Here are three very important graphs for comprehending the ebb and flow of Russia’s relations with the West, and why what some are now calling the New Cold War might well be here to stay.
Russian approval of the United States (green is positive, red is negative):
Russian approval of the EU:
While it’s hard to remember now, there really was an incredible air of optimism about future relations with the US and Europe towards the end of the Soviet Union that, perhaps even more strangely, lasted throughout most of the trials and tribulations and Harvard-supported looting of the country. There was something of a cargo cult in relation to the West, the idea that imitating and appeasing them just right would catapult the country into prosperity and the end of history. Just a few random examples. The term “evroremont,” denoting a quality housing renovation, presumably to European standards. Foreigners being allowed first in line to visit museums and cultural attractions. Women flinging themselves at any American adventurer type regardless of his success and social status (Mark Ames and the eXile are a testament to that).
There were sharp dips now and then, in surprisingly regular increments of five years, corresponding to some imperial action or other. The bombing of Serbia in 1999. The invasion of Iraq in 2003. The South Ossetian War in 2008. Crimea in 2014. Relations steadily cooled as the West began an aggressive expansion of its economic and security infrastructure into what Russia saw as its sphere of influence, in so doing breaking informal commitments made with Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t expand an inch east. Russia unquestionably became more authoritarian, though the extent of the break with late Yeltsinism in that regard is highly exaggerated, and this was accompanied by an ever shriller campaign of demonization in the Western media that shows no signs of peaking even to this day. Bearing all this in mind, it is perhaps actually surprising that the moving average of Russian opinion of the US and EU declined only modestly between 2000 and 2013, from around 70% for both the EU and the US, to 60% for the EU and 50% for the US. For all the rhetoric about Russians being taken in by anti-Western propaganda, it’s worth noting that US approval of Russia was actually consistently if modestly lower than Russia’s approval of the US.
US approval of Russia:
But there’s a couple of critical differences between previous dips and today that suggest that prior experience is no longer any guide to the future ever since approval ratings of the US and the EU plunged to less than 20% in 2014:
First, while reactions to Serbia, Iraq, and Georgia were short but sharp affairs, lasting but a few months, the recent collapse in relations as gauged by public opinion is already ongoing for more than a year. Nothing remotely similar has occured since the start of scientific polling in Russia. You might think that in a personalistic and relatively closed political system like Russia polls might not count for much, but you would be wrong; if anything, the lack of strong institutions able to act as a social glue makes polling and ratings all the more important, and it is something that the Kremlin pays heed to religiously. This is largely why Putin keeps participating in all these various stunts which range from the impressive (piloting a fighter jet during the Second Chechen War) to the faintly ridiculous (diving and magically finding ancient Greek amphora). The constant negativity seen ever since February 2014 might well be the start of a new normal, which if so might be increasingly difficult to turn around even if the respective political leaderships were to commit to doing so.
Second, and this ties in with the above, the EU has traditionally been seen slightly more positively than the US, and with the partial exception of 2008, we do not see the same sharp bumps and dips. Until 2014… when it became completely undistinguishable from the US. And that shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering the EU’s steady drift from what Russians imagined and dreamed it might be – a greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, as De Gaulle saw it – to an unapologetically Atlanticist entity that accepted partnership with no other integration blocs (such as the Eurasian Union), grew increasingly confident in orchestrating regime changes against governments that didn’t hew to their neoliberal orthodoxy, and worst of all, subsumed integration into Atlanticist security structures (first and foremost, NATO) as an inalienable component of its economic expansion. Now the average Russian wouldn’t think in such terms, of course, but in general, it is probably fair to say that Russians now see both the EU and the US as just two blocs of the same, singularly hostile West.
But the story doesn’t quite end there.
Russian approval of China:
Even as the US and EU plumb new lows, Russian approval of China struck an alltime high of 81% (recall that this is equivalent to their approval of the US in the waning days of the Soviet Union). These feelings are mutual, and Putin is highly respected as a leader in CCP circles and reportedly by Xi Jinping personally. Again, this is not surprising: When one side slaps you with sanctions, while the other comes round with a fat wallet and offers to support the ruble should Russia only ask, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who’d be the more popular guy at the party. All pretty obvious. Except, perhaps, for those neocons who appear to believe with all conviction that the West is absolutely indispensable for Russia, and that Russia will eventually agree to pay any cost to mend relations for the privilege of fighting China for them to the last Russian.