World

Americans Sour on Russia; Russians Unsure About U.S.

by Frank Newport

Majority of Americans negative on Russia; many Russians undecided about U.S. leadership


PRINCETON, NJ -- As President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, a review of 2009 Gallup data shows that 53% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia and 34% of Russians negatively assess the performance of the leadership of the United States.

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The current 53% unfavorable view of Russia among Americans is as high as it has been in nine years. But the 34% of Russians who disapprove of U.S. leadership is lower than in previous years, as more Russians this year indicate they don't yet have an opinion of U.S. leadership.

Gallup has been assessing Americans' views of Russia using a favorable/unfavorable format since 1989. (The survey question asked about the "Soviet Union" between 1989 and 1992, and then about "Russia" in the years since.) The latest assessment, from February of this year, finds that 40% of Americans have a favorable view of Russia. This represents the most negative assessment since November 2000. However, a March 2003 poll showed favorable and unfavorable ratings within one percentage point of the current results. Favorable opinions of Russia were as high 66% in February 2002. With the exception of the March 2003 poll (a time period just after the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq when Americans' views about several European countries that chose not to back the invasion plummeted), a majority of Americans had a favorable opinion in each annual February survey between 2001 and 2007. In 2008, favorable opinions of Russia dropped to 48%, with unfavorable opinions at 46%. This year, as noted, Americans' views of Russia became more negative still.

The current readings are not the most negative on record. Americans' views of Russia were more negative than the current views in two surveys conducted in 1999. The low ratings in 1999 reflect a time during which there was great turmoil in Russia and when embattled Russian President Boris Yeltsin ultimately yielded power to Vladimir Putin late that year.

In this year's survey, Republicans are slightly more negative about Russia than are independents or Democrats. However, at least a plurality of all three groups are more negative than positive in their assessment of Russia.

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Russian Attitudes About U.S. Leadership

The Gallup Poll also assesses U.S.-Russian relations by asking about Russians' views of U.S. leadership.

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Based on interviewing conducted April through June, this year's results show two significant findings compared with the trend over the three previous years.

  • First, the percentage of Russians who say they don't have an opinion of U.S. leadership has gone up significantly, from 30% in the previous three years to 47% this year.
  • Second, opinion has shifted in a positive direction, even though the disapprovals continue to outweigh the approvals. The percentage disapproving this year fell to 34% and the percentage approving rose to 20%, meaning that the uptick in the percentage of Russians with no opinion of American leadership strongly correlates with a decrease in the percentage who disapproves.

Looked at differently, the data show that the ratios of approval to disapproval for 2006, 2007, and 2008 were .28, .16, and .24, respectively. This year, the ratio has risen to .59, a markedly more positive result.

Implications

The most reasonable explanation for the sharp increase in percentage of Russians who say they do not have an opinion of U.S. leadership is the change in U.S. presidents. Apparently, an increased percentage of the Russian people are withholding judgment on President Obama's new administration. No doubt this stands in contrast to the well-established (and quite negative) image of the George W. Bush administration as it entered its sixth, seventh, and eighth years. The positive news for Obama as he meets with Russian leadership in Moscow this week is that initial impressions among those who do have an opinion appear to have shifted more in the positive direction than was the case for the last three years of the Bush administration.

At the same time, the less positive news for Russian leadership is the finding that Americans have become more negative about Russia in recent years, to the point where a majority now say their image of Russia is unfavorable. These negative images are as strong as they have been in almost a decade.

The overall affect of the meeting of the minds underway in Moscow this week is unknown at this point. Of course, it is possible that if Obama and the two Russian leaders appear to strike strong chords of cooperation and friendship, citizens of the U.S. and Russia could become more positive about the other country in the months ahead. One would expect that whatever the outcome of this week's talks, Russians will be more likely to have an opinion (either positive or negative) of U.S. leadership than was the case a few months ago.

Survey Methods

Russian results based on face-to-face interviews with 2,042 adults in Russia, aged 15 and older, conducted April-June 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

U.S. results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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