Then-German chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin chat during a press conference after a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris on December 9, 2019. Photo: AFP / Charles Platiau

Despite the Russian government’s standoff with Western nations, public opinion has been shifting away from hostility. Multiple polls indicate that Russians now perceive the West and specifically the European Union more favorably than even a few years ago. With the trend likely remaining unchanged in the upcoming years, the public demand for rapprochement might hit new highs and impact the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

The annexation of Crimea of 2014 and US president Barack Obama’s policy of isolation revolutionized Russia’s foreign behavior that ever since Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika had remained consistently Western-centric.

The Kremlin never felt more geopolitically befuddled than when the Russian economy got hit with sanctions, declining oil prices and collective Western backlashes. External pressure pushed Moscow to re-energize its anti-Western public narrative that emerged as a bizarre concoction of the century-old czar’s rebuttal of liberal values and the Soviet anti-imperialist crusade that portrayed the country as a besieged fortress.

Russia’s anti-Western sentiments hit an all-time high after the war in eastern Ukraine. In October 2015, a survey by the independent Levada Center polling group found that 71% of Russians said the US played “a negative role in the world,” up from 50% who had held that view two years earlier. Three-quarters of Russians also named Germany, Japan and Britain as geopolitical adversaries.

Although the negativity toward the West started to decline gradually within a year, Russian society still remained largely skeptical about their country’s relations with Western countries.

These attitudes were a 180-degree turn away from Moscow’s previous attempts to build bridges with the West and shattered President Vladimir Putin’s proclamation of a united Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The most illustrative example of the scale of disruption could be underscored by the public sentiments after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal. In 2008, 61% of Russians had a positive view of Britain, but a decade later 51% of those surveyed thought “very” or “rather” poorly of that country.

Recent data, however, reveal that anti-Western sentiments have started to tank.

survey commissioned by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) and Ipsos found that 70% of Russians want to cooperate more with Europe in many areas such as scientific exchange and environmental protection.

The survey, however, revealed a significant lack of trust in institutions, with a third or less of respondents believing that they work for the benefit and well-being of citizens.

In February, a Levada Center poll found that 80% believe that Russia and the West should become friends and partners; 49% expressed positive opinions toward the European Union and 42% toward the United States. Most recently, 54% of respondents told Levada that Russia’s relations with the West will eventually return to pre-Crimea-annexation levels.

This dramatic shift reveals that Russian public opinion has started to return to its post-Soviet normalcy. Despite constant diplomatic jabs during the 2000s and multiple disagreements, Russia and the European Union still shared more similarities than differences.

The ongoing changes in Russian public opinion might also reflect growing disillusionment with meager economic growth and fatigue with aggressive propaganda.

In March, Vladimir Putin told TASS news agency that the country had lost only US$50 billion because of foreign sanctions. But the real number may be much higher, as two years ago Bloomberg claimed that sanctions might have cut 6% off the country’s gross domestic product. Russia’s economy could decline by 5.5% this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, but growth rates already looked bleak before the pandemic.

In April, Putin’s approval ratings fell to 59%, down from 63% in the previous month, according to a poll carried out by Levada. That number is still high, but the dip might reflect growing dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and also underscore the public appeal for changes. Improved relations with the West and a shift away from confrontation to cooperation could be among the public priorities.

As the situation with the pandemic remains unclear and global political settings could worsen US-China geopolitical rivalry, Russians might be more eager to restore broken relations with the Western nations. This would push the Kremlin to reconsider its growing realignment with the regime in Beijing and its widely announced turn to the East that so far has failed to deliver any significant returns.

The potential shifts, however, reveal two acute dilemmas. On the one hand, the Kremlin might not be willing to reconsider its relations with the West because of persisting disagreements. Thus the situation in Ukraine has remained frozen and Moscow continues to support the regime in Damascus that represses its people and has become even more intransigent.

On the other hand, the EU might have grown tragically disillusioned with Russia, and the blow to international relations because of the events in Ukraine could make it very difficult to restore public trust. Although Europeans would like to cooperate with Russians, there is going to be a gap separating working relations and actually treating each other as partners. Thus Russian public opinion might be too optimistic and underestimating the damage that was done to bilateral ties during the past years.

The changes in Russian public opinion, however, might soon be too difficult to ignore within the country and outside. Russians might still continue to reject Western values, but the general view of the West could grow positive, and neither side can afford to miss the opportunities thus presented.

Dimitri Frolowscki

The author is a political analyst and independent journalist. He is a consultant on policy and strategy and has written about Russia’s foreign policy.

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