Distrust between the United States and Russia has risen to levels not seen since the Cold War, according to recent surveys of the publics in both countries by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center outlined in a joint report issued today.
Analysis of the polling, conducted independently by each organization, also shows that while disagreements over Ukraine, NATO and Syria contribute to mistrust, some potential for cooperation on mutual threats remains.
The report primarily relies on the 2016 Chicago Council Survey (conducted June 10-27, 2016) and on data from several national surveys in Russia conducted by the Levada-Center in 2016.
A Rocky Post-Cold War Relationship
- In the 2016 Chicago Council Survey the average American “feeling” toward Russia (from 0 degrees, or a very cold, unfavorable feeling, to 100 degrees, or a very warm, favorable feeling) measures 40 degrees, the second lowest of the post-Cold War era.
- A majority of Americans (55 percent) feel U.S.-Russian relations are worsening.
- Similarly, only 23 percent of Russians say they have a positive view of the United States, according to Levada-Center polling in September 2016, among the lowest in the post-Cold War era.
- A March 2016 Levada poll found that 76 percent of Russians say they disapprove of the U.S. approach to international problem solving.
Distrust at the Heart of the Freeze
- Fifty-six percent of Americans say that in dealing with Russia, the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement, according to the 2016 Chicago Council Survey, while only 39 percent say the United States should actively work to limit Russia’s power.
- Conversely, according to July 2016 Levada-Center polling, 68 percent of Russians think Russia should focus on limiting U.S. power and influence, and only 32 percent favor cooperation with the United States.
Key Points of Contention
- Russian Territorial Ambitions: While 71 percent of Americans in the 2016 Chicago Council Survey say that Russia is actively working to limit U.S. power, only 30 percent say that “Russia’s territorial ambitions” represent a critical threat to the United States. Conversely, according to the July 2016 Levada poll, 56 percent of Russians see U.S. “ambitions to exert control over other countries” as a critical threat to Russia.
- NATO Enlargement: According to a June 2016 Levada survey, 68 percent of Russians think that deploying NATO troops in the Baltic countries and Poland is a threat to Russia, and 64 percent are concerned with the possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance.
- Syria: Both Americans (72 percent) and Russians (52 percent) support their governments conducting airstrikes in Syria to achieve their objectives (for Russians, to support Assad in the war against the Islamic State and the government opposition; for Americans, to fight violent groups such as ISIS), according to the 2016 Chicago Council Survey and an October 2016 Levada survey.
- Sanctions: Levada found in October 2016 that the majority of Russians think the goal of the sanctions placed on Russia was to weaken it (74 percent), rather than to stop the war in Ukraine (6 percent) or restore geopolitical balance in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea (17 percent). It also found that two in three Russians believe that Russia should not seek a compromise with the West in the face of sanctions but should ignore the sanctions placed upon them (65 percent). Two thirds (59 percent) also believe that they should outright ignore Western criticisms of Russia.
Challenges, Opportunities for Cooperation
- The majority of Americans think the United States and Russia are working in different directions on a number of issues, including ending the conflict in Syria (64 percent), limiting Iran’s nuclear program (58 percent) and reducing nuclear weapons worldwide (59 percent), according to the 2016 Chicago Council Survey.
- Levada’s October 2016 poll found that Russians are somewhat divided on the possibility of finding “a common language to solve the Syria problem” with 35 percent saying it is possible versus 39 percent saying it is impossible. Forty-eight percent of Russians are afraid that a conflict resulting from disagreements between Russia and Western countries on Syria may result in a third world war, according to the Levada-Center.
However, data from Levada’s July 2016 poll and the 2016 Chicago Council Survey suggests further cooperation may be possible in several key areas:
- Both Russians and Americans see international terrorism and nuclear proliferation as the first and second most critical threat to their countries.
- Islamic fundamentalism was the third most critical threat to Russians and fourth to Americans.
For further analysis and data, please see the full report.
The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2016 Chicago Council Survey of the American public and US foreign policy. The 2016 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide online research panel between June 10-27, 2016, among a national sample of 2,061 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is ±2.38, including a design effect of 1.2149. The margin of error is higher for questions administered to a partial sample and among partisan subgroups.
The 2016 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Korea Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.
The Russian part of analysis in this report is based on data from several all-Russian surveys conducted by the Levada-Center (Levada Analytical Center). The surveys are done as face-to-face interviews in home of respondents. The representative sample includes urban and rural population of Russia, 1,602 persons aged 18 years and older, living in eight federal districts of Russian Federation. Inside each district the sample is distributed among five strata of settlements proportionally to number of population living in them in age of 18+ years. All cities with over one million population are inserted in the sample as self-representative units. The margin of error ranges ±1.5 to ±3.4 percentage points, depending on the specific question.
The surveys in Russia are initiative-based research projects that were conducted at the Levada-Center’s own expense.