Staunton, June 1 – The Russian government may talk about multipolarity and the growing importance of China and Europe, but polls show that for Russians, the world is once again bipolar with the two key countries being their own and the United States and relations between them including both hopes for cooperation and fears of conflict, Aleksey Levinson says.
For Russians, the relationship between Russia and the US inevitably contains both negative and positive elements, the Levada Center sociologist says. “The negative dominates [their thinking] but without the positive, the negative wouldn’t appear so clearly” (vtimes.io/2021/06/01/nasha-glavnaya-strana-a5345).
What is most striking perhaps is that surveys show that most Russians evaluate the relationship as good or bad, with the more extreme positions of very good or very bad being held by only small groups of people, something that allows the shifting back and forth between the two groups in the middle.
In the first years of Putin’s rule, Russians who felt relations were good outnumbered those who thought they were bad two and three to one. Because of the Georgia war, by 2014, they had come into rough balance. And then with Crimea, the pattern shifted fundamentally, Levinson says.
As he has often argued, Russians celebrated the annexation of Crimea not so much because Russia had regained something for itself but because “Russia under the leadership of Putin had acted as Russians though only great powers like the for example the United States does without regard to world public opinion.”
But still Russians generally prefer that relations with the US be cooperative because all but a small group of them understand that a conflict with the US is not a conflict like with Ukraine because it carries with it the risk of a nuclear war and thus mutual destruction. At present, they expect deterioration but hope for something else.
“This is ‘the popular prognosis,’” Levinson continues. “It to a significant degree depends both on how people read the will of those on top in media reports and how to a certain degree it reflects their own hopes and orientations” which have continued far longer than any specific Kremlin policy.
New poll show that only four percent of Russians want a serious conflict with the US and only eight percent more want a break in relations. In short, these are marginal positions. Most Russians don’t want either the one or the other. About a fifth of all Russians instead want Russia to flex its muscles but do so in ways that don’t risk a real conflict.
Russians are happy enough to talk about “’repeating’” past victories and take pride in their country’s military power, but these things are “more for themselves than for [the United States].” And that is even more the cases among those of more education and higher position who understand what could happen otherwise.
Sixty percent or more in some categories of Russians want cooperation with the US, the sociologist says. But they understand by cooperation American acceptance of what Russia is doing. Thus, for them, the Trump Administration was almost ideal: it didn’t challenge Moscow on key things and it was thus “ours” for Russians in a fundamental sense.
But now that period of semi-euphoria has passed, and while a majority of Russians want cooperation with the West, a greater share of these wants minimal cooperation rather than something more wide-ranging, a reflection of dashed hopes in the past and expectations that the future isn’t going to be any easier.