Kyiv, May 24, 2014. A recent Pew Research Center poll in Russia shows that 61 percent of Russian citizens think that parts of neighboring countries rightfully belong to the Russian Federation. The results of the Pew poll, conducted in April of this year, were either directly or indirectly related to Russia’s March annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The poll, perhaps unsurprisingly, also showed that Putin’s popularity in Russia has increased by 14 percentage points since 2012, from 69 percent to 83 percent, in the wake of the Crimean crisis.
Russian citizens were asked whether “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to Russia.” Almost a third of the respondents, 28 percent, replied that they completely agree with this statement, while another 33 percent said that they mostly agree with it. Only 28 percent of Russians don’t think that any parts of neighboring countries belong to RF – 10 percent completely disagree, and another 18 percent mostly disagree with the statement. About 11 percent of respondents either didn’t know or lacked an opinion on the issue. The data in this poll differs drastically from the responses of Russian citizens recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 1992, just 36 percent of Russians thought that parts of neighboring countries rightfully belonged to Russia, while 26 percent disagreed.
This is 25 percent increase in the number of Russian citizens advocating irredentist views through claims on neighboring territories, and might partially account for the popularity of Crimea’s unilateral annexation. The same Pew Research Center poll shows that 89 percent of Russians think that the Ukrainian government should recognize Crimea’s annexation, and 84 percent believe that Crimea’s referendum was “free and fair.” This opinion directly contradicts the views of the international community at large, which has refused to recognize the plebiscite and subsequent annexation.
The poll data is alarming not only for Ukraine, but also for the leaders and citizens of other countries neighboring Russia. Although the polls didn’t ask Russian citizens which parts of neighboring countries might belong to Russia, it can be assumed that these territories likely include former regions of the Soviet Union. Former Soviet regions with large numbers of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers include modern-day areas of Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic States, and parts of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Interestingly, several of Russia’s former Soviet neighbors have been staunch Russian allies since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both countries are Russian allies and members of the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, and also have large numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. However, it remains to be seen whether Russian actions in the Crimean peninsula and the Russian people’s support for irredentism and annexation might strain these relationships.
The first signs of dissent and alarm at Russia’s newfound territorial expansionism among Russian allies have come from Belarus. Belarusian President and pro-Russian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has only marginally addressed the Crimean crisis. Belarus has not officially recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Lukashenko chided Russia for setting a “bad precedent” even while conceding that Crimea is now a de facto part of the Russian Federation. The Russian people’s support for claims on foreign countries along with Russia’s annexation of Crimea will likely continue to strain Russia’s relationship with its allies in the former Soviet countries and beyond.