From Understanding to Alliance?
No. 1 2002 December

Vladimir Kolosov — Doctor of Science (Geography), Head of the
Center for Geopolitical Studies of the Institute of Geography of
the Russian Academy of Sciences; Nadezhda Borodulina — Doctor of
Science (Geography), Researcher at the Center.

Following the September 11 events, the Russian leadership made a
resolute turn toward cooperation with the West, which was confirmed
many times during President Putin’s subsequent meetings with heads
of Western states and strengthened by practical measures and
supported by the majority of Russian citizens. However, their
perception of some of Russia’s concrete steps on the international
stage is far from unanimous. The Russians take quite a skeptical
view of the U.S. response to the friendly policy of the Russian

Especially significant is the public’s response to actions
involving the use of force on the international stage. In recent
years, almost all of these actions have been closely related to
U.S. global policy, and that country is associated in Russian
society with the West as a whole. Any international action by the
U.S. is perceived in Russia through the angle of a negative
attitude to the U.S. claims to world hegemony. Hence the relatively
small numbers of Russian citizens who accept the U.S. arguments and
regard Iraq as an aggressive state, and, on the contrary, the
existence of a group of people (which, incidentally, is not overly
numerous either), who sympathize with the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The attitude to the problem of Iraq is affected by the pacifism
that characterizes Russian public opinion. The reasons for such
pacifism are many, including the collective historical memory of
the people whose scars from the Second World War have yet to heal,
the violence of the Stalin regime, the Russian campaign in
Afghanistan and the Soviet heritage of ostentatious peaceableness
that presented all the general secretaries of the CPSU as “fiery
fighters for peace.”

Citizens’ attitudes to specific foreign policy issues and to the
geostrategy of the state as a whole are dictated by mass
stereotypes, including images of states. As is demonstrated by a
number of nationwide Russian opinion polls called “Geoproyekt,”
conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (POF) in 2001-2002
[1], about 38 percent of Russian citizens regard
the countries covered by the polls as friendly to Russia.

Countries of the West were no exception: with many of them, the
“friendliness” rating is substantially higher than average.

Assessments by Russian citizens of friendliness of world
countries to Russia as % of the total number of respondents (POF
polls of 2001)

 Country   Friendly   Unfriendly 
 Finland   77  8
 Norway   68  7
 Sweden   65  10
 Canada   64  12
 Spain   62  8
 Germany   61  20
 Austria   58  11
 Poland   57  25
 Portugal   49  10
 Great Britain   48  28
 USA   32  52

The record for “friendliness” in Europe belongs to the Nordic
countries – Finland, Sweden, and Norway. The views of Finland are
clearly affected by the Soviet past – the “special relations”
established by the USSR with its northern neighbor, a major trading
partner, regarded to be a kind of not quite capitalist country. The
Scandinavian countries became especially popular during
perestroika, their model of social development regarded as
exemplary and nearly truly socialist. This was, among other things,
due to the similarity of natural conditions, the traditional
perception of the Nordic countries as the most stable and
well-to-do, and the absence (or failure to perceive) of threats to
national security emanating from Northern Europe.

The collective consciousness now practically has no negative
feelings in regard to Germany – the adversary of the USSR during
the Second World War: Germany is regarded as a totally different
country. Sixty-one percent of respondents regard it as a friendly
state and only 20 percent as unfriendly. In September of the same
year, after the September 11 events, already 64 percent of Russians
said that Germans were likable as a people (19 percent held the
opposite view and 17 percent had difficulty deciding).

Asked about “What comes to your mind first when hearing the word
‘Germany’?”, 29 percent answered – “a terrible war,” “invasion,”
“occupation,” “concentration camps,” “Holocaust,” and “Nazism.” It
is natural that the positive associations increase in the junior
age strata (from 52 percent of those older than fifty up to 69
percent in the junior age group).

France causes stable positive emotions in practically all the
respondents. That country, according to a colorful expression by
Moscow University psychologists is “libidinously attractive” to the
Russians. “Everything is beautiful in France,” the “people are
well-behaved,” “beautiful women,” “honor and nobility,” a
“happy-go-lucky country, a likable one,” a “leading country in
Europe in culture and art,” “Paris is the capital of the world…”
Contrary associations are very few (not more than 1 percent of

Portugal’s indicator of “friendliness” is slightly less than
average simply because it is a small state at the other end of
Europe and is relatively little known in Russia. In the notions of
Russians, Canada turned out to be somewhat “akin” to the Nordic
countries that generate great sympathy. On the whole, one can say
that the Russians rely on a presumption of friendliness toward the
European countries. Despite the Russians’ identity crisis and
profound pessimism, they take a surprisingly good attitude toward
the world around them, preferring to see friends there rather than
enemies. This is also the effect of a natural friendly reaction to
discovering the world after the collapse of the USSR, and of the
traditional features of the Russian mentality – in the words of
Dostoyevsky, the “worldwide responsiveness,” cultivated in Soviet
time in the specific form of “proletarian internationalism.” Soviet
propaganda always stressed that all peoples were “good” and only
their “bourgeois” governments were bad. That is why the Russian
consciousness practically has no perception of somebody’s
collective guilt for historical offense [2]. It
is characteristic that the friendly and favorable attitude toward
Western countries is expressed most clearly by the younger
population, adapted to the post-Soviet changes and educated.

The Russians’ “Westernism,” especially that of the young, is in
part “consumerist.” The analysis of the Geoproyekt questions about
the associations generated in the respondents by names of Western
countries indicates that most of them have to do with the high
level of economic development, quality of life and advanced
technologies. The leading role in the assessments is played by
factors other than foreign policy nuances or ideology. The West is
perceived as the source of different benefits, an example to
emulate, and an object to envy. The West is known through the
goods, rarer – through culture and history, rather than through
personal experience or ideological orientation; hence the desire to
be friends with “this kind” of West – strong, well-to-do and
technologically advanced.

There is, however, one but very important exception from the
general positive perception of United States. However, the
perceptions of the relations with the United States remain subject
to abrupt fluctuations. Not long prior to September 11, the U.S.
was regarded as a state hostile to Russia by about half of the
respondents, and only one-third regarded it as friendly. After the
terrorist attacks on U.S. cities, the situation changed – and most
Russians deeply sympathized with the U.S. during the tragedy that
befell them. In late December 2001, despite the fact that at that
time the Russian mass media were actively discussing the U.S.
unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, already 38 percent of
respondents regarded the U.S. as a state friendly to Russia, while
44 percent still thought it was hostile. Almost half of Russians
(44 percent) assumed that the September 11 terrorist acts produced
a positive impact on Russian-U.S. relations and that Russia’s
positions in the world strengthened.

The collective awareness has preserved a certain anti-American
complex that has a Soviet genesis but it turns out to be quite
stable in the post-Soviet period as well. One could find many
reasons for that. In all probability there is a complex produced by
the defeat in the Cold War, still experienced by Russians at the
level of the subconscious. Also, new traumas were caused by U.S.
attempts to directly or indirectly control Russian policy.

It is indicative that a shadow of mistrust for the U.S. has also
affected in part Great Britain, perceived as its closest ally.
Britain is considered to be friendly by less than half of

All this notwithstanding, it would be a great mistake to assert
that anti-Americanism is a dominant feature of Russian public
opinion. The Russians’ attitude to the U.S., and to the West for
that matter, is on the whole one of duality: it contains both an
emotional and a rational (pragmatic) component [3].


(positive assessments)-(negative assessments) as percentage of
the number of respondents

The emotional component is due to post-war Russia’s painful
search for a place in the modern world after the defeat of the
Soviet Union in the Cold War, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and then
of the USSR itself, NATO’s expansion toward the Russian borders,
and the growing U.S. hegemonism in the world. The Russians have
developed a stable notion of the West’s “non-love” for Russia, ever
finding fresh proof of this.

The rational component is taking into account the real
correlation of forces on the international stage and possibly using
it in the interests of the country. Russian public opinion is
perfectly aware of the hopelessness and riskiness of
military-political confrontation with the U.S. and with the West as
a whole. Most Russians combine the mistrust of the U.S. and the
West with the need to cooperate with them. This perception is
getting stronger in the public mind and it goes hand in hand with
the weakening of both positive and negative emotions in regard to
the Western countries, especially the U.S.. This is indicated by
the fact that long before the U.S. tragedy, immediately in the wake
of the events in Yugoslavia, when the regular upsurge of
anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment was still very strong (72
percent of respondents said they did not like the United States),
59 percent of Russians nevertheless said they favored strengthening
relations with the overseas superpower [4]. In
March 2001 (before the U.S. tragedy), 83 percent of respondents
favored partner relations with the European Union or the U.S., or
with both. After the September 11 events the Russians also
passionately wished to improve bilateral relations. In late October
2001, answering the POF question “Would you personally wish to see
a rapprochement between Russia and the U.S.?,” 69 percent answered
in the positive and only 17 percent in the negative, while 14
percent had difficulty deciding. It is clear that it makes no sense
and is even dangerous to get close with an organically hostile

It is important to note that when the first emotional response
to the terrorist attack against the United States had already
subsided, in April 2002 [5], 74 percent of
Russians still supported the alliance between Russia and the U.S.
in the struggle against international terrorism (15 percent were
against). The overwhelming majority of Russian citizens have no
illusions about Russia’s place in the alliance with America: only
26 percent of the participants in that survey believe that Russia
is an equal participant in the alliance while 35 percent believe
that the U.S. imposes its policy on Russia and another 28 percent –
that it is an artificial and short-lived alliance. The Russians
also take quite a skeptical view of the motives officially used to
justify the U.S. military presence in former Soviet Central Asia.
Despite such a soberly-pessimistic view of the U.S. policy,
Russians regard the rapprochement with the U.S. as an attempt to
acquire protection and ensure stability in a dangerous world
(according to statements by POF focus-group participants, “one has
to be friends with strong countries,” “if we are friends, the
danger of war between the U.S. and Russia will disappear” ).
Russian public opinion regards union with the leading world powers
– not only the U.S. but also China – as guarantee that the external
risks would be diminishing.

Russian public opinion does not regard the U.S., and the West as
a whole, through the prism of foreign policy. Its position on the
current issues of foreign policy and its attitude to specific
countries and peoples, to the Western economic, cultural and
political model is quite clearly separated. The rational, cultural
and economic components of the Russians’ attitude to the West are
more stable than the emotional (political) one; in turn, it has
many layers and is internally contradictory. The attitude of the
Russians to the West has to do with the civilization choice – the
cultural values and assessment of possible ways of development. It
is characteristic that 48 percent of those polled regard the
structure of the U.S. society as more just compared to the Russian
one; only 17 percent hold the opposite opinion [6].

The now popular notion of the “civilized world” is associated in
the minds of most Russians not only with economic development.
Although important, the level of wellbeing is by far not the only
criterion of “civilized” respectability: almost as many respondents
believe that it comprises contribution to world culture, concern
for science and education, democracy, and a developed rule-of-law
state. In the opinion of the Russians, the list of “civilized
countries” is led by the U.S.: 33 percent of respondents said this;
the U.S. is followed by Germany and France (22 percent and 20
percent, respectively; and 26 percent could not give a single
example of a “civilized country” ).

Russia and NATO. Russian public opinion sharply opposes any
direct participation of Russia in armed conflicts in post-Soviet
space and beyond. Russian citizens also categorically condemn
military actions of other states, above all, the U.S.. The attitude
to the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia during the conflict in Kosovo
(1999) demonstrated that the greatest difficulty is to destroy the
“iron curtain” that divided Russia and Western Europe and even
Central Europe from the West precisely in the mass consciousness.
Russian citizens were practically unanimous in condemning the
bombing of Yugoslavia (95 percent of respondents were against it),
while around 60 percent of citizens of the European NATO countries,
on the contrary, approved of the actions of the U.S. Administration
(on average 61 percent in NATO countries) [7].

The only exception was the action of the U.S. and its allies in
Afghanistan, concerning the need for which the opinions of the
Russians divided almost equally in April 2002: 44 percent
unconditionally or partially approved it, while 40 percent
unconditionally or partially condemned it.

Be that as it may, the protest against the U.S. military actions
and its attempts to dominate the world, as well as the dual
attitude to that country get clearly projected onto the image of
NATO. Without a doubt, it is also the effect of the stable
stereotypes of Soviet times which were constantly strengthened even
after the collapse of the USSR, for instance, during the struggle
against NATO’s expansion to the East.

But in addition to the old fears generated by NATO, new phobias
are appearing, caused by the rapidly changing geopolitical
situation: new forces have appeared in the world, posing a threat
not only to Russia but also to NATO, which means we now have an
area of common interests. In November 2001, soon after the
September 11 events, 30 percent of Russians saw the external threat
to the country from Muslim nations (13 percent still saw the danger
in the U.S.). According to one participant in the focus-group of
POF experts, “for a long time already, for 10-15 years, within the
current context of world politics the interests of Russia and NATO
do not drastically diverge while the long-term interests coincide.
We are similarly concerned over the problems of our security. The
threats to this security in Europe and in Russia emanate from one
source – in a broad way, it is from South. This is not only a
military threat, it is the threat of a hostile cultural
penetration. It is an open secret that Muslims are absorbing our
cultural values. It means drugs, and they come from South (they are
not grown in Finland). These threats are very many. They come
precisely from here and in this lies the commonality of our
interests.” [8]

In the new circumstances, it follows from the statements of the
respondents that Russia must decide as soon as possible where and
with whom it wishes to be. The neo-Eurasianism as a political
doctrine substantiating the union of Slavs and Turkic peoples, the
Orthodox and the Muslims, today clearly looks “objectionable”: at
the level of mass consciousness there dominates the desire to get
separated by a strong barrier from the Islamic world and the perils
emanating from it. However, one ought to stress that the Russian
citizens do not at the same time accept also the unilateral Western
policy, strongly associating it with the loss of initiative and
independence on the international stage.

Mass assessments of Russia’s “new foreign policy.” What is the
attitude of Russians to the resolute turn by the Russian leadership
toward a rapprochement with the West following September 11? Back
in 1997, 46 percent of respondents believed that the leaders of the
state were betraying the national interests. Now the focus-groups
participants say that, unlike Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin
worthily represents Russia. The sociological surveys find that most
Russians assess quite positively the nation’s foreign policy under
Putin. A successful pursuit of foreign policy became a major
element of his image. The so-called “high” geopolitics, developed
by politicians, diplomats and experts in Russia is now being
increasingly matched by the “low” geopolitics, meaning the notions
forming in the minds of citizens concerning Russia’s place in the
world, its potential and real allies and the sources of external
threats. On the whole, the foreign policy coincides with the public
expectations and the geopolitical picture of the world in the
consciousness of citizens.

The re-activation of relations with the West as a whole and with
individual Western countries, including with the U.S., does not
cause rejection. Distinguishing “good” Western Europe from the
United States that is not always “good” or not so good to all, the
Russian citizens take an especially positive view of strengthening
the European vector of Russian foreign policy. Russians positively
respond to the strengthening, under President Putin, of relations
with Germany, as objectively the strongest European partner
possessing a powerful economy and ramified interests in Russia. The
public expectations are quite matched by the diversification of
Russia’s contacts with the West and the president’s visits to
“friendly” European countries.

In this way, establishing priorities on the “West flank” in the
first approximation in line with the public opinion looks correct.
Numerous opinion polls find that extremes are alien to Russian
public opinion on issues of foreign policy. By mid-1990s the
toughly confrontational anti-Westernism and the clear pro-Western
orientation became weaker in Russian society. Life itself rejected
the extreme positions: it became obvious to all that Russia simply
does not have the strength to engage in a confrontation with the

At the same time, it is not quite clear how closely this
unanimous approval of Putin’s foreign policy is related to his
generally high rating. Indeed, like in other countries, the
majority of Russian citizens are concerned primarily with internal
problems, while their notions of the outside world are sketchy and
largely molded by the current reports of the mass media, especially
TV programs. After September 11, however, certain foreign policy
steps of the Russian leadership were assessed by the public opinion
quite variously. Thus, questioned as to whether the Russian
politicians displayed weakness by actually agreeing to the Baltic
countries’ accession to NATO, the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM
Treaty, the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and
Transcaucasia, as well as to the closure of military bases in
Vietnam and Cuba, only 44 percent of respondents answered in the
affirmative. Only 25 percent said that the leadership displayed
wisdom and 31 percent had difficulty answering. Participants in the
focus-group, convened in Moscow in late November 2001, described
this step as “too luxurious a present to the Americans.” The
negative attitude to deciding to dismantle the military bases in
Vietnam and in Cuba was characteristic for its high emotional
coloring: “We acted like always: we sank the Mir station, we
abandoned the bases. We don’t need them!”

Individual participants said they were disappointed with Putin’s
posture: “He has a double standard: talks of patriotism but
surrenders bases in Cuba.” [9]

Neither is public opinion inclined to believe that the relations
with the West constitute the main condition for Russia’s economic
prosperity. According to VTsIOM findings in early November 2001,
only 30 percent of respondents agreed with such an opinion. At the
same time, 61 percent supported the allegation that “first it is
necessary to ensure economic growth and only then to expand
relations with the West.” Merely 9 percent had difficulty
answering. Public opinion clearly describes Russia as the weak
party in the partnership. And that is why in a situation of
choosing an optimum model of relations with the West, public
opinion gives preference to this formula: “First the strengthening
of self, and then close cooperation with a strong partner [10].”Thus, the success (or failure) of Putin’s “new
foreign policy” in the eyes of Russians depends first and foremost
on the internal economic situation – to a much greater extent than
on strengthening the foreign ties with the Western countries.

Considering that Russia indeed wishes to join the Big Eight, its
foreign policy and especially the line of rapprochement with the
West must be legitimized by public opinion. If the foreign policy
does not get due support of the Russians or, conversely, it
contributes to the division of society, this can lead to extremely
negative consequences in the domestic policy. And there are certain
risks here caused by our citizens’ differing attitudes to the West,
especially to the U.S. and NATO. Our countrymen have clearly failed
to espouse the official arguments of Russia to agree to the U.S.
military presence in Central Asia. Even identifying the struggle of
the international community, led by the U.S., against terrorism on
the one hand, and the Chechen war and the explosions of the
apartment houses in Russian cities, on the other, was accepted by
only about half of the respondents. And this was almost the
strongest trump card in favor of Russia joining the anti-terrorist
coalition. Many Russians believe that the U.S. has paid Russia for
its support with “black ingratitude.” In addition, one cannot
ignore the significant differences of opinion between the Slav and
Muslim populations. These were discussed even in the dramatic days
of September 2001 and the existence of differences was confirmed by
opinion polls later. Thus only a quarter of the title population in
Muslim countries approved of the U.S. military action, supported by
Russia, against the Taliban.

At the same time, the strong pragmatic and “civilizational”
components of the notions about the West can be translated into a
real geo-strategy based on further rapprochement with the Western
community. The nation’s leadership must doubtless strive to
overcome the existing and potential gaps between the “high” and
“low” geopolitics and find a compromise between popularity with
one’s citizens and effectiveness of one’s steps in the
international arena.

1 Geoproyekt is called upon
to identify, according to a single methodology, the images and
notions of a number of countries, the nature of their relations
with Russia and the international problems connected with them. The
opinion polls are conducted in accordance with a representative
nationwide sampling of 1,500 respondents (for details concerning
the composition of the sampling, see the POF site).

2 The World Through the Eyes of the Russians: Public
Opinion and Foreign Policy. Ed. by V.A. Kolosov, Moscow: FOM, 2002,
(In Russian).

3 The “West” and
Russian Society. (In Russian). Published on 12.07.2001. The topic:
Russia and Countries of the World. Source and author: Diligensky

4 To Be Friends with
America? (V. Putin’s Foreign Policy and Public Opinion). (In
Russian). Published on 06.12.2001. The topic: US — Source or
author: Diligensky G.G.

5 Here and after we give
some findings of the survey conducted by the POF within the
framework of the research project on the “Russian geopolitical
culture and response to the terrorist attack of September 11,”
supported by the US National Research Foundation. The project
coordinators are O’Loughlin J., the Colorado University in Boulder,
and V.A. Kolosov, the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy
of Sciences, and Gerard Toal from Virginia Polytechnical

6 POF. Field of
Opinions. Dominants. 2001. No. 019, May 31.

7 O’Loughlin J. and Kolossov V. Still not worth the
bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier: the geopolitics of the
Kosovo war 1999, Political Geography, 2002, volume 21, N 5, pp.

8 Russia and NATO.
Published on 11.10.2001. Topic: NATO — Source or author:
Kachkin A.B.

9 Zudin A. A new system
of coordinates. The West in the public opinion of the Russians
before and after September 11. (In Russian).

10 Ibid.