Geopolitics and Life

8 april 2015

Foreign Policy Events of 2014-2015 as Seen by Russians

Larissa Pautova is Projects Director at the Public Opinion Foundation. She holds a Doctorate in Sociology.

Resume: The unity of opinion displayed by Russians when identifying the country’s friends and foes declines as they try to understand a common strategy, and vanishes completely when it comes to determining concrete actions Russia should take with regard to the Ukraine conflict.

Public opinion polls studying Russian people’s foreign policy attitudes in 2014-2015 reveal a variety of feelings and emotions. Pollsters have lately been criticized, severely and often rightfully, but the work they do provides unique insight into public perception trends. Different research centers use different survey methods, but their conclusions about the trends identified are very similar (despite varying numbers). I will use data from the surveys conducted by three companies (VTsIOM, Levada Center, and FOM) between 1996 and 2015.

The analysis of Russian people’s foreign policy assessments indicates that public consciousness is in a state that is hard to interpret due to drastic changes in views, conceptual contradictions and opinion polarization. Although paradoxes and diversity are standard features of the public mind, today we are witnessing nearly chaotic change of the public mind, unpredictability of people’s perceptions and their predisposition to conflict. The public opinion is in a state of turbulence. It is hard to measure and interpret constantly changing views, but let us try and make the first step.

To begin with, we will be talking about situational foreign policy assessments, not fundamental and solid geopolitical views. Extraordinary political events covered accordingly by mass media can evoke assessments and opinions contrary to what seems to be one’s long-term personal experience or cross-cultural knowledge. Over time such situational perceptions can recede and gradually vanish as we could see during and after the conflict in Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008. 

Foreign policy perceptions are closely linked to the image of the country, and the latter has changed dramatically over the past years. While in 1996, 21% of respondents called Russia a great power, in 2008 their number increased to 60% (FOM) and grew further to 68% in 2014 (Levada Center). Patriotism was at its highest of 75% in 2014 compared to 47% in 2006 (FOM). Similarly, most respondents believe that they live in a developed (69%), wealthy (67%), free (76%), and independent (78%) country which is increasing its influence (67%), respected (68%), and feared (86%), and which is treated badly (48%) and unfairly (53%) by the rest of the world (FOM).

Everyday foreign policy perceptions can be divided into three groups:
  1) Situational (momentary) images of friends and foes;
  2) Routine strategic vectors;
  3) Routine “tactics” (“Russia should …”).

FRIENDS AND FOES: A NEW STATE OF PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS

In 2014, all major public opinion companies (FOM, VTsIOM, Levada Center) registered a drastic change in everyday foreign policy perceptions, primarily with regard to Russia’s “friends” and “foes.” Different measurement methods were used, but their results are comparable: a turn to the East, rising anti-Western sentiment, and growing hostility towards Ukraine.

While in previous years, Germany was always named among Russia’s friends (“strategic” or “valuable partners”), in 2014-2015 this position is going to China (“has a big economic potential,” “develops better than others,” “their economy is growing rapidly and can pull us up too” – FOM). The number of positive assessments of China has doubled or even tripled, depending on the method used. 

The “Chinese slant” in public consciousness can be explained by active economic and political cooperation in 2014 (and its broad coverage by mass media), the growth of anti-Western isolationist sentiment, attempts to find a counterbalance to the West, and radical transformation of customary geopolitical patterns. We may also add the great power syndrome: “a great power” can “make friends against” the strong and hostile West only with a great neighbor, such as China.  

But let me say that the attitude towards China is historically underlain by certain wariness and fear of the densely populated, strong and poorly understood neighboring country. The paradox of the sudden change of heart towards China is quite manifest in a FOM survey. It shows that although China is regarded as a valuable partner, Russians are not eager to go there on a hypothetical free tour. As before, they prefer to travel to less friendly Western countries, such as France, Italy or Germany.

Belarus has long been viewed as the most friendly country (66%, FOM), with which we have more in common and can more easily understand each other (69%, FOM) than China. The number of Russians with a positive attitude towards Belarus has increased from 76% in December 2013 to 87% today (Levada Center).

But researchers have also noted that Belarus is losing points in some respects. For example, it is less often regarded as the most valuable partner than China (11% vs 31%, respectively, FOM) or as a country with which cooperation is vital for Russia today (35% vs 56%, respectively, FOM). The attitude towards Kazakhstan has virtually not changed and this country remains among the three friendliest nations. 

Germany evoked a very optimistic response five years ago, despite its aggressive experience in the 20th century (“they live in clover there,” “it’s paradise,” “I wish we lived like that”). But in 2014 it quickly lost its positive image of a hitherto friendly country. Today a mere 6% of Russians (FOM) consider it a valuable partner.

And not only Germany but also the United States and Ukraine cause an increasingly negative reaction among Russians. America continues to be viewed as the main hostile and unfriendly country (73% polled by VTsIOM and 77% polled by FOM) compared to 45-55% in the early 2000s. Last year, the number of U.S. antagonists in Russia almost doubled to 81% which were registered by Levada Center in January 2015.

This stands in contrast to the polls conducted in the 1990s. In the pivotal year 1991, 79% (!) of Russians thought positively of America (VTsIOM). Sociologists state that anti-American feelings are at their all-time high in Russia but refrain from making forecasts.
Assessments regarding Ukraine are vacillating and most difficult to interpret. According to Levada Center’s data, the negative attitude peaked in 2008, reaching 62%. It then dropped below 20% during the relatively calm year 2013 to only surge back up to 64% in 2014-2015. FOM polls indicate that Ukraine is regarded as an unfriendly country slightly less often than the United States (62% vs 77%, respectively). It is also rarely named among valuable partners or countries with which cooperation is important for the Russian economy. 

The attitude towards other countries is rather uniform, which is natural in a situation where people are under constant media influence. Still there are some differences in the perception of some groups of the population that are worth mentioning. FOM surveys indicate that males, wealthy people and big city dwellers more often than others believe that cooperation with China is important for the Russian economy. People living in major cities, primarily Moscow and St. Petersburg, and respondents with higher education and higher incomes stress the need for good relations with Germany. A negative attitude towards the United States and President Barack Obama is prevailing among people aged 60 and over whereas a majority of young people are indifferent to both America and its leader. 

This new geopolitical reality creates an atmosphere of anxiety among people. According to Levada Center, 84% of respondents polled in September 2014 said that Russia had enemies. This is the highest level ever registered, but it is not so unexpected. In the middle of the 1990s, this opinion was shared by 44% of Russians. Their number gradually grew to 60-70% in the 2000s and skyrocketed to 84% in 2014. 

The feeling of anxiety is much stronger among smaller groups of Russians. According to VTsIOM, a quarter of respondents believe that a new Cold War is already underway and another third (31%) expect a confrontation with the West.

ROUTINE STRATEGIC VECTORS: DUALITY

Today Russians are changing their views on what has to be done in a new political environment. Engulfed by heated rhetoric in mass media, they are witnessing a recurrence of Soviet-era policies and fears, adjusted to present-day realities. Crimea’s reunification with Russia has awaken the collective memory of great power. Moreover, 66% of Russians seem to be unperturbed by the fact that “the majority of people in the West and Ukraine think that by incorporating Crimea Russia broke all of the postwar and post-Soviet international agreements and international law” (Levada Center). At the end of 2014, more than half of Russians agreed that Crimea’s incorporation had impacted adversely on the country’s international positions (FOM) but eventually would benefit Russia. Nearly one in four respondents said that Crimea’s accession to Russia had had affected their life and named rising prices, inflation, dwindling quality of life, and sanctions as the negative consequences of that move.

The West’s reaction to Russia’s policies concerning Ukraine and sanctions, and the ensuing counter-sanctions have set in motion a mechanism known as anti-Western sentiment. Public opinion polls show a rise of jingoistic feelings, even though there was less unanimity on everyday issues. In the summer of 2014, about 70-80% of respondents supported the ban on food imports, citing the need to support domestic producers (FOM, Levada Center, VTsIOM). Another popular, but questionable, argument is that domestic products are of better quality and the country is able to feed itself (“We have everything we need in sufficient amounts. We can live without the West,” “Our products are healthier and taste better,” “They send all kinds of trash here,” “They all want to poison us” – FOM). Giving preference to domestic products over imported ones is not a new topic. In the 1990s, most respondents said they would rather buy domestic products (FOM). This attitude has not changed over the past fifteen years. But the import ban not only strengthened it, but put it on an ideological basis. While buying domestic products was a purely pragmatic approach before, now it can become a political commandment.

In the summer of 2014, public opinion polls registered not just a rise in patriotic feelings but a drive for isolationism. The “We can live without the West” attitude can be found in various surveys. Here are some of the most impressive results:

  • 16% of respondents believe that Russia is in international isolation and see no reason to worry about that (Levada Center);
  • 17% of respondents think that Russia can only benefit from isolation (VTsIOM);
  • 20% of respondents say that strong EU and U.S. economic sanctions will not affect the Russian economy (FOM).

We can tentatively assume that about 15-20% of people support the policy of isolationism. This position is based on their belief in Russia’s wealth, the ability of Russians to cope with problems, and a strong leader (“We will persevere,” “We have enough resources,” “Our country is so great and strong that America can hardly ruin us,” “Putin is clever and we will have no problems” – FOM).  

Although most Russians supported counter-sanctions last summer (70-80%), the number of those doubting them among active social groups began to grow with time. Last summer, 23% of Russians (FOM) felt the effects of the food import bans. In January 2015, Levada Center put their number at 34%. There are understandably more of them among the residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nearly half of people in active social groups (middle-aged, with a bigger income and higher education) are concerned about more serious economic sanctions that can potentially be imposed by Europe and the United States (FOM). They are worried by further price rises, a decline in trade, a shortage of goods, problems in industry and the banking sector, isolation of the country, and restrictions on foreign travel.

The latter is an important issue for socially active groups. While generally only four out of ten (38%) respondents worry about possible foreign travel restrictions, there are more than half of them among young people, individuals with higher education, and well-off residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Levada Center).

For the time being, tough sanctions and an iron curtain are no more than a concern for the average Russian who has probably never been abroad (82% of people did not travel out of the country over the past two or three years – FOM). But this concern is growing as people are beginning to experience the first material difficulties and changes in their usual lifestyle.

ROUTINE FOREIGN POLICY TACTICS: MORE DUALITY

Following diplomats’ suit, ordinary Russians offer their own recipes as to what Russia should do. And this reveals even more duality in their views: there are people who favor an anti-Western stance and isolationism, and there people who make pragmatic calls for reconciliation.

The strongest anti-Western statements suggest that Russia could get involved in the armed hostilities in Ukraine. And yet, this is not the prevailing opinion. According to a poll conducted by VTsIOM in January, only 20% of respondents supported the idea of sending Russian troops to Ukraine to stop the conflict there. Levada Center surveys produced a similar result – about 17%.

A slightly bigger number of Russians agree with a milder form of involvement: 23% in December and 33% in February said that Russia should support the rebels and the authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (FOM). The main arguments in support of this position are quite standard: there are many Russians in these regions, civilians are dying, these are our brothers and they are fighting for justice, peace must be restored. This view is prevailing among older people, Muscovites and senior officials.

The opposite opinion is that Russia must not interfere and must not influence the situation. In February, 16% of respondents shared this point of view, mostly young and middle-aged people with a higher education who are critical of President Putin’s activities. The supporters of neutrality refer to the sovereignty of states, big risks for the Russian economy, and possible conflicts, war and isolation. They insist that Russia should press for peace in the south-east of Ukraine without supporting either side. This is the most popular view (27%).

In a nutshell, the unity of opinion displayed by people when identifying Russia’s friends and foes declines as they try to understand a common strategy, and vanishes completely when it comes to determining concrete actions Russia should take with regard to the Ukraine conflict.

For all the difference in assessing concrete actions, Russians on the whole share positive calls for better relations with the West and Ukraine. A half of those polled believe that the Russian leadership should seek to improve relations with the United States for the sake of global peace and security (FOM). Almost as many (84%) think that we must not pay attention to Western criticism, and their number remains stable since 2006 (Levada Center).

Consensus on Russia’s friends and foes, on the one hand, and disagreement over concrete action, on the other hand, can be explained by the fact that geopolitics lies beyond everyday life of an average Russian. His general perceptions are based on stereotypes and patterns (which are evoked without critical evaluation) and federal media reports. People think identically when they make abstract judgments about what is good and what is bad. But making decisions about concrete (albeit hypothetical) issues requires more thought and non-standard models. In this case, other factors (personal experience, critical assessment of consequences, etc.) have to be used. Hence more diverse responses.

Similarly, opinions differ when it comes to practical issues (benefits, opportunities, threats from geopolitical decisions) which concern not just some abstract Russia but one’s own life with more understandable momentary problems and goals. 

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