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The US-Russia Relationship

A modest majority views Russia as a friend, down from a large majority before the Iraq war. Russia is not seen as inherently threatening to the United States and is even seen as having a slightly positive influence on the United States. However, past views of Russia as a dependable partner in the war against terrorism—especially after 9/11--may have been diminished by Russia’s reluctance to support the US in the invasion of Iraq. Overwhelming majorities continue to view Russia as a vital interest for the US, and a majority affirms the importance and appropriateness of Russia’s participation in the G8 Summit.

Since the early 1990s, Harris Interactive has asked respondents to what degree they view Russia as friendly and an ally, or as unfriendly and an enemy. As recently as August 2005, a majority of 56% viewed Russia as a close ally (11%) or as friendly, but not a close ally (45%). This represents a slight increase in those viewing Russia as friendly from the previous two years, when slightly smaller majorities (51% in August 2004, 52% in August 2003) saw Russia as a close ally or friendly but not a close ally. At the same time, those who view Russia as not friendly but not an enemy or as an unfriendly and an enemy have remained largely consistent at 36-37% over the past three years.

The current level is lower than in May 2002 when ABC News found 63% characterized Russia as an "ally" (10%) or as "friendly but not a close ally" (53%). This percentage then dropped 11 points to 52% in the Harris August 2003 poll. This was likely due to perceptions of Russia as uncooperative in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Views of Russia as not friendly and as an enemy also grew to 37% in 2003, when in 2002 only 31% had held those views.

Previous to the Iraq war there was a positive upswing in attitudes about the US-Russian relationship that began in the aftermath of September 11. In October 2001 a Harris poll found, for the first time since 1994, that a majority viewed Russia as an ally or friend. After Russia pledged support for the war on terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 58% called Russia a "close ally" (17%) or "a friend but not a close ally" (41%). Thirty-three percent then said that Russia was "not friendly but not an enemy" (27%) or "an enemy of the US" (only 6%).

The post-Sept. 11 findings broke a six-year cooling trend, during which the percentage saying that Russia was either a "close ally" or "friendly but not a close ally" dropped from 66% in 1993 to 36% in 2000 in the Harris polls. [1]

When asked to choose between calling Russia an ally or an adversary, a majority in 2002 chose the ally image, whereas in 2000 more chose the adversarial image. Asked in an April 2002 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll whether they "think of Russia as more of an ally or more of an adversary," a slim majority (52%) said they thought of Russia as more of an ally. Only about 1 in 4 (26%) said they saw Russia as more of an adversary; another 22% did not choose either one. But before Sept. 11, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (April 2000) asked a set of similar questions and found quite dissimilar results. The poll asked: "When it comes to diplomatic and military issues, do you see Russia mostly as an ally and partner, or mostly as an adversary and competitor?" A 58% majority said Russia was mostly an adversary on these issues (ally: 26%). Asked in the same way about economic issues, the response was milder but similar: 48% saw Russia as mostly an adversary on economic issues, while 31% saw it as mostly an ally. [2]

Interestingly, though a modest majority of Americans (53%) view Russia as having a mostly negative influence in the world [see “ Views of Russia”] (LINK), a slight majority see it as having a positive influence on the US. As of April 2006, a WorldPublicOpinion.org poll found a slight majority (51%) feels that the effect of Russian foreign policy on the United States and its interests has been positive, while 38% believe it has been negative. [3]

Americans have also been asked to assess the US-Russian relationship using a thermometer scale, to rate “how much of a friend or foe” Russia is to the US. A Quinnipiac University poll from February 2006 found a slightly cool rating of 47 degrees. More respondents rated Russia as more foe than friend (35% chose 0-40) than those who had the warmest feelings about Russia (20% chose 61-100). It is interesting that this scale produces a slightly more negative characterization of the relationship than the Harris question that finds a modest majority saying that the relationship with Russia is at least friendly. [4]

When Americans have been simply asked whether Russia is a "friend"—with no other qualification—the response has been divided. Asked in May 2002, "Do you think Russia is a friend of the United States today or not?" 40% said "yes" and 35% said "no." Twenty-five percent were not sure (Fox). [5]

Declining Perception of Russia as a Threat

Over the past decade Americans have been asked repeatedly about the prospect of Russia’s military power as a threat to the United States, frequently by CCFR and most recently by Gallup/CNN/USA Today in February 2004. While half (50%) viewed Russia’s military power as an “important but not critical” threat in 2004, a mere 18% viewed it as a critical threat. Perception of Russia’s military power as a threat began a steady decline between 1998 and 2002 and continued in 2004. In the CCFR June 2002 poll, 57% saw "the military power of Russia" as an "important but not critical threat," up from 48% in 1998. Views of Russia as a critical threat dropped to 23% in 2002 from 34% in 1998. Correspondingly, those who felt it was “not an important threat at all” increased from 15% in 1998 to 20% in 2002 to 29% in 2004. [6]

More recently, in March 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that a majority (53%) felt that Russia constitutes “no real military threat” to the United States. Only 8% said it poses an immediate military threat, and a third, 34%, said it poses a long-term military threat. [6a]

Most recently, a June 2006 WPO poll found that Americans were nearly divided on whether “the member countries of NATO have reason to be afraid of Russia;” just 45% agreed with the statement, while 46% disagreed. But it is hard to say whether those that said that NATO has reasons to be afraid of Russia view Russia’s intentions as threatening or if the simple fact of its military power is an existential threat. Indeed, nearly as many (40%) in the same poll said that Russia has reason to fear NATO.[7]

Americans view Russian domestic problems as a threat to the US on the same relatively low level as Russian military power. When asked in the 2002 CCFR survey to rate the level of threat to the US of "political turmoil in Russia," 27% felt it to be a critical threat, 58% categorized it as important but not critical, and just 13% felt that political turmoil in Russia was not an important threat. [8] [see “ Views of Russia” for more on views of Russia’s internal developments]

As further evidence of Russia’s somewhat neutral position, Americans do not generally consider Russia a serious economic competitor, but many (40%) believe it will be an economic competitor in the future, according to a May 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. A plurality, however, (42%) said it will never be an economic competitor. Only 12% said it is currently an economic competitor. [9]

Russia Viewed as Reliable Partner in War on Terrorism

In September 2003, ABC News asked Americans if Russia “has or has not done enough to support the U.S. campaign against terrorism,” and found three-fourths (75%) said Russia “has not done enough.” This is up from the 63% who said Russia has not done enough when asked the same question in September 2002. Only 17% said in 2003 that Russia has done enough.[10]

These numbers are in stark contrast to the generally positive view before the Iraq war. A June 2002 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that almost 3 in 4 (74%) said Russia is a "reliable partner" in the US war on terrorism. Just 19% felt Russia was not a reliable partner. [11] This feeling that Russia was positively contributing to the fight against terrorism was clearly rooted in the feelings of solidarity generated by the September 11 attacks. Ten days after the attacks, when the US and Russia were in the midst of establishing cooperation on terrorism, a 53% majority thought Russia was "doing what the Bush Administration is asking of them" "in building support for using military force against the terrorists" (Newsweek, September 20-21). A week later a more robust 70% thought that "the United States can count on…Russia…to help combat terrorism"; only 23% thought the US could not count on Russia (Time/CNN). [12]

Is Russia a Vital Interest?

Throughout the last decade, large majorities have consistently viewed Russia as a vital interest for the US. This is also reflected in the affirmation of Russia’s role in the upcoming G8 meetings in St. Petersburg.

In a June 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations study, 81% said the US "has a vital interest" in Russia; only 16% thought it did not. In May 2000, 86% told Gallup that "what happens in Russia" is vitally important (46%) or important but not vital (40%). In July 1999, 69% rated relations with Russia as "extremely" (43%) or "fairly" (26%) important to the US national interest ("just somewhat," 21%; "not important at all," 6%; NBC/Wall Street Journal). [13]

Americans overwhelming agree on the validity of Russia’s participation in the G8 Summit. In a June 2006 WPO poll 88% said that Russia’s participation is very (41%) or somewhat (47%) important, while just 7% believe it is not important. Furthermore, a majority (56%) said they think of Russia as “a full member of the G8, like all the others” rather than “something less than a full member” (31%). [14]



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