Sunday, November 17, 2019

Russians More Interested in Being a Great Power than an Empire, Volkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 14 – Russians are more interested in being a great power, ready to act as other great powers do, rather than being an empire with colonies that are dependent on it but very costly, according to Denis Volkov of the Levada Center (

            In the course of a wide-ranging interview, the center’s deputy director was asked whether Russians want to be a great power or an empire.  “It seems to me,” he responds, “that it isn’t an empire that they want.” A majority have “a certain national patriotism: we should not feed ‘all the others.’ Let’s take care of ourselves. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t interfere.”

Indeed, Volkov continues, “we can and should get involved in other countries because that is how all great powers act. If America can, then we can. This is important because there isn’t an alternative.”

            “When we ask what a great power is,” Volkov says, “many respond that is above all economics. But to the extend that we live worse than they do in the US and in Europe, Russia has as a great power only Putin and nuclear warheads. What we have is what we are proud of.”

            Given the centrality of economics in defining what a great power is, one might expect Russians to change their attitude toward Putin because he hasn’t delivered, his questioner says. “It is changing,” Volkov says. People no longer support him because of successes in foreign policy as was the case two or three years ago.

            “Today, people ever more often say that they support [Putin] because there aren’t any others” who might take his place.

            Five years after the annexation of Crimea, 88 percent of Russians have no doubt that it is part of Russia.  But the share of Russians who say that it might have been better not to annex Crimea because of the consequences it has entailed has risen from 20 percent to 30 percent, Volkov says.

At the same time, when the bridge linking Russia proper to Crimea was built, this acquired “symbolic significance: Russia as it were physically attached Crimea to itself. Ths was one of the main events of the month and even the year.” But Russians are against sending so much money to Crimea when there are so many problems at home.

In general, Russians today are generally indifferent to what is happening in Ukraine. There is a real tiredness about almost all foreign policy issues.

Still, “Russians view the war in Ukraine as an internal conflict and consider that Russia is helping the Russian population. There is a mandate for this. Propaganda has convinced people in this.” Were that not the case, many would not support intervention “because Ukraine is a separate state,” the Levada Center sociologist says.

“In the understanding of Russians, it would be better if it had not been necessary to get involved; but if it was necessary, then we can do so. But for this there must be a weighty basis, in this case, the defense of Russians.”

Asked about Russian attitudes toward the Baltic countries, Volkov says that the Levada Center has conducted relatively few polls on this but adds that Russians feel the Balts are ungrateful for all that Russia has done for them in the past.  And the three have run into the arms of the West to protect themselves from Russia.

But some Russians say that “if we were in their place, we would do exactly the same.”

As far as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is concerned, most Russians do not understand it very well. “But now in general has appeared an inclination to justify it, an attitude which did not exist earlier. Government rhetoric has changed, and attitudes have followed.  But it is possible that Putin is following [rather than leading] a common view.”

As one respondent put it, Volkov recalls, “if we all were democrats, then Putin would be a democrat as well.”

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