26.05.23 Review

Non-military defeat: the war in Ukraine has critically undermined Russia's position in the post-Soviet space, polls show

At the end of 2022, the approval rating of the Russian authorities witnessed a record drop not only in the world as a whole, but also in post-Soviet countries, a global Gallup poll shows. In countries whose populations have traditionally been sympathetic to Russia — Armenia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan — the share of those who disapprove of the Russian leader overtook the number of those who approve for the first time last year. Only in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan did the balance of assessments remain positive for the time being. Even more interestingly, Russia is rapidly losing influence among the Russian diasporas in the near abroad: in Latvia and Estonia the share of ‘Russians’ who disapprove of the Russian leadership has also exceeded the share of those who approve, while in Kazakhstan the positive balance has sharply decreased. However the Russian diasporas themselves are also shrinking: the share of those who identify as Russian has noticeably decreased compared to the late 2000s in Estonia, Latvia and Kazakhstan, which also indicates a decrease in Russia’s soft power factor.

A global Gallup poll has shown a dramatic decline in the popularity of the Russian leadership not only globally, as Re: Russia has recently discussed, but also in an area that the Kremlin had long considered a sphere of its interests and special influence — the post-Soviet space. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a far greater impact on the population of post-Soviet states than the occupation of Crimea did. This has led to a significant deterioration in attitudes towards Russia in the Baltic states, according to Gallup analysts. In these countries, the ‘negative balance’ of approval (when the share of those who disapprove exceeds those who approve) has reached gigantic proportions. In Armenia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, countries that have historically been sympathetic to the Russian leadership, the disapproval rate exceeded the approval rate for the first time last year.

For example, in Armenia, approval of the Russian leadership fell by 13 percentage points (from 45% to 32%), while disapproval rose by 20 (from 38% to 58%). In Azerbaijan in 2019 (before the second Karabakh war in 2020), twice as many Azerbaijanis approved of the Russian leadership as disapproved (60% versus 27%). In 2022, the picture is exactly the opposite: 23% approve and 46% disapprove of Putin's actions. In Kazakhstan, the share of those who approve has almost halved, from 55% to 29%. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have also seen a decline in their approval of the Russian leadership, but the balance of approval is still positive.

Approval of the actions of the Russian leadership among residents of post-Soviet states, 2021-2022, % of respondents

In Armenia, alongside a decrease in the approval ratings of the Russian leadership, there has been an increase in favourable views of the USA and China. According to another poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Armenian population’s positive assessment of relations between Russia and Armenia fell to 50% for the first time in March 2023 (in October 2019 this stood at 93%, in December 2021 it had dropped to 64%); half of those surveyed (49%) assessed the relations between the two countries as unfavourable. In addition, the residents of Armenia have begun to see Russia as a political (24%) and economic (28%) threat to their country. And, vice versa, the share of those who assess the nature of relations between Armenia and the USA positively has reached 88%. However, even higher than this are assessments of Armenia's relations with France and Iran. 

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are the only post-Soviet countries where the approval of the Russian leadership still greatly exceeds that of the US and Chinese leadership.

Another important effect of the war is that the Russian leadership is losing favour with the Russian diaspora across the post-Soviet space. In 2022, for the first time in 15 years of respectiveGallup polling, more ethnic Russians disapproved than approved of the Russian leadership in Estonia (53% vs. 14%) and Latvia (49% vs. 14%). In Kazakhstan, those who consider themselves ethnic Russians are still more likely to approve (47%) than disapprove (37%) of the Russian leadership. However, the balance of approval has sharply decreased: while in 2021 it was 42 percentage points, now it is only 10.

The difference in the reactions of the various post-Soviet countries to the annexation of Crimea and the current war is primarily due to the difference in the scale of the event. The annexation of Crimea was not accompanied by casualties and Crimea was perceived as a ‘Soviet’ enclave of Ukraine. However, alongside this, a significant factor appears to be the declining influence of Russian television in the post-Soviet space, and above all among younger generations. Either way, by using ‘hard power’ against a neighbouring country, Russia has finally undermined its ability to use ‘soft power’.

Moreover, surveys indicate that the contraction of the Russian diaspora in post-Soviet countries continues. However, this is not directly linked to the war, is of a long-term nature, and we have not yet witnessed the effect of the war on this process. In Kazakhstan, an average of 32% of respondents identified themselves as Russian in 2007-2011, 27% in 2012-2019 and 16% in 2021-2022. In Estonia, 29% considered themselves Russian in 2007-2016, 25% in 2017-2020, and 21% in 2022. Finally, in Latvia, 31% of respondents considered themselves Russian in 2007-2015, 25% in 2016-2019, and 19% in 2021-2022. The change of identity in these countries seems to be taking place primarily among those born of mixed marriages and Russian parents, but who are integrated into the national environment. However, the intensity of this process also indicates a loss of Russia's prestige and its declining influence on its diasporas.