The results of several recently published public opinion polls have shown that Russia’s reputation abroad has drastically worsened. According to sociologists, this change has been caused by Russia’s aggressive policies toward Ukraine. At the same time, IMR advisor Boris Bruk notes, public sentiment inside Russia has moved in the opposite direction.

 

According to the recent poll by Pew Global Research, 72 percent of U.S. citizens and 74 percent of Europeans had an unfavorable opinion of Russia (in 2013, there were 43 and 54 percent respectively). Photo: RIA Novosti.

 

According to a survey of 44 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center and published in July, Russia has become increasingly “unpopular” as a result of its policies toward Ukraine.

The most significant negative change in attitudes toward Russia has occurred in the United States and Europe, where, respectively, 72 percent and 74 percent of respondents expressed an unfavorable view of Russia (in 2013, these percentages were 43% and 54%, respectively). The most dramatic negative shift can be observed in the views of Ukrainians regarding Russia: in 2011, 11 percent of Ukrainian citizens said they thought negatively of Russia, but by 2014, that number had increased to 60 percent. Attitudes toward Russia in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have changed less significantly, but have nevertheless become more negative as well.

Only in 4 countries out of the 44 where the survey was held (excluding Russia) did the majority of respondents say that their views of Russia were favorable: Vietnam (75%), China (66%), Greece (61%), and Bangladesh (60%). In three of these countries (Greece was the exception), people also largely approved of the Russian president’s actions.

In most countries, however, approval of the Russian president’s policies is at a very low level. In Spain, Poland, and France, over 80 percent of respondents said that they had no confidence in Vladimir Putin. In Ukraine, this percentage was lower—73 percent.

 

 

In the United States, negative opinions of Putin have increased, with 54 percent of respondents expressing negative views toward the Russian president in the 2012 Pew Global survey and 80 percent expressing such views in the 2014 survey. These numbers echo the findings of another multi-year survey reported by Gallup this past winter. According to Gallup, “Putin and Russia score[d] the highest unfavorable ratings that Gallup ha[d] recorded for them in the past two decades.” Another Gallup survey showed that some 44 percent of Americans currently consider Russia to be “unfriendly,” while an additional 24 percent view it as “an enemy.”

Inside Russia, views and attitudes differ significantly from those in the majority of other countries. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Russians currently support Putin’s foreign policy (a 14 percentage point increase since 2012). Gallup surveys show that the same percentage of Russians approve of Putin’s job performance in general.

 

 

Overall, according to Gallup surveys, the majority of Russians (73%) believe that the Russian government is leading the country in the right direction. Russians’ levels of confidence in the country’s government (64%), military (78%), and fairness of elections (39%) reached record high levels in 2014. Sixty-five percent of Russians also express satisfaction with their freedoms.

While showing great support for their president’s policies, Russians also express very critical views of U.S. and EU leadership, with approval ratings of, respectively, 4 and 6 percent. On the contrary, 42 percent of respondents express approval of the Chinese government.

 

 

Russia’s leading polling organizations report similar findings. For example, according to recent surveys by the Levada Center, the Russian president’s approval rating has reached 87 percent, and approval of the Russian government has increased to 60 percent. Meanwhile, unfavorable views of the United States have reached a “historical maximum” of 74 percent, with 60 percent expressing disapproval of the European Union, and 55 percent expressing disapproval of Ukraine. Similarly, according to surveys conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), Russians consider the United States and Ukraine to be the countries with which Russia currently has “the worst/most unfriendly relations” (77% and 62%, respectively).

Analysis of all the abovementioned data naturally leads to comparisons between the present moment and the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. Back then, approval ratings of the Russian authorities were the highest since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with Putin’s approval rating reaching 88 percent. Similarly, Russians’ views of the United States, the European Union, Ukraine, and Georgia worsened dramatically, reaching “historical” minimums: 67 percent of Russians expressed “negative/mostly negative” opinions of the United States, 39 percent of the EU, 53 percent of Ukraine, and 75 percent of Georgia.

Russia’s superpower aspirations and aggressive posture have had a poor effect on Russia’s global image. However, thanks to its successful strategy of consolidating the country against the “external enemy,” the regime has managed to create a parallel, distorted reality inside Russia, which ensures public support for Putin’s course.

In 2008, spurred by a wave of patriotism instigated by the state propaganda machine, over half of Russians called their country a “superpower.” This attitude was revived in 2014, when 63 percent of Russians confirmed their belief that Russia had secured its status as a great power. Sociologists have pointed out that this is the highest percentage reported since this survey was initiated. Unsurprisingly, when asked, “What does the joining of Crimea by Russia mean to you?”, 79 percent replied: “This means that Russia returns to its former role of a ‘great power’ and furthers its interests in the post-Soviet space.” According to Sergei Aleksashenko, a prominent Russian economist and former deputy head of the Central Bank, over 40 percent of Russians currently link the notion of a “great power” to a strong army, while the percentage of Russians emphasizing that the country’s welfare should also be secured is only 25 percent.

In fact, according to 55 percent of Russians in 2000 and 58 percent in 2004, it was the goal of returning Russia to its former role as a “great, respected power” that the Russian president was expected to achieve. The “small victorious war” against Ukraine, accompanied by a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign, has served this objective quite well. According to Western media reports, the Putin regime’s “great power” aspirations and “aggressive posture on the world stage” have sparked negative reactions around the world, resulting in unfavorable views of Russia. In many cases, “Russia” has become synonymous with Putin’s regime.

According to Denis Volkov, a Levada Center sociologist who spoke with IMR from Moscow, two different pictures of the world have taken shape in Russia and the West. In both Russia and the West, the media has shaped public attitudes toward key events of the Ukrainian crisis. “In Russia, 90 percent of the population gets information from television, which is controlled by the state,” Volkov observed. “Unsurprisingly, for the majority of Russians, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is, in fact, a humanitarian operation, an attempt to ‘help ours’ [i.e., the Russian-speaking minorities living in Ukraine, who propaganda argues are being repressed by the Ukrainian authorities]. Many Russians just do not understand why the West supports what they see as ‘fascists’ and ‘Banderovets’ [referring to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian who collaborated with the Nazis during World Was II]. The majority of Russians think that their country acts as a peacemaker and a savior.”

Russia’s superpower aspirations and aggressive posture have sparked a negative reaction from many countries, which has had a poor effect on Russia’s global image. However, thanks to its successful strategy of consolidating the country against the “external enemy,” the regime has managed to create a parallel, distorted reality inside Russia, which ensures public support for Putin’s course. However, it is possible to fight the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, starting from the individual level. At a time of political polarization, when the problem of opposing an “us versus them” mentality is becoming more acute, everyone should make the personal choice between believing the propaganda campaign and looking for alternative information.

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