Russian flag

Photograph by Wanwa

If this month’s events unfold as they could – if Bashar al-Assad follows through on demobilizing his chemical arsenal; if the UN can enforce the international norm – one actor will likely come out looking better than the rest: Russia. Where Moscow once stood as a red-face regime bent on retaliation, the Kremlin could flip into the only nation capable of stemming potential international conflagration. Even though Russia didn’t originally intend on parlaying the Syrian civil war into a publicity coup, that’s precisely what it’ll find.

And it couldn’t come at a better time, either. Because as a recent Pew poll shows, Russia has withered into one of the least palatable nations in the world. According to the numbers, Russia has attained favorable status with only 36 percent of the residents in the 38 countries surveyed. Thirty-nine percent, meanwhile, view the country in an unfavorable light. While President Vladimir Putin’s popularity wanes domestically, so, too, does his country’s.

Moscow’s desiccated status becomes that much starker when juxtaposed with both America and China, which, per Pew’s July poll, are both viewed as solidly positive players. “With everything happening recently, Russia’s essentially lost sort of this general role as an alternative to American domination,” said Joshua Tucker, a professor of both politics and Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. “Russia’s paying the price for its policies.”

But it’s not simply that Russia’s numbers are underwater. This, for post-Soviet watchers, shouldn’t necessarily come as surprise. Rather, it’s that, as Pew shows, there are certain nations, certain geographic stretches, that seem more down on Moscow than most – while certain countries have an unexpectedly sunny outlook.

The bulk of Europe, as the rainbow regalia attest whenever Putin heads westward, views Russia as coldly as expected. France, Italy, and Spain all boast significantly negative views on Moscow, with Poland and the Czech Republic (and Japan alongside) tethering modern, rights-based frustration to historic gripe. (This gets all the starker when looking at GMF’s recent Transatlantic Survey, which sees nearly three-quarters of Europe viewing the US favorably.)

And while Britain still moderates its views, Germany, despite its burgeoning economic linkage, stakes a 60 percent unfavorability rate to Russia – nearly double those who support Moscow. Memories of dominance over the German Democratic Republic, and recent struggles with Russian energy policy – to say nothing of the same-sex repression Russia’s currently enforced – have soured Europe’s largest economy to one of its most important trading partners. “Those numbers on Germany are surprising, to see the amount of people who still don’t have a positive opinion of Russia,” said Kimberly Marten, a political science professor at Barnard College and Columbia University focused on Russia.  “There’s plenty of Cold War overhang – but those numbers are just amazing to me.”

Interestingly, there’s one outlier among the European Union nations surveyed: Greece, which comes not simply as the lone EU member with a net positive view of Russia, but also posts the highest percentage of those in favor of Moscow’s policies in the entire world. Lingering anti-EU, anti-austerity sentiment – as well as strong support from the nation’s communist wing still recalling those halcyon Soviet days – have turned Greece into the lone EU outpost backing Moscow.

Boasting a 49-39 favorability split, China also presents one of the few nations to see Russia in a positive light. However, according to Marten, those numbers in China – especially as Beijing continues to tug ex-Soviet Central Asia eastward – present a moment of pause. Not only are they lower than expected, but they should be taken in conjunction with numbers from South Africa (26-53) and Brazil (34-52), other members of the BRICS bloc. As Russia has attempted to bolster BRICS into a bulwark against American authority, the poll displays a marked animosity toward Moscow within the group. With Turkey’s results tossed on – only 19 percent view Russia favorably, the least of any nation surveyed – it’s clear that new regional hegemons share a scorn for Moscow.

“BRICS doesn’t really mean much anymore,” Marten observed. “Russia keeps pushing for it, especially as this sort of anti-American body, but the economies now are just so different.” As are the views on Central Asia’s direction, per China. As are the views on political organization, per South Africa. As are the views on human rights, per Brazil.

Interestingly, the developed world also remains lukewarm to Moscow. Latin America hangs onto memories of Cold War meddling – highlighted by Venezuela and Bolivia, whose anti-American policies aren’t enough to overcome prior animosity. And while Sub-Saharan Africa largely sees Russia positively, support falls well below levels extended to both America and China. Russia shares none of the colonial past within the Southern Hemisphere, but as Moscow has now become a competitor for both Western and Chinese revenue, many export-heavy African countries see it as rival, rather than partner.

Of course, the magnitude of disdain stands sharpest in the Middle East. Jordan, Egypt, Palestine – the Sunni-heavy stretch directly affected by the Syrian implosion – show consistent, and solid, levels of contempt for Moscow. And Israel, whose émigré population loathes Putin as they did Brezhnev, posts the starkest numbers of the poll, with a net rank of minus-56.

And that, that unflinching distaste among the entire region, is what makes Moscow’s recent moves viz. Syria so much more tantalizing. That’s what makes this recent tack that much greater of an opportunity for Russia to float its favorability rating into positive territory. “Russia has a strong interest in seeing Syria get rid of its chemical weapons, and for healing the relationship with the US,” Marten noted. “It has nothing to lose here. It seems like this is a beautiful opportunity for Russia to show that it can really be a moderate country.”

Indeed, this might be the only chance Moscow has of even keeping the numbers close. Because while the Pew survey failed to include any ex-Soviet republics, Russia, through reasons both domestic and exogenous, has seen even its once-taut relationships – with Ukraine, with Belarus – loosen. It’s seen once-tight allies spun off in foreign directions. It’s seen its dreams at a Eurasian Union crumble in a matter of months.

As one Ukrainian analyst earlier noted, “Russia does not have a single ally in the contemporary world.” While that may be a bit wrought – Armenia, for instance, recently elected to join the Eurasian Union for just this alliance – the point, paired with the new numbers, remains. Russia stands as one of the least palatable, least popular nations in the world. And while Putin likes to look at the numbers with a feigned disdain, he’s also watching them slip further into the abyss, and further into the lowest ranks in the world.



About Author

Casey Michel

Casey Michel is currently a graduate student at Columbia University, focused on Russian, East European, and Eurasian affairs. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, and Registan, and he worked as a polling analyst with Talking Points Memo during the 2012 election. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in northern Kazakhstan in 2011, where the vodka is cold and the horse is delicious.

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