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Nuclear Arms and Russia

A very strong majority shows concern about the security of Russian nuclear stockpiles and believes securing them is critical to the war on terrorism. However, a majority is not confident that nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union are secure from terrorists. An overwhelming majority supports the 2002 nuclear weapons reduction agreement between the United States and Russia, consistent with longstanding support for nuclear arms reduction agreements with Russia. Although Americans had for some years opposed developing a national missile defense system if it would interfere with arms control treaties with Russia, once the US withdrew from the ABM treaty on Dec. 13, 2001 and the Russians responded in a muted fashion, a majority of Americans said they supported the move.


AA very strong majority shows concern about the security of Russian nuclear stockpiles and believes securing them is critical to the war on terrorism. For several years, there has been support for assisting Russia with securing stockpiles.

However, a majority is not confident that nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union are secure from terrorists. Asked by ABC News in August 2005 how confident they were that nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union were being adequately protected against terrorists, 55% of Americans polled said they were not confident (26% not at all confident, 29% not so confident). Forty-two percent were somewhat (33%) or very (9%) confident. [1]

A majority polled by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research the day of and the day after the 2004 presidential election said that locating and securing “loose nuclear weapons” in the former Soviet Union should be a high priority of the new Congress and administration—23% said near the top, 18% said in the top few priorities and 11% said it should be the single highest priority. [2]

In a January 2002 Pew survey, 73% said that security of Russian nuclear stockpiles was very important (40%) or fairly important (33%). Just 22% said it was not too important (17%) or not at all important (5%). [3]

Polls before Sept. 11, 2001 also showed that overwhelming majorities supported the US working cooperatively with Russia and other nations on managing nuclear forces (the Nunn-Lugar program of cooperative threat reduction). Eighty-five percent supported (60% strongly) the proposal to "prevent the theft of nuclear weapons by increasing security at nuclear sites in Russia and around the world" in a September 1997 Mellman Group poll, while 81% supported (50% strongly) having "the US and other NATO countries assist with the dismantling of nuclear weapons in Russia." [4]

When asked by Harris in May 2002 whether both the US and Russia should store or dismantle weapons, the public was divided, with 48% wanting put them in storage and 44% wanting to "destroy all weapons" slated to be cut from the two nuclear arsenals. However, when the focus was strictly on the Russian weapons, Americans showed significant concern about the potential for these weapons falling into the hand of terrorists. Asked in the May 2002 Time/CNN poll about the likelihood that "terrorists would be able to obtain some of them" if "Russia puts its nuclear weapons into storage instead of destroying them," 36% thought this was very likely and another 42% thought it was somewhat likely. Only 20% felt it was unlikely that terrorists would obtain some of these weapons. [5]

An overwhelming majority supports the 2002 US-Russian nuclear weapons reduction agreement. A May 2002 Gallup poll found 82% approval for the "agreement between the United States and Russia to substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each of these countries." Only 11% disapproved. At the same time, Time/CNN found 85% in favor of "a treaty between Russia and the US to reduce the number of nuclear weapons of each country." Again, a mere 11% opposed the deal. In the same poll, a near-unanimous 90% said that it was at least somewhat important (62% very important) to them that the two sides reached this agreement. [6]

A majority felt the treaty is a significant accomplishment for President George W. Bush and approved of the way he was handling US-Russian relations. A slim majority (52%) believed the new nuclear forces reduction treaty was a "major" accomplishment for the president, while another 36% called it a "minor" accomplishment (Gallup, May 2002). On the heels of the nuclear reduction accord, nearly three in four (72%) said they "approve of the way George W. Bush is handling relations with Russia." [7]
However, only a plurality to a modest majority said that they trusted Russia and President Vladimir Putin to honor an agreement. The May 2002 Time/CNN poll asked, "When it comes to keeping treaty obligations, do you think the US can trust Russian President Vladimir Putin a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or not at all?" A 58% majority felt Putin could be trusted at least "a fair amount" (51%), or "a great deal" (7%). Thirty-five percent said they trusted Putin "not very much" (24%) or "not at all" (11%). Interestingly, trust in Putin was stronger than faith in Russia itself in this regard. By a margin of 47% to 41%, only a plurality thought that "Russia would live up to its share of the agreement." [8]

Longstanding Support for Nuclear Arms Reductions

Strong majorities have long favored US-Russian efforts toward reduction of their nuclear forces. In May 2000, Pew asked: "Over the course of the past two decades, the US and Russia have been gradually reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals. Do you think the US and Russia should continue working toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons, or do you think they should maintain them at their current levels?" Sixty-three percent favored continued reduction efforts, while only 32% thought the arsenals should remain at their current sizes. [9]

The majorities in favor of joint nuclear force reductions have varied from very strong to overwhelming, depending on the question. For example, in April 1995, 83% said "yes" to the fundamental question: "Should the United States and Russia agree to negotiate deep reductions in their nuclear weapons?" (Associated Press). [10] This is somewhat more than the 71% majority in the same poll that wanted the Senate to ratify the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), when told that it "would require the United States to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 3,500 and Russia to reduce to 3,000" (19% opposed). [11] (In a separate sample in the same poll, 66% supported ratifying START II, with 21% opposed.) [12]

National Missile Defense and the ABM Treaty

Americans have for some years opposed developing a national missile defense system if it would interfere with arms control treaties with Russia. However, once the US withdrew from the ABM treaty in [month] 2001 and the Russians responded in a muted fashion, a majority of Americans said they supported the move. When Ipsos-Reid asked in December 2001 whether Americans favored the decision "to give Russia notice that the United States will withdraw from the 1972 nuclear ABM treaty that bans testing of missile defense systems," a 58% majority agreed (33% strongly). Thirty-one percent still opposed the decision and 11% were not sure. [13] This support may have been due in part to the muted Russian response to the US action, a failure to understand that the ABM treaty was effectively an arms control treaty, a renewed support for missile defense in the wake of Sept. 11, or a simple tendency to support the action of the President in the wake of Sept. 11.

Earlier polls showed a consistent opposition to developing a national missile defense system if it would interfere with existing arms control treaties with Russia. Polls revealed that although a strong majority of Americans showed initial support for building an NMD system, in follow on questions, a modest majority backed away from doing so if this would require the US to violate existing arms control treaties. In January 2001, ABC/Washington Post asked an initial question about national missile defense to which an overwhelming 80% responded in support of "building a defense system that's designed to protect the United States from incoming missiles." However, nearly half (47%) of those who were at first supportive changed their minds when asked if they would support this "if it would break an existing treaty with Russia." Thus, for the whole sample, only 37% were ready to go forward with an NMD program if it would violate an arms control agreement, while 56% were opposed. [14] Three other objections were presented, but none had more impact on respondents.

Similarly, CBS/New York Times' March 2000 poll found 58% in favor of "the United States continuing to try to build this missile defense system against nuclear attack," with only 28% opposed. Those in favor were later asked, "What if continuing to build such a system meant that the United States would have to break the arms control treaty we now have with Russia?" Of this group, 42% then shifted position, so that 52% of the whole sample opposed development if it meant the US breaking an arms control treaty, while 34% still supported going ahead. [15]

Another poll question, however, that included the more tentative argument that NMD "might interfere with existing arms control" together with an argument in favor of NMD, found a plurality to a slight majority in favor of proceeding with NMD. Harris Interactive asked in July 2001:

Some people feel the US should try to develop a ground and space based missile defense system to protect the US from missile attack. Others oppose such an effort because they say it would be too costly and might interfere with existing arms treaties with the Russians. Which position comes closer to your view?

A slim 52% majority wanted to try to develop missile defense, while 40% thought it would be too costly and might interfere with existing arms treaties. [16] Similarly, when the same question was asked by Pew in February 2001, 49% wanted development and 40% did not. [17] Also using the same question in May 2000, CNN/USA Today found 48% in favor and 42% opposed. [18]

A majority has also said that it would shy away from proceeding with NMD if this would jeopardize nuclear arms reductions. Pew asked in May 2000: "Should the US go ahead with developing a missile defense system, even if that jeopardizes negotiations with the Russians, aimed at further reducing the nuclear arsenals in both countries, or should the US hold off on developing a missile defense system and focus on negotiating further arms reductions with the Russians?" Fifty-five percent said the US should hold off and focus on negotiations, while only 36% said the US should go ahead with development. [19]

 

 

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