In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Poll: Russians See Biggest WMD Threats Coming From US, Al-Qaida, 'Chechens'

June 12, 2017
Simon Saradzhyan

We at Russia Matters tend to treat claims by state-owned pollsters with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to political rankings. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to share the results of the following survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in May, as it gives some fascinating insights into ordinary Russians’ thinking about nuclear-, biological- and chemical-weapons threats to their country. 

When asked to assess what actor is most likely to launch an attack using weapons of mass destruction against Russia, respondents said they view the United States, al-Qaeda and “Chechen terrorists” as the first, second and third likeliest sources of such an attack, respectively. (A decade ago Russians ranked those potential attackers in the reverse order.)

In addition to highlighting Russians’ traditional reservations about the world’s military superpower (now exacerbated by an anti-American mood), such a ranking suggests that the Russian public fears the proliferation of WMD among non-state actors, even though no such attack has occurred since the 1990s when Chechen rebels planted radioactive materials in a Moscow park and blew up a chlorine tank in Grozny. It is also interesting that, perhaps for the sake of consistency, VTsIOM continues to refer to “Chechen terrorists” in its list of possible answers even though the insurgency in Chechnya has been all but quashed, with neighboring Dagestan now accounting for more political violence than any other Russian region.

Surprisingly, judging by the poll, Russians are not as concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons among states. Not only do countries (other than the U.S.) rank lower in the threat list than non-state groups, but also a small majority of respondents (41%) think that Russia and the other official nuclear powers should not punish other countries for pursuing nukes, versus 38% who said aspirants to the nuclear club should be punished. Such public sentiments are, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that the Russian leadership has been traditionally less forceful than their Western counterparts in negotiating with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

See detailed results below.

Which of the following countries and organizations do you think pose a threat to Russia related to the use of weapons of mass destruction?

(multiple answers allowed, %)1

Actor

Jan. 2006

Oct. 2006

July 2009

May 2017

USA

33

37

38

50

Al-Qaida

38

27

24

32

Chechen terrorists

55

41

46

15

North Korea

7

11

18

13

Britain

4

3

4

7

China

14

12

20

7

Iran

15

10

15

6

France

1

1

2

3

Pakistan

11

6

10

3

Israel

4

5

5

2

India

2

1

2

1

Other terrorist groups (this option not given in 2009 and 2017)

34

23

0

0

Others

2

2

2

19

No country or organization

4

14

10

13

Difficult to say

12

13

10

7

1Note that ISIS is not mentioned.

What policy, in your opinion, should Russia and other nuclear powers conduct toward countries that are developing nuclear weapons? (%)

Policy options

Oct. 2006

July 2009

April 2013

May 2017

We need to isolate them from the world community and introduce economic and other sanctions to prevent a new nuclear arms race and the emergence of an atomic bomb in more states

47

52

50

38

These countries have the same right to nuclear weapons as the US, Russia, China, etc., so there is no need to conduct any special policy toward those who create an atomic bomb

34

30

35

41

Difficult to say

19

18

15

21