In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Poll: Majority of Young Russians Distrust NATO, Don’t Consider Russia a European Country

May 05, 2020
Thomas Schaffner and Angelina Flood

A majority of young Russians distrust NATO more than any other organization and disagree that Russia is a European country, according to a recent poll conducted by Russia’s independent Levada Center and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

These organizations’ research on the opinions of Russia’s “Generation Z” (aged 14 to 29) revealed that 80 percent expressed a strong to moderate degree of distrust toward NATO (Graph 1). While the organizations’ report does not speculate on the reasons for young Russia’s distrust of NATO, they note that institutional trust “requires recognition of an institution’s status and its significance as a symbol in maintaining social integrity and exerting influence on various areas of public life and its rank in the system of collective values.” This suggests that Russia’s youth does not recognize the status or symbolic significance of NATO or the other international organizations that enjoy the least amount of trust according to the survey. The Levada Center/Friedrich Ebert Foundation poll also revealed that 58 percent of young respondents rather or strongly disagree with the notion that Russia is a European country (Graph 2). This distrust of the West is mirrored in the general Russian population, but to a lesser degree. A January 2020 Levada poll found that just over half of respondents, 52 percent, agreed that Russia has cause to be wary of NATO, and 37 percent have a negative view of the EU.

Few of the respondents expressed strong disagreements with the direction of Russian foreign policy, according to the results of the joint research, which was conducted in 2019 and published in 2020. Only 22 percent of respondents said they “would support the Russian government if, in exchange for lifting sanctions … [it] returned Crimea to Ukraine” (Graph 3). Just over half said they would support an “exchange of military and political prisoners with Ukraine” for the lifting of sanctions, whereas only 29 percent would support the cessation of “economic and military” aid to the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics in Ukraine. In their report, the organizations attribute this lack of support for “concessions” on Russia’s part to the fact that “the majority—49 percent [of respondents]—believes that further reduction of cooperation between Europe and Russia would not create serious problems and difficulties for Russia itself.” There is even less support for such steps among Russia’s general population—only 10 percent would support returning Crimea and 24 percent would support stopping aid to the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics for the lifting of sanctions, according to a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Levada Center in December 2017.

At the same time, young Russians seem to be disinterested in politics overall. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they have little or no interest is politics in general. Respondents were slightly more interested in Russia-specific politics, with 53 percent of respondents saying they had at least some interest in Russian politics on a national level (Graph 4). According to the organizations’ report, these results reflect “not so much a lack of understanding of political activity, open political competition or the functioning of a party system, as well as everything else related to the works of democracy, but rather the fact that the day-to-day troubles and worries of modern young people have very little to do with what they call politics.”

While generally supportive of Russia’s foreign policy, the respondents were divided on emigration. About half of those asked expressed no desire to emigrate, and 42 percent expressed a moderate to strong desire to leave Russia (Graph 5). Of young Russians who wished to move abroad, 39 percent named the U.S. as one of their top three destinations, 38 percent named Germany and 33 percent looked toward France (Graph 6). These numbers may, however, be deceiving, as 74 percent of those with a desire to emigrate said that they had taken no steps to actually move abroad. “Young people’s desire to live abroad is very vague and indefinite. It is more about their dreams of a better life and dissatisfaction with their current circumstances and future prospects,” according to the organizations’ report. “These figures do not indicate that the young people are determined to leave the country … We can say that the determination to emigrate is truly strong (and sometimes it even transforms into real actions) only with a small group of the most privileged and affluent young people living in the capital city of Russia and a few of the largest cities,” according to the report. In contrast, only 21 percent of the general Russian population said they have a desire to emigrate, according to a Levada poll published in September 2019, with Germany being their most favored destination, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June-October 2018.