Nearly half of Americans believe that Russia is the primary threat to the USA. They consider Moscow to be Washington's chief enemy, and Putin personally is even less popular in America than Russia as a whole. A similar pattern is seen in Russian public opinion. Sociologists remain optimistic that any example of cooperation between the two countries can break this tendency.
A Gallup survey shows that 18 percent of Americans consider Russia to be their primary enemy. North Korea was in second place, with 15 percent of U.S. citizens expressing anxiety over that country.
The result is even more impressive when recalling that only three years ago a mere 2 percent of respondents considered Russia to be America's enemy. Fears over Moscow had already begun to grow last year, when 9 percent of those surveyed identified Russia as their primary enemy, and now they have reached record highs for the 26 observed years.
The survey was conducted on Feb. 9-11, just before the conclusion of the Minsk agreements, and against the background of rumors circulating in the American media about the Obama administration's readiness to begin delivering military weapons to Kiev. Sociologists have no doubt that the events in Ukraine, which marked a sharp division in relations between the two countries, are the main reason for Russia's drop in popularity in the USA.
Forty-nine percent of Americans see Russia as their greatest military threat; a year ago it was 32 percent. Around 41 percent of respondents believe Moscow poses a threat, but is not the main threat. Only 7 percent do not see Russia to be a threat at all; in 2014, that number was 17 percent.
Since 1989, when Gallup began researching the attitude of Americans toward Russia — then the USSR — their results underwent several fluctuations. Ratings were consistently positive until 1999, when the Russian government expressed its strong opposition to the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia; then the number of Americans who expressed positive views of Russia fell to 33 percent.
However, the positive trend quickly returned, and in 2002, soon after the terrorist attack in New York, the numbers reached their historic record: 66 percent of Americans responded positively on Russia. But within two years, from the beginning of the Iraq war, which Moscow spoke strongly against, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest in Russia, the nation's popularity fell once again. The next minimum was recorded in 2009 after the South Ossetia war, when negative assessments of Russia exceeded the positive 46-48 percent.
Today, the figures are as follows: 70 percent give a negative assessment of Russia, and only 24 percent express approval.
Vladimir Putin's personal popularity is even lower: Only 13 percent rate him positively, while 72 percent rate him negatively.
Against this background, other traditional sources of American fears fall by the wayside. In 2012, 23 percent of Americans considered China to be their main threat. In 2014, that number was 20 percent, and this year only 12 percent. Iran's "fall" is even more impressive — from 32 percent in 2012 to 9 percent this year. That last one, obviously, is connected with hopes of a rapid conclusion to the nuclear deal announced by the Obama administration.
Along with Russia, only North Korea has seen a growth in fears: from 10 percent in 2012 to 15 percent this year — in one year during that period fears over the Juche regime even decreased by 1 percent.
For the first time, the extremist group Islamic State, the actions of which have been officially forbidden in Russia, has appeared among the threats; 4 percent of Americans consider it to be the primary menace.
Sociologists note that Americans' fears perfectly correlate with attitudes toward the U.S. in Russia. A corresponding Gallup poll was conducted in Russia from April-June of last year, in which only 4 percent of Russians responded positively on America; at the same time, 82 percent roundly condemned the U.S. role in international politics.
Last week, the Levada Center published its own research on Russian citizens' attitudes toward America. Forty-two percent of those surveyed stated that their attitude toward the U.S. was "generally poor," while another 39 percent marked their attitude as "very poor." Only 13 percent reported a generally positive attitude. Thirty- seven percent categorized relations between the two countries as "strained," and 42 percent as "hostile."
Deputy Director of the Institute of International Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations Victor Mizin notes that Americans didn't hold such negative attitudes toward the USSR even during the Cold War years, when Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev voiced threats against the United States. During a visit to the Soviet leader, attitudes toward him were already completely amiable.
America's attitude toward Russia was already worsening in 1999, when they stopped viewing Russia as a developing democracy and understood that the country was going its own way; this was connected with the policies of Prime Minister Yevegeny Primakov. Professor Mizin recalls that Washington was also displeased by Russia's actions in Chechnya.
He notes that the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis was "another watershed," when Americans saw the "Russian bear show its fangs." At the same time, he notes that the figures in the American survey are nothing unusual: Such figures are typical nowadays for the majority of Western countries.
It's worth noting that the U.S. doesn't call Russia an "evil empire" as it did during the Cold War. Instead, they compare it with the Islamic State group Islamists and the Ebola virus — that is, with some uncontrolled, chaotic evil. Mizin considers such comparisons to be PR. "The current administration is one of the weakest ever, even when compared to the Bush administration. They are beset by failures everywhere," he notes.
For their part, American sociologists are somewhat more optimistic. They note that relations with Russia are unstable and subject to fluctuations, and therefore any cooperation between the two countries on a major issue, for example, the fight against Islamists in the Middle East, could reverse this trend.
Something similar could be said about the Russians. The “peaks” of negative attitudes are nearly identical: According to the Levada Center, they occurred during the bombing of Yugoslavia, the beginning of the Iraq war, and the war in South Ossetia. During the rest of this period, ratings for the past 25 years have nearly always been favorable.