A large segment of the academic literature reflects on the power of attraction, known as well as soft power, of the European Union and the United States. But what about Russia? and Putin? What are the global perceptions of Putin’s Russia since the turn of the century? In a recent survey produced by the Pew Research Center, most of the world – aside from China, India, Ghana and Vietnam – has a largely unfavorable opinions of Russia and Putin (see below).
The concept of soft power is a very theoretical concept famously developed by Joseph Nye in his book ‘Soft Power: The Mean to Succeed in World Politics’ (1998). His argument is directly connected with the earlier work produced by Antonio Gramsci. But Nye was able to take the core of Gramsci’s argument and bring it at the global level in order to talk about foreign policy. Gramsci was mostly concerned about domestic Italian politics and
non-change in the 30s. When talking about opinions and perceptions, the concept of soft power is certainly directly connected as it does influence state’s foreign policy. But let’s take a look at the way the transatlantic community see and perceive Russia and Putin.
Transatlantic Perceptions of Russia and Putin
The US-Russian perceptions are very much aligned with change of leadership in the US (from Bush to Obama), policy change (failed 2009 reset policy and the pivot), and the regional crises (Ukraine, Syria) and domestic narratives controlled by Putin. The graph below claims that the opinions have worsened on both sides of the Altantic. The last two years of the Bush administration were a period little more stable between the two superpowers despite the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. With the election of President Obama and his tentative to soften and deepen the relationship with Russia, the opinions of one another become more favorable in Russia (+13 point of %) than in the US (+6 point of %) though. From 2010 to the invasion of Crimea, the options were pretty stable. The lowest point was in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Considering the European views and opinions of Russia, the Pew did not produce a graph, but included a set of numbers at the end of the survey. The transatlantic opinion is very homogenous since 2007 (since chart below). Not surprisingly France and the United Kingdom have had the most favorable opinion of Russia, and Poland the lowest in recent years. The US is in the mix of the transatlantic opinion. However, it would have been interesting to see how the Baltic and Nordic EU Member States (Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Denmark) and Eastern EU Member States (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Austria) perceive Russia over the years. The survey failed in providing the data for these states.
Vladimir Putin, Global Villain?
A big part of the negative views of Russia in the US and Western Europe is directly connected to the person of Vladimir Putin. The press, academia, and think tank communities (here are some excellent works and examples such as book by Fiona Hill, and a book review of Karen Dawisha’s manuscript) have created some type of admiration/incomprehension around the person of Vladimir Putin. There is a certain fascination about Putin in the US and Western Europe as Vladimir Putin has been framed as either an irrational actor, or a master of realpolitik (read here and here previous analyses). In any case, the US and Americans have never had the highest degree of confidence in Putin.
Even though the impacts of Russian influences on the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and 2008 war in Georgia were not major, as demonstrated by the data below, in affecting the confidence in Putin, the turning point was the incursion in Crimea and ultimately its annexation. Then with the lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, and even the ‘accidental’ targeting of the civilian Malaysian flight last summer, they have contributed in lowering the confidence and trust in Vladimir Putin. In some ways, the low degree confidence has been materialized in the isolation of Vladimir Putin, whom has been absent (or more accurately kick out of the G-8) of the recent G-7 meeting. In addition, Putin has not demonstrated being serious in trying to solve the Ukrainian crisis, as he was never committed to make the Minsk Protocol II work.
All these graphs and data provided by the Pew highlight one common trend, most of the world share a common negative perceptions of Russia and his president. In the 21st century, it is quite rare to find such unanimous position on an issue. More seriously these data demonstrate that Putin’s Russia is not concerned about global perceptions. Putin has a vision for Russia and has demonstrated that he can not only remain in power (which he has done since 2000), control the domestic narrative (through playing the nationalist card and limiting the freedom of press and civil society), and advance Russian interests where and when required.
European and American sanctions are certainly hurting the Russian economy, already weakened by the historically low prices of hydrocarbons, but Putin has been tactical in choosing which issues are important to fight for. For instance Ukraine is, but Iran was not so much as Putin, with his Chinese counterpart, agreed on the Vienna agreement in July. Putin will continue to fascinate and certainly won’t stop in leading Russia where he desires, with or without the approval of global opinions.