Since Vladimir Putin retook Russia’s presidency in 2012, the nation has annexed Crimea in March 2014; incited a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine and sent in its military to help; engaged in provocative maneuvers in NATO airspace; and intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war.
Do Russian elites support the assertive foreign policy that Putin has pursued? The answer is yes, they probably do — and certainly, they say that they do. A new study shows that Russian elites are more expansionist, militaristic, and anti-American than at any point since 1993.
The 2016 Hamilton College Levitt Poll, on which the study is based, involved 243 face-to-face interviews with high-ranking individuals working in Russia’s federal bureaucracy, parliament, military and security agencies, private businesses, state-owned enterprises, universities and academic research institutes and major media outlets. They include, among others, ministers in the federal bureaucracy; directors of defense and industrial enterprises that are at least 50 percent state-owned; directors of large academic research institutes; and military officers holding the rank of colonel or higher. (For more, please see the note on methodology at the end of the post.)
The 2016 survey is the seventh wave in an existing series of interviews conducted in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2008, and 2012 by William Zimmerman of the University of Michigan. Zimmerman notes that across all waves, “those classified as elites had to have occupations that suggested a prima facie expectation that they would have substantial potential to affect policy.” Between 180 and 320 individuals were interviewed in each wave.
Here are some key findings.
Russian elites have become more expansionist
Since 1993, this poll has asked Russian elites whether “the national interests of Russia should be limited, for the most part, to its existing territory” or “for the most part extend beyond its existing territory.” In every survey since 1999, an increasing number has thought Russia’s interests ended at its border.
But that has changed. As the graph below shows, in 2012 fewer than half the respondents, or 43.4 percent, said that Russia’s national interests extend beyond its current borders. Only four years later, that share has almost doubled, to 82.3 percent.
That expansive vision includes Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Despite nearly universal condemnation from the international community, including a resolution from the U.N. General Assembly, fully 88.4 percent of Russian elites do not believe that the annexation violated international law or international agreements.
Russian elites are more militaristic
As you can see in the graph below, Russian elites currently say military force is central in international affairs. From 1993 to 2012, the percentage of Russian elites agreeing that military force “will always ultimately decide everything in international relations” rose consistently, almost tripling from 13 percent in 1993 to 35.8 percent in 2012. That increase has continued even more dramatically, so that 52.9 percent of Russian elites now say that they believe military force is decisive. That’s a majority, for the first time.
So it may be no surprise that Russian elites are willing to spend precious budgetary resources on the military. A scant 13.6 percent thought Russia should spend less on the military, while 84.3 percent said that military spending should either continue as is or increase. A majority of the Russian public agrees. According to the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based polling agency, 53 percent of mass respondents agreed last year that “Russia should spend more on defense even if it creates problems for Russia’s economic development.”
Peak levels of anti-Americanism
What’s more, Russian elites are anti-American at unprecedented levels.
Since this survey series began, we’ve asked respondents whether they see the United States as a threat to Russian security. As the graph below illustrates, there’s been a fairly steady rise in Russian elites who say yes. By 2016, 80.8 percent agreed. That’s an increase of 32.7 percentage points in just four years, and the highest level recorded across the seven waves of the survey.
When asked whether the United States is friendly or hostile to Russia, 88 percent of the 2016 respondents rated the U.S. as “very” or “fairly” hostile. That’s more than double the 2012 level of 40.1 percent, and nearly triple the 31.3 percent who agreed in 2004.
In fact, it’s even more than the level recorded during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War — when 70.5 percent of respondents said the U.S. was either “very” or “fairly” hostile to Russia.
You can see that anti-Americanism in how Russian elites interpret the 2014 confrontation with Ukraine. When asked what led to the crisis, a full 75.7 percent said that the U.S. started it by trying to foment another “color revolution” in Ukraine.
So what does all this mean?
In sum, here’s how Russian elites tell us they see the world. Russia’s national interests extend beyond its borders; a country’s role in the world is maintained through military might; the Kremlin respects international norms and agreements, including in Crimea; and the U.S. is hostile and a threat to Russia and is trying to stir up unrest in the former Soviet Union.
In other words, Russian elites won’t be pressuring the Kremlin to change its foreign policy any time soon.
Sharon Werning Rivera is associate professor of government at Hamilton College, where she specializes in the post-communist countries of Eurasia with a particular emphasis on Russia. James Bryan graduated from Hamilton College in June 2016, with a bachelors degree in government and economics. Emma Raynor is a member of the class of 2018 at Hamilton College, majoring in world politics. Hunter Sobczak is a member of the class of 2017 at Hamilton College, majoring in Russian studies and economics.
Note on methodology: The 2016 survey was conducted by a widely respected Moscow polling firm that also carried out all the previous surveys in this series. In all seven waves of the survey, respondents were selected on the basis of positional criteria using a quota sample. The 2016 survey used the same sub-groups as in the previous waves; as in the past, respondents were nearly equally distributed across the sub-groups. In 2016, there were 35 respondents interviewed from the executive branch, 30 from the legislative branch, 35 from private business, 36 from state-owned enterprises, 36 from the media, 35 from science and education, and 36 from the military and security forces.