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Ukraine: Rally Around the NATO Flag

This is a guest post by our partners at Pollitik and the Executive Approval Project, concentrating in the comparative measurement and analysis of support for political leaders around the world. It was written by Iman Hoque at Georgia State University for Pollitik’s editorial team.

On 18 March, over 200,000 Russians were in and around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium singing patriotic songs, waving Russian flags, and listening to Vladimir Putin defend his invasion of Ukraine. This Luzhniki rally is emblematic of the much broader rally of public support for Putin. All indications point to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyi enjoying a similar spike in support. Both phenomena are prime examples of the so-called ‘rally-around-the-flag effect–the public supporting incumbent political leaders when faced with external threats.

More surprising, however, are signs of rising public approval for leaders of key NATO countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses multiple threats to citizens in NATO countries; a third, and potentially nuclear, world war is a clear existential threat. Military aggression in Eastern Europe also threatens a democratic order already under stress from years of democratic backsliding in the EU. And surging commodity and food prices could disrupt daily life the world over.

Hence, global leaders have adopted a wartime posture and their citizens are rallying behind them. We map these novel ‘allied’ rally effects for French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and US President Joe Biden. But first let’s review the theoretically foreseeable rally effects for the two leaders directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine War.

No Surprise: Classic Rally-Around-the-Flag Effects for Putin and Zelenskyi

According to the Levada Center, Putin has enjoyed a 20-point surge in his approval ratings since November 2021, when the initial military build-up first made headlines. This places him just two points shy of his all-time high of 85% after the Crimea annexation, with the same pollster. While Levada is internationally respected and seeks to safeguard its independence, opinion polling in authoritarian states must be treated with caution. Citizens may not have access to independent media, may fear reprisals for voicing negative opinions of the government, and face myriad other factors which should be taken into account when analysing their responses in polls such as these.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has become a worldwide celebrity due to his refusal to leave Kyiv under incredibly dangerous circumstances. His leadership throughout has sparked one of the most pronounced rally effects of the modern age. According to Ratings Group, his approval rating jumped 60 points to a staggering 93%.

Big Surprise: Allied Rally-Around-the-Flag Effects in NATO Leaders

Among NATO allies, French President Emmanuel Macron sees the largest surge in approval with a 13.8-point swing. As the second round of French Presidential elections are just around the corner, this rally has allowed Europe Elects to give the incumbent a sizeable 85% chance of winning a second term, should the polls be accurate and election held today. It should be noted that the gap between Macron and Le Pen has narrowed significantly in recent days and the Europe Elects/EURACTIV aggregation of polls does not consider possible future variation.

Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, earns a five percentage point bump in approval since his first month in office. His public support was initially marred by indecision and waffling on offering support to Ukrainians, which cut his honeymoon short with German voters. This has likely limited his rally since the invasion.

US President Joe Biden breaks this pattern with a percentage point decline in approval between February and March. However, he did see a five point rally in his ratings between January and February, when the threat of invasion was becoming concrete. This may be due to a few confounding factors, including voter displeasure at record-high gasoline prices and continuing inflationary pressures on household and consumer goods. Marist Poll’s March fieldwork suggests Biden has a eight point net rating on his handling of the ‘situation with Russia and Ukraine’ while he is underwater (minus eight points) on his handling of the economy.

As peace talks continue to make little traction and the public becomes acclimated to the new European security environment, it is safe to assume that these leaders’ approval ratings will come back to reality, as they already have for Joe Biden. However, war brings uncertainty, and it is impossible to predict the course of future events. In the near term, it appears the public’s support has allowed NATO leaders and publics to remain relatively united against the threat on its eastern border. However, the situation remains extremely volatile while the world awaits a return to peace.

Unless otherwise noted, all approval data is sourced from the Executive Approval Project