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Most Russians like China more than they like Europe or the U.S. But not Gen Z.

Attitudes vary by age, gender and politics — and especially by how people feel about Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP June 8, 2018. (Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

These days, Europeans seem to have little love for Russia. When French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently suggested holding a European summit with President Vladimir Putin, most European countries rejected the proposal out of hand. Public opinion polls suggest that European citizens tend to have negative views of Russia.

But what do Russians think about Europe? Our recent study suggests the picture is complicated: How Russians view Europe depends on age, gender and politics. This suggests some room for building cooperative relations between Russian and Europe.

Public opinion survey in Russia

In May 2021, we conducted a survey of public opinion in Russia in cooperation with Ipsos, a leading global pollster. In this survey, we asked a representative sample of 1,500 Russians whether they had “cold” or “warm” feeling toward seven countries: China, the United States, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

We found major variations in how Russians perceive the world. Respondents in our survey expressed the warmest feelings toward China. On a scale in which zero was the “coldest” and 10 the “warmest,” the average feeling toward China was 6.14. The Netherlands was the second most popular country in our survey (5.74), followed by the Czech Republic (5.21). Feelings were most negative toward Ukraine (4.48) and the United States (4.37).

Age and gender matter

While we found no real difference between men and women in views of China, when asked about other countries, women had more positive attitudes than men. For example, a majority of men held “cold” feelings toward the United States, Poland, Latvia and Ukraine, meaning they offered a rating lower than 5; only about 30 percent of men had “warm” feelings about these countries. However, only between 39 and 47 percent of women had negative feelings about these countries.

Attitudes divided even more strongly by age, as you can see in the figure below: The older the respondent, the warmer the feelings toward China, while the reverse was true toward other countries. For example, while over two-thirds of respondents between 56 and 66 years old had a warm feeling toward China, only about a quarter had similar feelings toward Latvia, and about one-third had warm feelings toward Ukraine and the United States.

Those attitudes flip among the younger age categories. A plurality of Russians between 18 and 22 years old had warm feelings toward all countries in our survey. However, about half of Russians older than 23 had “cold” feelings toward Ukraine, the United States and Poland.

The “Putin effect”

Respondents’ views of Putin matter. A plurality of respondents with a negative view on the Russian leadership held “warm” feelings toward all countries in the sample. Most Putin supporters tended to have negative feelings toward the Western countries. While China is the most popular country in our survey among almost all demographics — except among Putin’s opponents, who feel most warmly about the Netherlands — the Netherlands comes second, and often a close second.

The fact that the supporters of Putin hold negative views of Western countries is not entirely surprising. Domestically, the Russian regime spreads a narrative that Russia is the victim of Western aggression. This strategy seems to be particularly effective toward the United States and Western countries in Russia’s neighborhood. By contrast, Putin’s opponents seem to be more positive toward Western European countries.

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People-to-people, country-to-country

This public opinion research has implications for how to build people-to-people relations between Russian and Western European countries. Relations between Russia and Europe particularly soured after Russia decided to severely limit educational cooperation with the West and restricted Western nongovernmental organizations’ activities in the country.

What could improve relations between Russians and Europeans? One answer might lie with the one Western country that Russians view warmly: the Netherlands. This positive view is remarkable, since the government’s mouthpiece Russian Gazette has accused the Netherlands of “hysterical anti-Russian bias” and Russia blacklisted a Dutch member of parliament. The Netherlands, on its part, has pushed ahead with a trial of the perpetrators of the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17. In this criminal trial, four Ukrainian separatist leaders are accused of using a Russian-supplied antiaircraft missile to bring down the civilian airliner over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Further, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently stated that he would not meet Putin.

Yet our research shows that Russians by and large feel warmly toward the Netherlands. Moreover, a recent survey of Russian public opinion about the Netherlands conducted by Levada Center on behalf of Leiden University and the Raam op Rusland platform showed that 60 percent of Russians associate the Netherlands with concepts that include “freedom of speech,” “rights for minorities,” “tolerance,” “freedom of religion,” “working ethos” and “respect by the state for the individual citizen.” These perceptions might drive Russians’ positive feelings about the country.

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The positive views about China, by contrast, suggest significant public support for a Russian-Chinese partnership. Our findings, moreover, suggest that any attempt to create a rift in this alliance and draw Russia westward — as political scientist Charles Kupchan recently suggested in Foreign Affairs — might be difficult to pursue. Similarly, a charm offensive toward the Russian public might face a great deal of resistance.

But despite the overall negative Russian public opinion toward Western countries, the significant demographic variation in attitudes suggests that there are opportunities for improvement. Goodwill toward the West exists among Russia’s young, women and Putin’s opponents. Russians’ attitudes toward the Netherlands suggest they find some Western values appealing. Whether Westerners can build on that goodwill remains the question.

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Michal Onderco (@ProfOnderco) is associate professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and affiliated with Peace Research Center Prague. His book Networked Nonproliferation is just coming out with Stanford University Press.

Michal Smetana (@MichalSmetana3) is researcher at Charles University and coordinator of the Peace Research Center Prague. He is the author of Nuclear Deviance: Stigma Politics and the Rules of the Nonproliferation Game (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

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