Following the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in March and its subsequent support for armed rebels in two of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces, perceptions of both Russia’s role in international affairs and of its treatment of its own people have deteriorated significantly worldwide. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, international opinions about Russia have soured and confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin has decreased. This is in sharp contrast to the opinions of the vast majority of the Russians themselves, who expressed confidence in Putin’s foreign and domestic policies.
Pew compared international attitudes toward Russia in 2013 to data collected in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of pro-Russian hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. The survey was conducted among nearly 50,000 respondents in 44 countries. Pew asked respondents about their confidence in President Putin’s handling of foreign affairs, and whether Russia respects the personal freedoms of its people. Overall, opinions toward Russia and Russian policies are notably negative worldwide, although there is significant regional variation when it comes to views of Russia.
View in the EU and US
Positive opinions about Russia and Putin have dropped most drastically in the United States and the European Union. In 2013, 37% of American respondents had a positive view of Russia, while 43% perceived Russia unfavorably. In 2014, these opinions had shifted dramatically: only 19% of Americans still think positively about Russia while 72% now have an unfavorable view. Similarly, 80% of Americans claimed to have “no confidence” in President Putin’s ability to make the right decision in international affairs. Opinions changed similarly in the European Union. In 2013, 54% of citizens of the EU had an unfavorable view of Russia. In 2014, 74% of EU respondents claimed to have a negative view of Russia.
Russia’s increasing unpopularity in the EU and US is not surprising given the current crisis in relations between Moscow and Kyiv on the one hand and Washington and Brussels on the other. Russia’s share of negative news coverage in the West is nothing new, especially since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, its growing repression of political opposition, and most recently Moscow’s hostile actions against Ukraine. Notably, 81% of Americans and similarly large majorities of EU countries do not think that Russia respects the personal freedoms of its people. In Ukraine itself, negative views of Russia have increased nearly six-fold since 2011, when only 11% of Ukrainian had a negative view of Russia. Today, 60% of Ukrainians have an unfavorable view of their neighbor.
Latin America, Africa and the Middle East
More surprising are the increasingly negative opinions toward Russia in other parts of the world, including Latin America and Africa. Western opposition to Russian aggression and human rights abuses are to be expected. However, Russia’s increasing unpopularity in other parts of the world demonstrates the cost of Russian aggression to its own image in international affairs. This is especially important considering that Putin’s Russia has tried to promote itself as a leader of world opposition to Western values and hegemony.
Of all the other regions that Pew polled, apart from the West, only the Middle East responded very negatively to Russia. In 2013, 64% of Middle East residents reported negative views on Russia. By 2014, an additional 4%, or a total of 68%, viewed Russia negatively. Although the reasons for negative views of Russia in the Middle East are unspecified, Russia’s support for Syria’s Shiite-dominated regime against Sunni rebels in the country is likely a major factor. In addition, the ongoing conflict in Syria and recent Russian aggression in Ukraine have likely only reinforced these negative viewpoints. In Africa and Latin America, negative opinions toward the Russian Federation and its leadership have also increased. Whereas opinions towards Russia in the past were largely neutral, unfavorable opinions towards Russia have increased in significant amounts lately. Unfavorable views towards Russia now stand at 45%, compared to 38% unfavorable views last year. In Africa, 31% of respondents in countries polled have an unfavorable view of Russia. This is an increase of 4% since last year, when 27% of Africans polled claimed to have unfavorable views towards the country.
In Asia, negative opinions towards Russia have also increased, even despite markedly positive opinions toward Russia in some Asian nations. Negative opinions toward Russia have increased to 41%, from 36% in 2013. Despite the aggregate statistics in Asia, several Asian nations have more positive views of Russia than last year. Respondents in China, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan all have more favorable perceptions of Russia than they did in 2013. In China, 66% of respondents have positive views, compared to 49% a year ago. Although a plethora of factors might account for increasingly positive views of Russia in some Asian countries, opposition to American and European foreign policy in the Asian region is potentially important. As a rising power and challenger to American power in East Asia, the Chinese and Russian governments have increasingly cooperated in attempts to mitigate American and European influence. China and Russia’s highly publicized natural gas agreement also might have augmented positive views of Russia in China. Other nations, such as Pakistan, are opposed to Western policies in their region and might register additional support for Russia in order to show disapproval towards the West. However, despite Russia’s increasing popularity in a handful of Asian countries, Russia’s overall popularity on the continent is decreasing.
Significance of Russia’s Unpopularity
Russia’s increasing international unpopularity, whether because of its aggression in Ukraine or its policies elsewhere, is significant for the future of Russia’s foreign policy. Putin’s Russia portrays the Russian Federation as a bulwark against cosmopolitan Western values and Western power in international affairs. Russia’s recent cooperation with China in the energy sector and in the United Nations is reflective of Putin’s newfound assertiveness in international relations. However, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, rather than soliciting international support and prestige, has instead seemed to cost Russia influence and popularity worldwide. Although the Russian Federation was hardly a popular world power, even before recent events in Ukraine, Russia’s hostilities have only strengthened negative opinions. In addition, few countries express confidence in Putin’s foreign policy abilities or Moscow’s respect for human rights in Russia. Even after allocating billions of dollars toward international propaganda machines such as Russia Today, Russia’s international unpopularity continues to sap the country’s international influence and drain the Russian treasury.
Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center