Russians Say Their Country Is A Rising Military Power; And a Growing Percentage of Americans View Russia as a Threat

March 21, 2019

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Lily Wojtowicz, Research Associate

US-Russia relations have been at odds since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and this current period of tensions is arguably the longest on record since the end of the Cold War.[1] With potential links between the Trump administration and Russian interference in the 2016 elections looming in the background, the American public is not ready to forgive and forget. At the same time, Russians say their country is once again a force to be reckoned with and view chilled relations with the United States as a cost of increased international influence.

Key Highlights from February 2019 Chicago Council and Levada Center surveys:[2]

  • Large majorities of Russians (85%) and Americans (78%) say the United States and Russia are more rivals than partners.
  • In Russia, majorities believe that their country’s recent foreign policy has worsened relations with the United States (78%), Russia’s economic situation (58%), and Russian living standards (64%). But majorities also think it has improved the state of their military (83%) and their country’s influence abroad (62%). 
  • In the United States, public perceptions that Russia is a threat to US security have risen (from 18% in 2017 to 39% in 2019). Slightly more Americans now than two years ago believe that Russia tried to influence the 2016 US presidential election (66%, 61% in 2017).
  • Russians continue to support the annexation of Crimea, saying it has brought more benefits (62%) than harm (16%) to Russia. For their part, a majority of Americans think the US response to Russian actions has been about right (49%) or not gone far enough (36%).
     

Continuing Freeze on US-Russian Relations

This past February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratcheted up Russian-American tension in his state of the nation speech. Responding to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Putin claimed that Russia is prepared for the next Cuban missile crisis.[3] Despite Donald Trump’s conciliatory gestures toward Putin, the US government has expanded sanctions against Moscow and expelled diplomats—triggering retaliatory moves from Moscow.[4] The two countries’ withdrawal from the INF treaty is only the latest casualty in the relationship.

Publics in Russia and the United States agree that bilateral relations are in a poor state. A large majority of Russians believe the United States and Russia are mostly rivals (85%) rather than partners (8%). Americans feel similarly, with eight in ten Americans describing Russia as a rival (78%, 18% partner).

 

Russians See China as Ally, Americans Now More Likely to See China as Rival 

Unlike their perceptions of the United States, Russians consider China to be more of a partner to Russia (84%, 11% rival). Perhaps reflecting recent US-China clashes on trade, Americans are more likely to view China as a rival (63%, 32% partner). This is up 14 percent from 2018 (49%).

On the other hand, Americans describe the European Union as more of a partner to the United States (77%, 19% rival), while Russians see the EU as more of a rival to Russia (50%, 37% partner).[5]

 

Russians Say Moscow’s Foreign Policy Increases Influence, Hurts US Relations and Economy

Standing up to the United States might be seen as a source of pride, even as many in Russia contend that they have more at stake in the bilateral relationship. Russians tend to believe that Russia (47%) rather than the United States (8%) has a greater interest in improving the bilateral relationship, and they acknowledge that their country’s foreign policy has rankled ties with the United States.[6] Eight in ten Russians believe that their country’s international policy in recent years has had a negative impact on relations with the United States (78%). They also believe it has had a negative impact on the country’s economy (58% worsened, 31% improved) and standards of living (64% worsened, 25% improved). Athough Russian opinion is divided on the effect of the Kremlin’s foreign policy on Russia’s image abroad (44% improved, 42% worsened), a majority are convinced it has improved the country’s international influence (62%). And 7 in 10 say that Russia should play an active role in world affairs (70%).

Moreover, large majorities in Russia say their recent foreign policy has improved the state of their country’s military forces (83%). They also describe their country as a rising (83%) rather than declining (4%) military power, higher than China (77% rising) and the United States (63%). That said, Russians are quite divided on whether economic strength (48%) or military strength (45%) is more important for international influence.  

 

A majority of Russians also say that Russia is more respected now (55%) than it was 10 years ago, placing it closer to the ranks of China (67% more respected) than to the United States (only 11% more respected). However, those who view Putin favorably are much more likely to say that Russia is more respected now (65%) than those who view him unfavorably (36%). 

 

Americans Now See Russia As Country Most Threatening to US Security

In the United States, similar percentages among the public today (50%) as in 2016 (55%) say that US-Russia relations are worsening, and two-thirds of Americans now believe that the Russian government tried to influence the 2016 US presidential election (66%, up from 61% in 2017). While self-described Democrats are still far more convinced than Republicans of Russian interference (90% vs. 35%), majorities among both view Russia as a rival (73% Republican vs. 83% Democrat). 

In addition, a plurality of Americans now consider Russia the greatest threat to US security (39% from a series of countries; see figure below). This percentage has risen significantly since 2017 when the US public was more focused on a threat from North Korea (59%, 18% Russia).[7] Similarly, another February 2018 Council survey found that an increasing percentage of Americans said that Russia’s territorial ambitions are a critical threat (47%), up significantly from 30 percent in 2016 (and the highest percentage since this question was first asked in 2014).

 

Americans and Russians Generally Back Official Positions in Response to Ukraine, Election Meddling

Russians generally back their government’s policies toward Ukraine and western sanctions. They remain steadfast in their view that the annexation of Crimea has brought more benefits (62%) than harm (16%) to Russia, similar to views since August 2015. A majority are unconvinced that their country tried to influence the 2016 US presidential election (71%), according to a Spring 2019 Pew survey.[8] In 2017, when asked in a Chicago Council survey, Russians generally opposed making concessions toward lifting the sanctions, such as reversing the annexation of Crimea and withdrawing support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.[9]

For their part, Americans support the sanctions against Russia though they are unclear how effective they have been in curbing Russian behavior abroad. In the February 2019 Council survey, a majority say that US actions to date, including sanctions and the expulsion of 60 diplomats from the United States, have been about right (49%) or have not gone far enough (36%) in responding to Russia’s recent aggressive behavior. As in past surveys, Republicans tend to say that the scale of sanctions are about right (71%), while a plurality of Democrats say they do not go far enough (49%, 37% about right).  When last asked in December 2017, a majority of Americans favored maintaining (39%) or increasing (38%) sanctions on Russia “in response to its actions in Ukraine and its interference in the 2016 presidential election.”[10]

However, majorities of Americans do not think that US isolation of Russia will effectively prevent Russia from taking aggressive actions against individuals or its neighbors. Six in ten think the US response will be somewhat or very ineffective in preventing Russia from using chemical agents to assassinate citizens of other countries (61%), aiding separatist groups in other countries (58%), using aggressive tactics against its neighbors (57%), violating international agreements (56%), conducting cyber-espionage against other countries (60%),  interfering in other countries’ domestic politics (58%), or developing new, higher speed missiles (59%). 

Publics in the United States and Russia Prefer Containment

Given these mutual suspicions, publics tend to think efforts should be made to limit the influence of the other country. A slim majority of Russians think Moscow should try to limit the international influence and power of the United States (53%) rather than cooperate (38%), though views are less strident than they were in 2016 (when 68% of Russians said Russia should limit US power). Likewise, Americans believe that Washington should try to limit Russia’s power (55%) rather than try to cooperate (41%), similar to 2017 results but a reversal from 2016 results (when 56% of Americans preferred to cooperate and just 39% to limit Russia’s power). 

 

Russian interference in the 2016 US election has clearly impacted how Democrats view the US relationship with Russia. The summer before the 2016 election, 62 percent of Democrats thought the United States should undertake friendly cooperation with Russia. However, three years after the election, the reverse is true. Two-thirds of Democrats would now prefer the United States to actively work to limit Russia’s power (66%). Republicans are as favorable towards friendly cooperation with Russia since 2016, though down from 2017 (50% in 2016, 56% in 2017, 49% in 2019).

Among both publics, containment is broadly seen as a retaliation in kind. At least eight in ten among both publics (77% of Americans and 83% of Russians) think that the other country is trying to limit the influence of their own.

Methodology 

The analysis in this report is based on data from a joint Chicago Council-Levada Analytical Center survey on Russian and American Attitudes conducted in February 2019. 

The US survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs using their national online omnibus service, KnowledgePanel™, between February 22-24, 2019 among a weighted national sample of approximately 1,016 American adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

The Russia survey was conducted between February 14-20, 2019 by the Levada-Center (Levada Analytical Center) with face-to-face interviews conducted among a representative sample of 1,613 persons aged 18 years and older, living in eight federal districts of the Russian Federation. Inside each district, the sample is distributed among five strata of settlements proportionally to the number of population living in them, 18 years of age or older. The margin of error is ±3.4 percentage points.

The 2019 and 2017 Chicago Council-Levada Analytical Center Joint Surveys on Russian and American Attitudes are made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

About the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. Ranked No. 1 Think Tank to Watch worldwide, the Council on Global Affairs is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business and governments engage the world. Learn more at thechicagocouncil.org and follow @ChicagoCouncil.

About the Levada-Center

The Levada-Center is one of the leading research organizations in Russia that conducts public opinion surveys, expert and elite surveys, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and other survey methods. The Center brings together experts in the fields of sociology, political science, economics, psychology, market research, and public opinion polls. The Center’s research and experts have been cited in national and international media such as Kommersant, Vedomosti, RBC, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, BBC Radio, Radio Liberty, and others. Learn more at levada.ru and follow @levada_ru or on Facebook.


[1] Robert E. Hamilton, “The Reset that Wasn’t: The Permanent Crisis of US-Russia Relations,” Geopoliticus, Foreign Policy Research Institute, December 14, 2018.
[2] This brief is based on coordinated surveys conducted by Dina Smeltz and Lily Wojtowicz of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Denis Volkov and Stepan Goncharov of the Levada Analytical Center in Moscow. The joint project on US-Russian public opinion about foreign policy issues was generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation.
[3] Andrew Osborn, “Putin to US: I’m ready for another Cuban Missile-style Crisis if you want one,” Reuters, February 21 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin/putin-to-us-im-ready-for....
[4] Katie Rogers and Eileen Sullivan, “Trump and Western Allies Expel Scores of Russians in Sweeping Rebuke over UK Poisoning,” The New York Times, March 26 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/world/europe/trump-russia-diplomats-e... Lucien Kim, “Russia retaliates against US action and expels US officials,” March 30 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/03/30/598192119/russia-retaliates-against-u-s-a....
[5] In contrast to their views on the EU, the majority of Russians see Germany as more a partner than a rival (56%, 30% rival).
[6] 31 percent say that neither country has a greater interest.
[7] In 2017, this question was asked in December just months after US and North Korean leaders traded a series of alarming barbs over nuclear weapons and before the leaders met in Singapore for the first time in June of 2018.
[8] Jacob Poushter, “Russians Say Their Government Did Not Try to Influence US Presidential Election,” August 21 2018, http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/08/21/russians-say-their-government-did-no....
[9] Dina Smeltz, Lily Wojtowicz, and Stepan Goncharov, “American and Russian opinion at a Standoff on Crimea Sanctions,” January 24 2018, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/american-and-russian-opini....
[10] Dina Smeltz, Lily Wojtowicz, and Stepan Goncharov, “American and Russian opinion at a Standoff on Crimea Sanctions,” January 24 2018, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/american-and-russian-opini....
Russians Say Their Country Is A Rising Military Power; And a Growing Percentage of Americans View Russia as a Threat

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