In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Government meeting
As Russia’s new laws on freedom of expression become increasingly draconian, analysts have questioned how reliable any polling on Russians’ attitudes can possibly be. Denis Volkov, director of Russia’s go-to independent pollster, the Levada Center, told The New Yorker recently that “surveys don’t show what people think, but what they are ready to say … in public,” and that matters even more, according to Volkov's predecessor, Lev Gudkov. Russians are also “looking to confirm an us-versus-them worldview that was locked in place a long time ago,” Volkov told the magazine: “Russia is on the side of good and the West is against it.”
These caveats are helpful to keep in mind as we review the results of Levada’s latest government approval ratings, which have risen sharply in the month since Moscow launched its brutal war in Ukraine.

Key takeaways from the poll, conducted March 24-30 among a representative nationwide sample of 1,632 people:
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Russia’s war in Ukraine and its fallout have driven up energy prices worldwide, making countries from Europe to Asia scramble to adapt. Fresh data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show which nations import the most Russian oil, gas and coal.

Among individual countries, China was the top destination for Russian crude oil and condensate exports in 2021, receiving nearly 30% of the total. Second and third place went to the Netherlands and Germany, accounting for 13% and 10%, respectively. Together, the two received nearly half of Russian crude oil and condensate exported to Europe last year. Just over 4% of Russia’s oil exports went to the United States. Earlier this month, however, Washington banned imports of Russian oil and gas into the U.S, trying to deprive Moscow of revenue after its invasion of Ukraine; the move was matched by a U.K. phase-out of Russian oil imports, but the EU did not follow suit.
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Anti-war protest
Putin’s Russia, among other things, is held together by tamed and loyal journalists who are often aware of its faults but keep working for money, fame and/or love of the regime. The audacious recent anti-war protest by a producer on state-run Channel One television during a live news broadcast is a sign that this part of the regime’s toolbox may be getting the worse for wear. (Though this does not mean that years of Kremlin spin can easily be undone.)

What could happen from here?
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America map
Polling by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center shows that Russians had soured on Western countries by mid-February, prior to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Over the preceding three months, as Russian officials’ denunciations of the West continued apace, the share of respondents believing “the U.S. and other NATO countries” to be responsible for heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine had risen to 60%. Anti-Western attitudes track with age: the older the respondents, the more widespread the negative attitudes toward the U.S., EU, Great Britain and Germany; conversely, the highest share of positive attitudes were found among respondents aged 18-24.

The spike in anti-U.S. feelings among Russians came after a gradual improvement in the second half of 2021, according to the Feb. 17-21 Levada poll. In the week before the war, only 31% of respondents held positive views of the U.S., compared to 45% in November; negative views had climbed by 13 percentage points from 42% in November to 55% last month.
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wheat field at sunset
New, drastic sanctions have been slapped on Russia and will hurt, especially in the long run. Plenty has been said about the effects on energy markets, so I’m going to skip that sector and say a few things about other, less discussed yet very important domains where these sanctions could reverberate, if they haven’t already.
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Anti-war protest
This week, two Russian pollsters—VTsIOM and FOM—published surveys showing that approximately two-thirds of the Russian public support the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. The independent Levada Center, which Western experts often cite as more reliable, has not yet released its data on the topic. However, its earlier research suggests that a large share of Russians may indeed be supportive of the “military operation,” as Moscow calls it—likely at least in part because of the state’s portrayal of the tensions leading up to the conflict.

For example, negative attitudes toward Ukraine and blame toward the U.S./NATO for the crisis there rose by about 10 percentage points in the week before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion as compared to mid-November—and President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating followed suit. According to a Feb. 17-21 Levada poll, 52% of Russians hold a negative view of Ukraine and only 35% hold a positive view, versus 43% and 45%, respectively, three months earlier. The portion of respondents holding “the U.S. and other NATO countries” responsible for heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine rose from 50% in November to 60% in the third week of February. Meanwhile, Putin’s approval rating grew by 8 percentage points, from 63% in November to 71% in the Feb. 17-21 survey.
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At this point, it is unclear what Vladimir Putin's end game will be after launching a full-scale, combined-arms invasion of Ukraine. However, what we can be reasonably sure of is that Putin, who has, for the last two decades, been reasonably consistent in his vision for Russia's role in world affairs, came to the conclusion that his aims were no longer served by continuing with diplomacy, and has chosen to "let the cannon decide." In making that choice, however, he is also foreclosing on Western, especially European, assistance in pursuing his vision of Arctic development which he has stated is the basis for securing Russia's economic future—and is gambling that a closer partnership with China can safeguard his priorities without subordinating Russia to Beijing's preferences.

Putin believes that Russia has no choice but to remain as one of the agenda-setting powers of the world. His view of "sovereign democracy" is that a Russia that lacks the wherewithal to defend itself from outside pressure will find itself forced to adopt Western standards or a Chinese diktat. Russia's position as a great power is defined, in part, by being able to maintain an independent Eurasian pole of power—more or less coterminous with the old Soviet Union. Over the course of his career as prime minister and president, Putin has changed his tactics and approaches in pursuit of these aims. In his first years, he hoped that a post-9/11 partnership with the United States and collaboration with the European Union to create a wider European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok would lead to Western recognition of Russian pre-eminence in this region—essentially a division where the Euro-Atlantic world would voluntarily cease its eastward enlargement at the Vistula and Baltic littoral. When it became clear that, in pursuit of partnership with Russia, the West was not prepared to accede to any Russian sphere of influence, Putin's approach became more controversial—as reflected in his 2007 Munich speech and his 2008 tête-à-tête with George W. Bush in Bucharest—and culminated in the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia.
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Crowd in Red Square
In spite of escalating tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the latest poll conducted by the Levada Center shows that two-thirds of Russians say they’re not too worried about Western sanctions. At the same time, the share of respondents who believe current sanctions are impacting a wide swath of the population, rather than just elites, has nearly doubled from what it was following Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014.

The poll conducted by Levada, Russia’s leading independent pollster, in December 2021 shows that 66% of Russians are either “not worried at all” or “not very worried” about the West’s political and economic sanctions against Russia. This share is about 8% higher than it was in the months after Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, triggering multiple waves of U.S. and European sanctions. Then, the share of non-worriers averaged 57.8% over five surveys conducted in April-December 2014. One explanation for the lower level of concern may be that Russia and the West are still pursuing diplomacy, and Western countries have threatened harsh sanctions—such as targeting Russia’s largest financial institutions and energy exports to Europe—only if Russia were to use force against Ukraine.
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Blinken and Lavrov

Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats, are set to meet in Geneva on Jan. 21 to see whether they can move beyond the impasse of the previous week’s intense talks on European security. As this round of negotiations progresses, here are four points to consider from a recent talk by Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff:

1. In the U.S., people think of Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine as “the Ukraine crisis”; Russia, on the contrary, sees it as a means of amending the European security order, damaged, in its view, by 20+ years of NATO expansion that has eroded Moscow’s “strategic depth.”

2. Russia is looking for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Although Moscow is keeping open multiple military options, the least likely of these is a large-scale invasion.

3. Russia is in a fairly strong position, in part because of disarray in the West.

4. The U.S. is in an unsustainable position in terms of both process and substance. Washington must accept that (a) bilateral deal-making with Russia will play a decisive role in resolving the crisis and (b) the talks will have to cover a much broader array of issues than just Ukraine—chief among these, NATO expansion, military activity along the Russian-NATO frontier and conflicts current and frozen.

To read Graham’s recommendations for breaking the impasse between Russia and the West over European security, click here.

Photo courtesy of Russia's Foreign Ministry.

dead end
Near the end of this week’s marathon talks between Russia and the U.S., NATO and the OSCE on Russia’s three main security demands (and the West’s counter-demands), Russian negotiators said the talks had reached a “dead end” but simultaneously suggested that the American side has until Jan. 20 or so (one week from Jan. 13) to tell Moscow in writing what Western officials have already told their Russian counterparts face to face—namely, that the U.S. and its allies are rejecting the first two of the three main demands made by President Vladimir Putin.
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