June 15, 2018

Russia’s Opinion of the US and its President

Sputnik/Scanpix
A participant in a protest in Simferopol against missile strikes on Syria burns images of US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Russian attitudes towards Donald Trump have changed since he took office.
A participant in a protest in Simferopol against missile strikes on Syria burns images of US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Russian attitudes towards Donald Trump have changed since he took office.

Antagonism between Russia and US will likely continue, but one cannot exclude a possible shift in relations

This article looks at how Russia views the United States using public opinion surveys and focus groups. Similar studies were also conducted by the Levada Center. The author, who works at the Center, participated in the surveys in several roles.

Russia’s opinion of the US includes a vital aspect—the attitude towards what modern Russian narratives continue to call the West. By “continue to” we emphasise that in the early 1990s the traditional antagonism of Russian political discourse (between East and West, or Russia and the West) began to fall rapidly out of popular usage and were replaced with a picture of Russia belonging to a pan-European cultural area, or at least moving towards it. This was marked by metaphors such as entering the House of Europe or the European Family of Nations. (It is worth mentioning that, in this context, the US was also seen as part of the European cultural domain.)

However, from the mid-1990s, the pursuit of this goal by part of the Russian elite began to dwindle. Eventually it came to a halt altogether. The first half of the 2000s was characterised by a certain indecision and the lack of a completely formed position and policy; then began the restoration of a world-view characteristic of certain periods of the Soviet era (which continues to this day). The Soviet era saw waves of sharp confrontation with the “capitalist siege” and Western “imperialist” powers (mostly the US), but also periods of Geneva Spirit and defusing, and demonstrative improvements in relations with the West and the US, its main political and military power. Starting from the late 2000s, Putin’s Russia adopted a confrontational disposition. In recent years, it has often been said that relations between Russia and the West are similar to those prevalent during the Cold War. There has also been talk of the age-old antagonism between Russia and the Western world, in which the West has an inherent urge to smother Russia and suppress its development or even subjugate and destroy it.

This article does not explore the reality of relations between Russia and other states, politics and diplomacy, or the balance of power etc. Instead it discusses what models of perception concerning these relations are most used in the current political situation. The discourse of the Russian political elite, which influences foreign policy, has in truth adapted much from the Crimean War of the mid-19th-century and the Cold War of the mid-20th-century, but at the same time also appropriated categories and understandings that belonged (or were attributed) to the West. This is where terms like geopolitics, spheres of interest and pressure groups came into the elite’s vocabulary. For Russian political minds, using these discourse terms of the opposing party automatically proves their validity as thought instruments, sources of understanding and representors of reality. Their anachronistic nature, as pointed out by their current Western political partners and opponents, goes unnoticed and is not understood by Russian politicians. They continue to live in a historical period of the Russian Empire and the USSR, and they view themselves and their position as referring to those historical images.

As far as the public consciousness is concerned, this has also readily accepted the discourse patterns of the past, but only those that applied to “our” side. The image of the hostile West and “our country” as a besieged fortress works well for understanding the situation, especially the one created following the annexation of the Crimea.

The experience of countries that have found themselves subject to a blockade (or self-isolation) is well known. This situation creates clear benefits for the government. As a rule, the cohesion of the people increases, and they are more willing to submit, which also happens to boost the authority of and opportunities for the government. These are common changes in a society that sees itself as besieged by hostile powers.

Surveys show that the highest symbolic cohesiveness focuses around the figure of the president (as is very well known). Putin’s approval rating in April 2018 remained above 80%. In addition, since 2014 over two-thirds of the population have supported, and even now continue to support, the continuation of the current policy without concessions to the West in order for economic sanctions to be lifted. 86% still support the annexation of the Crimea. The overwhelming majority of people state that they are “not bothered” by Russia’s international isolation.

The current situation in Russia stands out in one more respect, in addition to the usual criteria. This can be described as the “comfort of the blockade”. It is not only the government that considers this extraordinary situation convenient—the public has also found a certain mental comfort in it: simple explanations are provided to complicated questions; your enemies’ actions can be seen as the cause of all your hardships. And the main comfort lies in the ability to mentally live only in the present and the past, without thinking about the future.

It must be made clear that we are talking here about the public discourse: how the current situation is perceived by people when they take upon themselves the role of “Russian citizens” (which in fact may be closer to “subjects”). First, as private individuals they have good temporal awareness, make plans for the future, invest in it, and so on. Second, they also have pragmatic spatial awareness. Those who can and want to may visit foreign countries (including those that are part of the “hostile West”) and take advantage of the benefits and comforts there. Their readiness to follow the anti-Western, anti-American rhetoric and propaganda they see in the state-owned mass-media channels is easily compatible with their readiness to watch American films and wear Western fashion as consumers and private individuals.

Having said all that, it must be said that this combination of systems and feelings is tied to perceiving this situation as something extraordinary, a crisis. People are aware that the crisis was at least partially caused by the sanctions (and countersanctions). However, this crisis is drawn-out and slow. This is very important since the masses, whose interests the crisis certainly affects, have time to adapt, partly in economic terms, but mainly in the psychological sense. The above-mentioned “comfort of the blockade” is the product of this psychological adaptation. We cannot say how extensive are the reserves of this adaptation, but we know that hidden tension and the suppressed wish for the situation to end are there, as is widespread concern.

Russians’ Opinion of the US

The position of the US on the world map and how it exists in the Russian public consciousness is very special. Public opinion holds that the US is the undoubted leader of the Western world and dictates the politics of other Western powers—Germany, the UK and France. The US is the most powerful state in the Western world, primarily in military terms, but also in the economic and moral sense. The UK, along with (Western) Europe, is considered to be widely morally decayed, mostly owing to its toleration of same-sex marriage. Europe is derogatorily called “Gayrope” and it is claimed that it wishes to spread its indiscriminate approval of homosexual relations to Russia. America is not considered a suspect in this.

Western powers in general are hostile towards Russia, and the US is the most hostile of them all. According to a survey conducted in the spring of 2018, 24% of Russians over 18 years of age had a good opinion of the US, while 56% saw it in a negative light. Opinion of the EU has always been a little more positive; the respective indicators are 27% and 53%.

Observers have often noted the cyclical (wave- or pendulum-like) character of Russia’s foreign policy—or the process of relations between Russia and the West. The memory of such cycles and the times of “defusing” and “rebooting” relations with the US is present in the minds of politicians and the public consciousness alike. Moreover, defusing appears to be the norm from within the current crisis, the extraordinary situation in which Russia finds itself right now (despite the deep-rooted attitudes mentioned above). It is no surprise that, every now and then, talks are started about normalising relations with the US. (Another matter altogether is when the “improvement” phase recedes; doubts arise that improvements can be believed, or they are illusory and uncertain. The norm for such relations is to maintain a certain level of distrust and hostility.)

For most Russians, the relationship with the US is seen as rather tense. This is particularly demonstrated by the fact that, throughout the recent years of increasing tensions with the US, the idea of “World War III” as a potential or already ongoing (indirect) military confrontation with the US has appeared in the collective consciousness; according to this thinking, Russia will have the upper hand, and there is a fairly persistent belief that in the near future (30 or even ten years) the US will cease to exist. However, it will not vanish as a result of Russia’s victory (which nobody believes in), but by itself. The reasons for this vary: an economic crisis that “has already wrecked almost everything”, an ecological crisis (“they have already poisoned everything there”) or global warming (“the ice caps will melt, and America will be flooded”). People do not notice the fanciful nature of such ideas, which speaks of their important compensatory role in subduing fears and tensions connected with the suppressed, but present a realistic evaluation of the damage and risks caused by a confrontation with such a powerful opponent.

The US is the strongest, and in that sense the only (worthy), opponent of Russia. The main historical goal is parity between Russia and the US. This parity is primarily symbolic, but military equality is seen as the best way to achieve it. When asked whether they want a military clash with the US, Russians say no. However, when asked about a military standoff, the answer is yes. People want to prove to both sides that their power is equal.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky celebrates Donald Trump’s election as president by drinking sparkling wine with other party members during a break in the session of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016. The Russian attitudes towards Trump have changed ever since. // Reuters/Scanpix

This sought-after parity is seen as the guarantee of Russia’s international position, which its citizens believe it deserves as a great power. Russians believe there are essentially two great powers: the US and Russia. (China is absent from this discourse, while European states are, as mentioned, seen as belonging to the US sphere of interest and influence.) For this reason, according to this image the world is divided into halves—one belonging to the US in one way or another, and the other belonging (or at least it should belong) to Russia. We are not talking about colonisation or conquest here. However, the world must be divided between “your” space and “ours”. This would be the ideal situation, according to Russians. (Here it must be noted that plans for “world domination” are only marginally present in Russia’s collective consciousness. Even if Russia had primacy in the world, it would only be in the spiritual sense.)

Russians’ Opinion of Donald Trump

Here we consider the situation for Russians on the eve of the 2016 US elections, with Trump a potential future president.

Russia is in deep isolation in the post-Crimea-annexation world. It has a chance to continue like that, but it is unclear how many resources it has for this. The elite are being hurt by sanctions and would like them to be lifted. The key person who can make this happen is the President of the United States.

Obama’s America was Russia’s opponent in all meanings of the word. If Obama were to have been replaced by Hillary Clinton, this would have remained unchanged. However, when Trump got the chance to become president, there was a possibility that US foreign policy would change, along with the relationship between the US (and the West in general) and Russia.

We do not know whether promises of that sort were made to Russia by the US or, if they were, who made them. We accept that all it took to create positive expectations connected to Trump’s persona were prognoses by certain Russian analysts on the one side and strong expectations and wishes both among the elite and the people for the normalisation of the relationship with the US on the other. Suffice it to say that surveys conducted in Russia on the eve of the elections showed that a Trump victory was seen as a better outcome for Russia than Clinton winning by a factor of ten to one. A survey conducted after the elections showed almost identical results. No previous foreign election had so captured the attention of the Russian people or felt so decisive for the future of their country.

For a while, the image of Trump as “one of us” existed in the collective consciousness. This meant that he would pursue policies favourable to Russia and his qualities were seen as more compatible with Russia (in contrast to Obama).

The main expectation about Trump was that he would de facto, if not de jure, recognise the legitimacy of the annexation of the Crimea and either lift or reduce the sanctions. This would mean that the US would recognise Russia’s global significance as an equal and Russia’s rights over its “half” of the world. Should this come to pass, Russia would have achieved its main historical objective.

Once we understand this, it becomes clear how high were the stakes placed by Russia (both the elite and people) on Trump. It is possible that cyber-attacks (which may or may not have been sanctioned by the Russian government) on Trump’s opponents were organised to please him. Even if there was, in fact, no way to influence the outcome of the elections, it was hoped that Russia could show Trump that it had helped to achieve his victory.

These calculations, along with a poor understanding of the American political system and its limitations on the president’s power, proceeded from the type of experts and analysts employed in policymaking in Russia at the time. The overall spirit and level of political consciousness of the elite were reflected in the reactions of members of the State Duma, who toasted Trump’s victory with champagne.

The collision of the reality of American politics with the reality of US interests as understood by Trump has caused plenty of frustration, for both the elite and the collective consciousness. The latter has returned to a siege mentality and an image of the US as the main enemy.

This suggests that, for the foreseeable future, antagonism between Russia, the West and the US will continue. However, it does not mean that a sudden shift towards defusing and a reboot is impossible.

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