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Conflicting Views: How the Russian Public Perceives Relations with America

Stepan Goncharov
Conflicting Views: How the Russian Public Perceives Relations with America

This piece originally appeared in Intersection and has been lightly edited here for style.

A new survey shows how Russians might be open to changing their views about America. There is a growing willingness to cooperate but persistent reluctance for their country to make concessions.

Why has the West’s sanctions policy so far failed to change the Kremlin’s foreign policy orientation? Which lines of cooperation could help deescalate tensions and restore workable relations? Such questions have been asked by Russian and Western journalists repeatedly for the past three or four years. The answers might be found in a close look at various trends in Russian public opinion.

In the eyes of the Russian public, according to a recent set of Levada Center surveys, Russian-American relations are perceived as complex, and certainly not founded only on hatred and suspicion. Any glimmer of cooperation instantly becomes breaking news in Russia and is watched with interest. For example, this is exactly what happened when President Vladimir Putin thanked Donald Trump for helping prevent ISIS attacks. At the same time, most news coverage of America in Russian media is presented in a negative and accusatory light, which plays a decisive role in shaping public opinion.

Do you think that…?

Image removed.Data by Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, December 2017

The Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted a joint study of the mass attitudes of the population of Russia and the United States. According to the poll results, four in five Russians believe that the United States is trying to damage Russia’s geopolitical interests. The media have undoubtedly played a decisive role in the formation of this view, tapping into a whole set of fears and traumas inflicted on Russian society after the collapse of the Soviet Union. New reasons were added to old wounds: personal sanctions against politicians, which were presented by the media as an insult directed toward the whole country; numerous diplomatic pokes; even spats over Russia’s participation in cultural and sports events, such as the Eurovision Song Contest or the Olympics, which have acquired a political dimension in the eyes of the public.

According to the Russians surveyed, the following reasons determine today’s opposition between Russia and the United States (the remaining options registered less than 5 percent): “Russia is a geopolitical rival of the United States” (24 percent); “It has always been like this” (17 percent); “The West imposed sanctions against Russia” (13 percent); “That’s what they say in the news” (6 percent); “This is my opinion” (5 percent).

What makes you think so?

Image removed.Data by Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, December 2017

In fact, we can talk about three groupings of answers that represent the most common clusters of public opinion. In the first group, Russia and the United States are described as ontological opponents because, proponents of this view claim, the very nature of international relations presupposes belligerent rivalry. This idea is the most common one (it is held by more than 40 percent of Russians) and apparently also the most stable. It relies on the widespread stereotype that the current conflict between Russia and the United States is not new but instead just a new stage in the global confrontation that began in the twentieth century.

The second group of answers includes rational explanations. In addition to the most frequently mentioned option, the anti-Russian sanctions, respondents recall various U.S. interventions in other countries’ affairs, the scandal with the “eviction” of diplomats, and, now, the Olympic scandal (the survey was conducted before the final ban on the participation of Russia’s team). Altogether, these reasons were mentioned by 30 percent of Russians surveyed. It is possible that the rationalization of the negative attitude toward the other country conceals the unexamined belief that Russia and the United States are engaged in a long-running global confrontation, as mentioned above.

Reasoning in the third group of answers refers to external authoritative opinions (approximately 10 percent of respondents). On the one hand, this is how respondents may express their lack of interest in the topic (“It does not concern me directly, I am satisfied with the views I hear on TV”). On the other hand, it is a statement confirming one’s own incompetence and inability to understand complex issues, which are seen as inaccessible through everyday experience.

The schematic structure of the public consciousness as suggested by the clustering of response rationalizations indicates the boundaries to the change that can be achieved in the short term, as well as specific problems that, if solved, may contribute to a large-scale improvement in attitudes toward the United States. Although relations with the West are now far from excellent, about half of Russians want a departure from the policy of containment and would be open to developing cooperation with the United States. By contrast, in the summer of 2016, only one-third of Russians thought so.

In America, on the contrary, openness to cooperation has decreased since 2016. The growing skepticism in the United States is logical: the Trump administration has seen a number of scandals around and accusations of links to the Kremlin, and Trump’s electoral victory has been attributed to the intervention of “Russian hackers”: 69 percent of Americans believe that Russia largely interferes in the internal affairs of their country.

However, this growing hysteria has not yet reached the Russian scale: in Russia, the United States is accused of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs by 78 percent of survey respondents.

In your opinion, should our country . . . ?

Image removed.Data by Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, December 2017

Why, then, is the openness of ordinary Russians to cooperation growing? Despite the efforts undertaken by state-controlled television channels to portray the deterioration of living standards in Russia as the result of destructive activities by Western rivals, America cannot remain a target of hatred indefinitely. The intensity of emotions will inevitably subside, though their tone will remain negative and watchful. Against the backdrop of the previous few years, which the Russians themselves described as “wartime,” today’s relations do not seem openly hostile. In contrast, for the first time in many years there are serious fears that anti-Russian sentiment in the U.S. will only be aggravated.

Openness to cooperation is largely determined by the state of a country’s economy. As noted above, the imposition of sanctions is perceived as a crucial piece of evidence of American pressure on Russia. The joke that the broken light bulbs in the corridor are the responsibility of the American president does hold a considerable part of the truth of Russian life. The public media take every opportunity to imply that the nation’s economic troubles can be traced to transatlantic influences. However, to recognize that Russia’s economy depends on the interference of other countries means acknowledging one’s own impotence, which is why the country’s leadership has to use evasive phrases and imply that the sanctions have affected the situation, but perhaps not so much.

Russians read this signal and conclude that the restrictive measures introduced by the West have been ineffective. The rising exchange rates of other currencies and the price spikes that occurred in 2014 are losing their color and have become more of a routine, and the official forecasts do not give any reasons to panic. The social sentiment index calculated by the Levada Center has been growing throughout the year. In this context, concern over the sanctions has gradually dwindled. Undoubtedly, the sanctions will continue to be an obstacle to any improvement in relations with the United States, even if their severity is reduced.

Are you concerned about the Western political and economic sanctions against Russia?

At the same time, the number of possible options for resolving the conflict situation has been shrinking. On the one hand, Russia’s leaders are obviously not inclined to make large-scale concessions in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the emergence of new evidence of Russian interference in American domestic politics will add new reasons for the West to increase pressure on Russia through sanctions. On the other hand, Russian society does not perceive existing restrictions as a serious problem that it would like to resolve by making any sacrifices.

New Opportunities for Cooperation

If we wonder where the potential for developing relations can be found, it is a good idea to notice the following options, selected by a significant proportion of Russians.

Which of the international issues should be solved jointly by Russia and the Western countries?

Image removed.Data by Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, December 2017

First, ending the conflict in Syria is the most important issue, identified by 40 of respondents. Initially, military actions did not enjoy broad public support. After the officially announced withdrawal of Russian troops, this area of cooperation may cease to be important for Russians.

A reduction in the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons is considered of almost equal importance. Russians are frightened by the prospect of losing control over the conflict between Russia and the United States, which could result in armed confrontation in the territories of third countries (as might have happened in Syria). In the worst-case scenario, which is imaginable (though with difficulty) by the survey respondents, the conflict could evolve into a nuclear war. The most reliable way to improve security is to follow the path of nuclear disarmament, although the mutuality and simultaneity of this process in the world remain extremely sensitive issues.

In the social mythos, the use of nuclear weapons is regarded as a radical solution, and its renunciation can have profound military-political as well as social consequences.

Finally, the third most important area of cooperation picked by survey respondents is combating international terrorism. The causes of terrorism are not easily understood by the broader public, and its fear-mongering tactics have turned this phenomenon into a synonym for absolute evil that all “civilized humanity” must join in common cause to fight.

The lack of progress in relations between the two countries indicates that is it impossible to find commonalities. The Russian elites do not intend to make concessions on issues related to Ukraine, which won them incredible popularity among Russian citizens. At the same time, Trump’s political opponents use the “Russian connection” to pressure the president and his administration. Simultaneously we see a crisis of leadership in the international arena and a blurring of the role of the United States as a global leader. This situation provides opportunities for new alliances and coalitions to emerge that could solve problems that currently pose a threat to global security. However, for this to happen, both parties need to view foreign policy as a zone of global responsibility and cooperation rather than as a chip in domestic political games.

About the Author

Stepan Goncharov

Stepan Goncharov

Sociologist at the Levada Center
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more