15.06.23 Polls Review

Between China and Belarus: The war has changed Russians' perception of their friends and enemies, but the new picture of geopolitical solidarity appears artificial and circumstantial

Belarus and China are now seen by Russians as their main allies on the geopolitical stage. They are followed by India and Iran, which have entered the circle of 'friends' thanks to the war. Kazakhstan, on the contrary, is losing the sympathy of Russian citizens and is perceived as a distant country, according to public opinion polls. The degree of hostility towards the United States and the EU has reached its peak, with Germany and France among the most hostile countries for the first time. However, as long-term trends show, the fluctuations in attitudes towards the US, Western countries, and China are highly dependent on the information background and propaganda campaigns. The current picture of Russia's geopolitical allies and opponents appears contingent and does not correspond to long-term patterns of attraction and repulsion in mutual relations.

In full accordance with official doctrine and propaganda, the  geopolitical horizon of Russian citizens is swinging from the West to Asia and the global South. According to a recent survey by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), Belarus (78%) and China (72%) are considered the most friendly countries to Russia. These are its two true strategic partners. India follows with a significant margin (39%), with the number of Russians’ viewing the country as a friend doubling over the past few years (in 2019, only 21% of respondents considered it a friendly country). Conversely, Kazakhstan has lost favour among the Russian public: in 2019, 49% considered it a friendly country, while in 2023, only 28% did. Turkey (27%), Iran (25%), and Brazil (17%) followed in the rankings. It should be noted that in 2019, Iran and Brazil were barely noticed by Russians (7% and 3% respectively considered them friendly countries).

The map of Russia's enemies has also undergone some changes. Russians still view the United States (82%) and Ukraine as the most unfriendly countries. The level of hostility towards Ukraine has remained unchanged since 2019 (67% compared to 66%). However, there has been a sharp consolidation of 'unfriendliness' towards Germany and France. In 2019, only 13% of those polled considered Germany unfriendly, compared with an average of 20% of respondents in the 2010s, but today the figure has risen to 50%. Attitudes towards France have been somewhat uneven over the past 10 years but, on average, 11% of those polled considered it unfriendly, while this figure stood at 36% in the latest survey. Nearly half of respondents now view the United Kingdom as unfriendly, while it had an average rating of 27% over the past decade.

The 'friendliness' list, as Russians perceive it, directly correlates with the list of Russia's most important economic partners. Here, China is the undisputed leader (70% consider it a key economic partner, compared to 47% in 2019). However, in terms of countries with which Russia finds it easiest to find common ground, only 34% mentioned China. The opposite is true of Belarus: 52% consider it among the most important economic partners, while 75% believe that the two countries share a common ground.

In terms of economic cooperation are India (32% of Russians have evaluated it as a major destination for Russian oil exports), Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Iran follow China and Belarus. In the 2010s, Germany was consistently ranked fourth in the list of the most important economic partners, noted by an average of 23% of respondents, but in 2023, only 7% mentioned it. Kazakhstan has maintained its position in the ranking of economic significance, but has shifted downwards in terms of 'common language' and mutual understanding: on average, in the 2010s, 39% of respondents mentioned Kazakhstan based on this criterion, but this year this figure stands at 30%.

Similar trends can be observed in a survey conducted by the Levada Center, shedding light on Russia's perceived allies and enemies. Belarus (77%) and China (52%, up from 39% in 2021) maintain their positions as Russia's top 'allies,' followed by India (31%, up from 13%), Kazakhstan (26%, down from 34% in 2021), and Armenia. The United States and the European Union continue to be viewed as Russia's primary adversaries.

However, it should be noted that hostility towards the 'collective West' and enduring friendship with China are not stable viewpoints among Russians. They are highly dependent on the information environment and propaganda campaigns. Prior to 2005, the positive balance of attitudes towards the United States (the difference between positive and negative ratings) stood at +27 points. From 2006 to 2013, it declined to +13 points, as the anti-Western narrative of Putin's inner circle began to take shape. Following the annexation of Crimea and the initial open conflicts with the West, the balance of attitudes dropped to -48 points (2014-2017). However, this negative balance decreased to -24 points in 2018 and stood at -7 points in 2019-2021. During the current war, the negative balance of opinions has predictably plummeted to -58 points. The dynamics of attitudes towards the European Union are similar: +57 points in the early 2000s, a decline to +42 points in 2006-2013, -30 points in the immediate post-Crimea years, -14 points in 2018, and +7 points in 2019-2021. During the current war, assessments of the EU have dropped to a negative balance of -49 points.

Attitudes towards China have changed accordingly. In the 2000s, roughly equal numbers of Russians believed that China did and did not pose a threat to Russian interests, according to another FOM survey. After the annexation of Crimea and the rift with the West, 55% believed that China posed no threat to Russia, while 25% thought otherwise. With the onset of the current war, the share of those supporting the first viewpoint increased to 70%, while those with the second viewpoint decreased to 15%.

In this sense, Russians’ views of their  new geopolitical horizon appear conditional. Unlike Europe, Russia does not have several centuries of intensive interaction and neighbourly relations with China, Iran, and India. If the war were to end and tensions were to decrease, it is highly likely that the long-term balance of geopolitical 'closeness' would begin to restore itself.

Do you think the rise of China is more likely to threaten or not threaten Russia's interests? % of respondents surveyed