In the latest release of the Transatlantic Trends survey, Russia’s complex relationship with the West figured prominently as one of the key trends impacting future transatlantic security.
Russia and the West don't always see eye-to-eye. Pictured in Minsk (left-right): Russia's President Vladimir Putin, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko. Photo: AFP
As a result of the ongoing controversy over Ukraine, Russia was included in the 2014 Transatlantic Trends analytical survey, a project of the German Marshal Fund of the United States and Compagnia di San Paolo.
The survey – which targets experts, academics and decision makers in the U.S. and Europe - contains the results of a number of public opinion polls conducted between June 2 and June 26 in the U.S., 10 countries from the EU and Russia. The topics included migration, transatlantic security, the global economy and foreign policy, including the rise of other world powers and NATO.
This is not the first time that Russia has been included in such a large-scale and comprehensive survey, which began in 2002 as World Views. As can be implied from the speech of Lev Gudkov, Director of Russia’s Levada Center for public opinion polling, who also took the floor in Carnegie Moscow Center during the presentation of the Transatlantic Trends, such interest toward Russia in 2012 and 2014 results not only from the Ukrainian crisis, but also from the deterioration of Russia-West relations since the start of Putin’s third presidential tenure.
The West’s paradoxical relationship with Russia and Ukraine
The Transatlantic Trends findings are indeed discouraging for the future relationship between Moscow and the West. They confirm the deepening geopolitical crisis and the political will of the U.S. and Europe to step up sanctions against Russia and support Ukraine, if necessary.
With 68 percent of Europeans and 53 percent of Americans regarding Russia’s leadership as “undesirable,” 64 percent of U.S. citizens and 61 percent of EU respondents agreed that the West should toughen sanctions against Russia because of its policy in Ukraine.
In contrast, public opinion sees Ukraine in a much more favorable way. As the Transatlantic Trends report posits, respondents on both sides of the Atlantic believe that the West should provide political and economic support to Ukraine regardless of the increasing risks of the conflict with Russia. 57 percent in the United States and 58 percent in the EU believe in stronger support for Ukraine.
Yet the paradox is that regardless of their readiness to support Kiev financially and politically, many Europeans regard Ukraine unfavorably. In fact, 42 percent view Ukraine unfavorably, compared to 43 percent who think otherwise. In the U.S., the number of those who sympathize with Ukraine (44 percent) significantly outpaces those who have an unfavorable view of the country (32 percent).
The relations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU are indeed very complicated, admits Constanze Stelzenmuller, the author of the Key Findings Report on the 2014 Transatlantic Trends, a senior fellow at the German Marshal Fund of the United States and future fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Ukraine is a country that is changing the relationship between Russia and the West,” she said. “This isn’t just a storm, it is climate change.”
After the shooting down of Flight MH17, Russia lost a lot of European partners, including the Netherlands and Germany, she added. All this created a sense that “there is an ocean between you and us.” Stelzenmuller argues that the West tried to come up with a compromise that would be acceptable not just to Ukraine, but also to Russia, throughout the history of their complex relationship.
“All European and NATO policy is based on the assumption that Russia had legitimate strategic interest in [Europe’s] Eastern Neighborhood and Ukraine, but it was overthrown not by the EU, but by the Ukrainians themselves,” she said. “And now we are faced with a complicated situation and join to help people who make their choice, or the majority of these people.”
The dilemma for the West, as Stelzenmuller presents it, is that “nobody [in the EU] wants the war with Russia, nobody wants worsening relations with Russia, but we cannot refuse the call for help from Ukrainians” despite the fact 42 percent of EU respondents see Ukraine unfavorably.
Meanwhile, Director of Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin argues that Ukraine’s serious integration with the EU will be very challenging because of the grave political and economic problems that Kiev should address.
“Where is the rationality of an average European when he or she talks about Ukraine’s potential EU membership?” Trenin asks, implying that that any attempts to integrate Ukraine in the EU will inevitably face problems. Kiev is hardly likely to meet the prerequisites for EU membership in the short-term and, maybe, the long-term.
Yet Stelzenmuller parries that the membership perspective – what she calls “a big carrot” – might encourage Kiev to change its institutions regardless of the fact that Ukraine is not so far eligible for full-fledged membership in the EU.
At the same time, Trenin points out that getting EU membership is usually possible only after accession to NATO or at the same time as acquiring NATO membership. “There is no single Eastern European country that would have joined the EU without accession to NATO,” he told Russia Direct in an interview.
Understanding the roots of Russian suspicions about the West
In Russia, the response to the Ukrainian crisis seems to be predictable. The growing negative sentiments toward the West are becoming commonplace among the majority of Russians. The Transatlantic Trends figures are indicative: 81 percent of Russians oppose U.S. global leadership, while 62 percent see the EU leadership as undesirable.
Mention should be made about U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy toward Russia, as Russians see it: 87 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama’s approach to Russia, with 83 percent supporting the current approach of Russia’s authorities in dealing with foreign affairs. Most importantly, 53 percent of Russians believe that the Kremlin should maintain its influence in Ukraine despite the odds of a confrontational relationship with the West, while 29 percent disagree.
Gudkov argues that the figures presented in the 2014 Transatlantic Trends generally confirms that the schism between Russia and the West has deeper roots and is related not only to the Ukrainian crisis. During his third presidential term, Putin was too eager to reach and, then, use stability as a political tool to legitimize its regime, given the 2011-2012 protests in Russia and Putin’s political approval ranking amidst a series of corruption and political scandals, Gudkov explains.
That’s why Putin relied – to a greater extent – on feelings of strong patriotism and the idea of restoring Russia as a great power, which resulted in the growth of a new ideology and the rise of anti-Western sentiment among people.
Gudkov points out that the current propaganda campaigns are different. “Previously, these campaigns were pretty short and took about two-three months,” he said. “Now and in the future, they will be more long-lasting and deeper, with more implications. The depth of confrontational sentiment is very serious and unprecedented.”
According to Gudkov, there is a correlation between the level of the Russia-West confrontation and patriotic euphoria and pride among ordinary Russians: The majority believes that Russia has restored its status of great power. The key problem is that Russians are experiencing a deep inferiority complex and a sort of psychological trauma after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of which makes them easier to manipulate, Gudkov argues.
This is one of the reasons why the population supports the Kremlin, which has disseminated its informational agenda based on the following dubious claims: Russia is protecting its compatriots, it is returning the land that has historically belonged to it, and it is fighting with Ukrainian fascists.
In contrast to Gudkov, Maxim Shepovalenko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, argues anti-Western sentiment in Russia is not the result of the Kremlin’s propaganda, because many Russians could freely travel to Europe and the U.S. during the last 23 years and Putin himself “relied on this experience of free communications” with Europe and the U.S.
Nevertheless, mobility in Russia is low, with few of them travelling a lot and being aware about real life in the West, parried Gudkov. “Most of them get information from TV,” he said. About 54 percent of Russians didn’t leave Russia to visit other countries.
Likewise, Stelzenmuller assumes that the Kremlin-led information war played a significant role in affecting Russia’s public opinion during the Ukrainian crisis. She argues that many Russians are very leery toward the West because they believe it benefited from the collapse of the Soviet Union, that “the West had a responsibility for the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Yet that is hardly the case. “I am not suggesting that we were the cause of [the collapse],” Stelzenmuller clarifies. “The cause of the break-up of the Soviet Union was the dysfunction of the Soviet system and its political system.”
In the same manner, she contradicts Russia’s belief that the West had allegedly benefited from the chaos in the 1990s.
“At the very least, there is a sense among Russians that we have no empathy, no understanding how much Russians, their pride and self-confidence suffered,” Stelzenmuller said. “In reality, many of us did see and did understand that.”
Gudkov seems to echo Stelzenmuller while pointing out that “the fist sign for isolationism comes from Russia,” not from the West. Repressive laws [that prohibited adoptions of Russian orphans by American families, toughened Internet regulations or forced some NGOs to register as “foreign agents” – Editor’s note] were adopted by the Russian authorities, while the West just tried to foster educational and cultural projects in the country that needed these projects, he said.
NATO, Russia and the future of European security
The Transatlantic Trends survey also presents interesting figures on public opinion of Europe regarding NATO, which is viewed as “still essential” by 61 percent of Europeans and 58 percent of Americans. 59 percent of Americans and 73 percent of Europeans believe that NATO should be involved in the territorial defense of Europe. At the same time, 53 percent of U.S. respondents supported the idea of NATO providing arms and training to other countries, while 52 percent of their European counterparts disagreed.
Moreover, most Americans (68 percent) support Ukraine’s accession to NATO, while Europeans are divided: 46 percent argue Ukraine should join the Transatlantic Alliance, while 47 percent oppose.
Given Russia’s suspicion toward NATO’s most initiatives, some representatives of the Kremlin might see these figures with a great deal of cautiousness. However, Stelzenmuller argues that NATO’s increasing influence in Europe doesn’t necessarily mean a threat to Russia.
“The majority of Europeans think that NATO’s expansion was necessary: And this is not about Russia, it was because the Estonians, the Poles, the Latvians came to us and said we wanted to the members of NATO,” she told Russia Direct. “And under the conditions of the NATO treaty, if a nation knocks and says ‘I want to be a member,' NATO can’t say 'No' in principle, and it has to prove its readiness. So, it’s not about moving closer to Russia.”
Director of the NATO Informational Office in Moscow Robert Pszczel argues that the claims about NATO trying to foment new Cold War sentiments are far from reality. If NATO wanted a new Cold War, "we wouldn't have tried to establish cooperation with Russia previously,” he told Russia Direct implying that NATO did its best to find common ground with Moscow. According to him, the only way to minimize the implications of Russia-NATO differences and see eye-to-eye is to persuade Russia “to stop its propaganda and its interference in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Irina Zvyagelskaya, a professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Science, argues that Russia and the West shouldn’t give up collaboration despite the sanctions war increasing tensions in relations. She points out that such reluctance to collaborate will be reckless and dangerous for Russia and the West given the common threats in the Middle East (such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria).
“It makes no sense to worsen the relation in those fields where there is no reason to do it,” she said. “And imposing the last wave of sanctions is not reasonable when the conflict in Ukraine sees some signs of improvement.”