Do domestic variables influence war support? Evidence from Ukraine



Russian aggression against Ukraine has sparked a significant reaction in terms of economic sanctions against Moscow and military/financial support towards Kiev. Although geographically limited to the so called “West” of the world, the impact of the sanctioning/support measures is extremely high due to the comparative economic and military power of the states involved. But why did these states intervene in the first place?


A liberal approach would link the “western” intervention to the failure of integrating Russia into the “liberal international order”, while the same would have rarely happened between two or more democracies that share significant trade flows and are members of the same institutions. But the specific question is: could we also explain western countries’ support if we do not treat them as identical unitary actors? In his work, Fearon argues that a systemic theory of IR entails also states that are not unitary actors and/or that pursue a suboptimal result due to domestic variables. The theories of domestic variables in international relations focus in fact on several political, economic, and civil society actors that may influence the behaviour of states in the international arena. This article aims to assess whether the traditional variables linked with military involvement could be explanatory in the case of assistance to Ukraine or if we can treat the states’ behaviour as dependant from “national interest” or alliance membership, thus non-responding to the same logic scholars have observed in other case studies.


To assess whether domestic variables play a role in the intervention of Western states during the ongoing conflict, it is necessary to introduce the so-called “theory of democratic peace”. The assumption is that conflict between democracies is comparatively more difficult to occur since citizens’ opposition to war is directly transferred into a more peaceful policy outcome; thesis supported by the fact that democratic leaders, subject to a constant scrutiny from their voters, prefer to spend resources in “public goods” rather than risking aggressive behaviours abroad as an autocrat would more likely do. For the war intervention’s analysis, we are also going to follow the “monadic” approach, which assumes that democracies are per se less involved in risky behaviour, for the fact that leaders are more constrained by their electorates that do not perceive war as legitimate. The literature on parliaments and parties’ role has further shown that parliamentary control is also linked with a lower involvement in wars. Thus, in a country with more restrictions to the power of the executive, we should observe less war involvement. The argument applies also for logistical and external support, not only for direct troops deployment since parliaments are perceived as veto players having ex ante and ex post control on the executive’s moves as well as budgetary powers. But in the case of the European debate on whether to approve shipment of heavy weapons or limiting aid to non-lethal and medical supplies towards Ukraine, seems to be associated mostly with domestic reasons instead of foreign policy concerns. In fact, if one could rationally fear a Russian reaction, it does not seem plausible that shipping weapons could result in more than an economic retaliation. It does, however, influence the relationship between a party and its electorate since war assistance is seen as a commitment of resources that could be spent somewhere else. Parties are indeed another domestic actor that is crucial for understanding foreign policy: it is argued that especially populist parties tend to reject the “liberal international order” and sympathize with each other, thus in our case resulting in a lower sanctioning stance against Russia. Moreover, we would expect a lower involvement for left-government-led countries, traditionally perceived as more “dovish. Finally, we should see that where “national interest” is at stake, so especially for eastern European countries, and for members of NATO, where the cost of defecting is extremely high, the parliamentary control and party ideology links should be significantly less strong than in Western states or non-NATO members.


Comparing the left/right spectrum to the progressive/populist one, we discover that right parties are more supportive towards Russia, and so are populist parties. However, right parties are also more interventionist when it comes to military support, in fact, none of the party variables are statistically significant in this case. Moving to the parliament control, we do not find support for the hypothesis that this has limited the arms shipments so far either. The geographical proximity variable is also not correlated with more qualitative support, but it is extremely important when it comes to quantitative support, with eastern European countries committing comparatively more than their western counterparts. Finally, the most robust support is found for the I.O.s membership variable: being a member of the EU, NATO and even more of both is significantly correlated with war support to Ukraine. This is consistent with the literature that considers I.O.s not only as a platform for solving conflicts between members, but also for coordinating external response to “core interest” threat. It further shows support that alliance cohesion is especially driven by elite consensus rather than public opinion support. Although in this case also public opinion polls showed a growing concern for the aggressive revisionist behaviour of Russia, in fact, the average support for shipping military equipment to Ukraine was only 36% in a Eurobarometer survey published by the European Parliament. In this regard, we could argue that the same variables do not apply in this case as they did in the 2003 war in Iraq since public opinion in not “overwhelmingly” against the governments, or since this is a “humanitarian intervention” in support of an attacked country, rather than an invasion. The findings of this paper could suffer nonetheless from a temporal bias: further research should address for instance if a shift in public opinion, probably due to the “normalization” of the crisis and the economic consequences of sanctions, would result in more opposition from the parties as well, thus reaffirming the veto powers of parliaments when they are called to approve weapons shipments from the governments.

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