WASHINGTON—This year for the first time, the annual Transatlantic Trends survey measured public opinion in Russia. While public opinion polling in an authoritarian state is fraught with suspicion, polls have now been conducted with some level of confidence in Russia by Pew, the BBC, and other agencies.
Most Russians get their information from television stations controlled by Vladimir Putin’s government. When the public is asked about matters of foreign policy, there is a strong tendency to follow the cues of their leaders. The Transatlantic Trends data nevertheless allows us to get some sense of how Russians view the world and the direction their country should be taking. Specifically, it gives a sense of their opinions on Russia’s strategic direction and how compatible it is with Western opinion as well as with the policies of the Putin government.
Putin’s multipolar foreign policy has a solid base with nearly three-fourths approval from the Russian public, although Europe remains the strategic partner of choice over China, and Germany still plays a special and leading role. Russians see Europe as more important in terms of their interests than Asia, with 46 percent choosing the countries of the EU and 30 percent preferring the countries of Asia. Russians also seem to be close to the European mainstream in their views of the European Union, about which they have a more favorable image than even U.S. respondents. Additionally, Russians see their interests as more closely aligned with Asia and Europe than with the United States by a two-to-one margin. They still do not regard China as a military threat, with only 33 percent believing this to be the case in sharp contrast to the 51 percent of the U.S. public who do. However, Europeans are closer to the United States regarding their views of China as an economic threat while a plurality of Russians view China as an economic opportunity.
At the same time, the United States is not seen by the Russian public as negatively as Putin portrays it, with only 12 percent having a very unfavorable view of America. This is a surprisingly low number given the consistently anti-American rhetoric of both the Russian government and its media. A majority by a margin of 52 to 38 percent believe that the two countries have enough common interests to cooperate on international problems. Still, about two-thirds of Russians do not want to see the United States play a strong leadership role in international affairs and 57 percent of Russians have an unfavorable opinion of NATO. This is also reflected in the fact that 62 percent of Russians believe that military intervention was not the right approach in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Russian support for Iran is not very strong, giving Putin some flexibility about where he wants to take his country’s policy. The Russian public also has a much more favorable view of Belarus and Ukraine than do Europe and the United States. The same applies to Turkey, reflecting the warming of Russian-Turkish relations under the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government, although the strains over the Syrian civil conflict may alter this. By contrast, there remain very strong negative perceptions of Georgia among Russians, which Putin can utilize and manipulate.
In addition to the general support for Putin’s foreign policies, there is strong overall support for Putin as president as well as for the military, but more than half of Russian society is not confident in the police. Surprisingly, the newspapers, television news, and internet, as well as the church, fare well in Russian public opinion. At the other end of the spectrum, the courts, the justice system, and the Duma — following the recent disputed elections — held less than 38 percent of Russian public confidence.
Putin’s approach seems to have support with all Russians, including those in the major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. However support for the Russian president and for the electoral process is significantly lower in these key metropolitan areas. This confirms what we saw during the recent demonstrations, which were strongest in major urban centers where the public is more skeptical of Putin’s policies. This fact offers some signs of coming change and a glimmer of hope for a democratic future for the country. Perhaps most significantly, the European orientation of Russian public opinion suggests that Europe may be the best future strategic partner for Moscow. Combined with the strategic environment Russia faces to its south and east, these factors provide an economic and strategic basis for the country’s long-term reorientation toward the West.
Stephen Szabo is the executive director of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC.