, my family, they’re all getting tons and tons of people in their states — Arizona, Florida, Virginia. So I think we can help them.
Dale: For years and years, we’ve been, I think, allowed to reap the benefits of having such a connected economy and depending on other countries. And that allowed us to not have any core capabilities with regards to energy. I have relatives down in Louisiana, where they lost a lot with the changes in oil and everything in the Gulf. It killed the economy down there. But now it’s starting to come back because of these gas prices. So I think we could do a lot. We should be able to bring more people in. We haven’t done a great job of bringing people in. But maybe that’s something we could actually invest in more, to show that we are the guardians of the free world.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Do you think the current situation actually threatens the United States’ security? Do you personally feel like your security is threatened at all?
Karina: It has the potential to. I read that they’re searching to find out if it’s true or not that Russia used chemical weapons in an attack in Ukraine. And if they’re going to go there, what’s going to stop them from nuclear? It’s just a tense, scary thing.
Taylor: I’m more worried on a financial side. We’re so dependent on other countries for other things. And all the prices of everything going up had me really worried. I’m glad gas has kind of stopped for now. But when it was climbing, that was really scary for me just because it’s just a lot of money for me in my situation where I’m at right now in life.
Kieran: I think that as long as nuclear weapons exist in the hands of anyone, everyone’s threatened. And just the fact that that threat hangs above the countries’ heads is a terrifying concept. Because it’s like, if you help these people any more than you already are, a lot of people will die.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How many of you, show of hands, think that it is at least somewhat likely that Putin will use nuclear weapons?[Eight people raise their hands.]
Nick and Dale, you’re my only two without hands. Dale, what do you think? Why do you think that that’s not likely?
Dale: Hopefully there’s enough people in there that if they were actually going to launch one of those, like a tactical nuclear device, that someone would have enough wherewithal to figure, you’re not supposed to do that. So I’m just hoping in faith that there’s enough humanity out there to really think about it.
The people who can control the keys to that, hopefully they know that.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Many of you earlier on said you did not think that the United States should be intervening militarily. If Putin uses a nuclear weapon, would that change your view?
Jamie: My worst fear is that’s going to happen to us. It really is. It was when Kim Jong-un was doing all those little mind games back then. It was a concern then. And now it’s a concern again.
Taylor: Well, I think if he used nuclear weapons, that would just — I don’t know — be the last straw.
Nick: I don’t think he will. As it is, I don’t think he has very much, if any, support from any other countries. The second that he does anything that affects anyone outside of Ukraine, I think everybody’s just going to stomp on him. So it’s — I think he’s smarter than that, to resort to that. So that’s why I don’t think that he’s going to use it.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How is this likely to end, in your view?
Katherine: I hate to say this, but I really feel like Ukraine is going to have to, maybe not fully surrender, but surrender in some ways to make it stop. If that doesn’t happen, then I feel like there’s a possibility of a world war.
Charles: Well, I think it’s going to end up with another long-term standoff in the world. And I think Ukraine’s going to lose a lot before we get to that stage.
James: I see Ukraine as a formidable opponent for Russia. I think Ukraine has proved that they’re not going to be fully integrated. I think they’re going to come through. I think they have the right president. It’s going to take a little while. But I think that they’re going to stand strong.
Yara Bayoumy: Do you think the United States has a responsibility to uphold democracy around the world? And if so, how far do you think that responsibility should extend or not?
Aleeta: I don’t think that it’s ultimately left to us as the free world to impose free-world living and doctrine on other countries. That’s kind of gotten us in trouble in the past. So lead by example is kind of where I’m left at when it comes to us, the United States.
James: I think when we look at the characteristics of democracy, is one of them humanity? And is that what we’re fighting about? Or are they two separate issues? So if the question is whether we should fight for democracy across the world, my answer is no.
Charles: I think you can fight to keep democracy where it is but not impose it.
Dale: Though we’re divided — and I think a lot of it’s coming from external sources and other things that allow media to happen the way it is — I still think we need to come back to our fundamentals of why this experiment in democracy that’s only 200-plus years old —- we’re a young country here. I think we still need to lead by example.
Yara Bayoumy: How the Biden administration has dealt with the war in Ukraine, is that going to factor at all in your assessment and thinking when we get to the next election?
Aleeta: His decisions previously and currently are not a factor for next election in my mind for him. It’s all the things prior to, and it’s everything outside of this, in my mind, that would sway me on the upcoming elections in his regard.
Taylor: Well, I would say this whole situation hasn’t changed my opinion of him too much. I still think very negatively of him from everything before this and now.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Karina, will this change whether or not you consider voting for Biden in the future?
Karina: Probably not. I actually don’t think he’s going to run again.
Yara Bayoumy is the world and national security editor for Opinion. Adrian J. Rivera is an editorial assistant in Opinion.
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