The public are divided on whether a nuclear attack should be met with a nuclear response, conventional war, or action short of war
The Russian government has rattled the nuclear sabre many times over the course of the Ukraine war. Since the start of the invasion, Putin has moved nuclear weapons into Belarus, suspended its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, and made nuclear implications in reaction to such actions as Germany giving tanks to Ukraine. Senior officials like foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov and Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev have also made nuclear threats.
With the Russians raising the prospect of nuclear weapons use, how do Britons think the West should react in the event of a nuclear attack, on Ukraine, our key ally the US, or ourselves?
Our question asked about two scenarios for each nation: a small nuclear weapon being used against a military target, and a nuclear weapon being used against a city. In the case of the Ukrainian example, it was specified that Russia had been the attacker; for attacks on US and UK targets, this was left unspecified. Respondents were asked to assume in each scenario that the West was not already at war with Russia / the attacking country.
How should the West react if Russia uses a nuclear weapon on Ukrainian military targets or a Ukrainian city?
Were Russia to use a small nuclear weapon against a Ukrainian military target, 7% of Britons believe that would be justification for a nuclear retaliation against them. For a further 21% the appropriate response would be to declare war against Russia, but not to use nuclear weapons.
However, 36% would only want to take action short of declaring war, and 10% think Western nations should not react at all. The remaining 26% are unsure.
Were the target instead a Ukrainian city, these numbers remain similar – there is a five point increase in the proportion saying the right response would be to declare war (but not use nuclear weapons), and a four point decrease in the number wanting to take action stopping short of war. The proportion wanting to respond with nuclear weapons remains unchanged.
How should the West react if Russia uses a nuclear weapon on Ukrainian military targets or the US itself?
When it comes to Russia launching a small nuclear attack on an American military target, the overall trend of responses is similar: 8% would want a nuclear retaliation, 25% a declaration of war, 30% to take action short of war, and 11% to do nothing.
The dynamic between responses to a nuclear attack on a US military target and a city is different, however. Here we see no change in the proportion of people saying a declaration of war is the right approach, but a six point increase in the proportion who think a nuclear strike should take place.
How should the West react if Russia uses a nuclear weapon on British military targets or the UK itself?
Public opinion differs noticeably when it comes to the prospect of nuclear weapons being used against British targets.
Should Russia deploy a small nuclear weapon against British forces, 17% of Britons say that should me met with a nuclear response. A third (34%) would want the West to declare war on Russia (but stop short of using nuclear weapons), while 24% think it should be met with action short of declaring war. Only 4% say there should be no response.
If the nuclear attack were against a British city, then 27% of the public say a nuclear retaliation should take place against Russia, a ten-point increase. The number saying war should be declared is relatively similar (31%), while there is a seven point drop in the number saying that action short of war should be taken (to 17%). Only 3% say no action should be taken.
One in five Britons (21-22%) aren’t sure how the West should respond if British forces or territory were subject to a nuclear attack from the Russians.
Men in particular are more likely to favour a nuclear response
Breaking the results down into demographic groups, we can see that the most dramatic differences are between men and women.
Across all scenarios, men are more likely than women to favour a military response – either a nuclear strike or a declaration of war. Women are somewhat more likely to give a non-military preference – either to take action short of war or do nothing – but much of the difference is down to their greater likelihood to answer “don’t know”.
Gender differences are the most pronounced when it comes to a responding to a nuclear attack on a British city. While both sides tend to favour a military reaction, for 43% of men this should be nuclear in nature, compared to only 13% of women.
When it comes to voting groups, Conservative voters are more likely to favour a nuclear retaliation in the event that Russia attacked the UK (and to a lesser extent the US, but NOT in the case of a strike on Ukrainian military targets). Most of this difference is accounted for by Labour voters’ greater likelihood to answer “don’t know”, rather than a profound difference in outlook.
Differences between generations are far less pronounced, with younger people typically being less likely to answer ‘action short of war’, but almost all of this difference is accounted for by their greater likelihood to answer “don’t know”.
Photo: Warner Bros