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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: March 9, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
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The latest polling of Russian attitudes towards the United States may not surprise many readers -- the U.S. is viewed highly unfavorably. What may surprise many readers, however, is that the U.S. is viewed more unfavorably than both Ukraine and the European Union.

Journalist Ian Bateson tweeted this today:

This poll was released a month ago, so we'll start with a quote from our analysis published at the time which looked at some of the more overlooked aspects of the poll:

The flip side of the poll seems to be that Russians have a poor self-image for their country - and these may be related and self-reinforcing, although the Russian media hasn't discussed this part of the poll.

When those surveyed were asked "How do most developed countries of the world regard Russia now?" in January 2007, there was a low percentage -- 4% -- which rose in 6% perhaps even due to the attitude of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russians - but which went to 2% this January. It has never gone above 6% in the last 7 years.

Meanwhile, only 21% believed other countries saw Russia "as a partner"; this was higher in January 2009 at 39%. The largest percent -- 37% -- believe Russia is seen as a competitor -- which fuels the idea, as the article explains, that sanctions aren't imposed to change aggressive behavior and deer it, but to compete out of jealousy. Respondents also said 27% believe Russia is perceived as an enemy, which is up from 16% in March 2014, and up from 7% in January 2007 and 8% in January 2013. That's significant -- that the belief that Russia is seen as an enemy has increased more than three-fold.

There's even more surprises if you dig into the data. As recently as January 2014 the percentage of Russians who viewed the U.S. favorably was nearly the same as those who viewed it unfavorably, and throughout most of 2013 the U.S. was viewed generally positively. In January 2014 31% of respondents said that U.S./Russian relations were "normal/calm," and 40% said relations were "cool." Only 17% viewed relationships as either tense or hostile. By January 2015, 79% of respondents described U.S./Russian relationships as tense or hostile, with the latter category being the largest.

The European Union fared better, but similar trends are visible. In January 2014, the majority of respondents had a favorable impression of the EU. A year later those numbers had dropped to 20%.

Ukraine, a country which Russia is nominally at war with, is the most respected of the lot. In January 2014 6% had a very good impression of Ukraine while a whopping 60% of respondents had a mostly good impression of Russia's neighbor. By January 2015, only 24% of Russians had a favorable impression of Ukraine while 36% had a mostly bad impression and 28% had a very bad impression.

What does all this mean? Russian propaganda is working. Russian propaganda outlets, particularly television and radio channels, have been busy demonizing the United States for more than a year. Independent outlets have been shrinking during the same period. The Kremlin is trying to blame the Ukraine crisis on the United State first, Europe second, in an attempt to recall Cold-War rhetoric in the hopes that it might catch on. It's a strategy that's working.

But there are other interesting data points here.

The most interesting question on the survey might be whether Russian should strengthen its relationship from the West or distance itself from the West. In March, 2014, after Russia had already started the annexation of Crimea, 61% of Russians thought they should strengthen relations with the West, while only 24% said they should distance the country from the West. By January 2015, those numbers were 40% and 36% respectfully, a near-even split. This could indicate that what Putin actually feared in Ukraine was the spread of "Euromaidan" to Moscow. The nearly-even split now also indicates that many Russians may have learned to distrust the West, they have not yet readily adopted a suitable alternative.

It's also interesting to compare these numbers with Putin's own approval rating. If more Russians want to strengthen ties with the West than distance the country from the West, and if 24% of Russians still have a favorable opinion of Ukraine, how is it possible that Putin has an approval rating of more than 85%? The answer is that the Levada numbers are likely far more accurate than Putin's approval ratings which many have doubted.

-- James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick