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Survey Says Russian Elites Worry about Domestic Problems

  • August 14, 2020

New data from the Survey of Russian Elites (SRE) suggest that U.S.-Russian relations will not improve any time soon, at least insofar as they depend on the foreign policy attitudes of high-ranking Russians. Collected between February and March 2020, the data show that although the percentage of Russian elites who view the United States as a threat is down considerably from the last survey in 2016, respondents are also more inclined to worry about both the growth of U.S. military power and the possibility of information warfare emanating from the West. They are also significantly more favorably disposed toward sending Russian troops abroad to assist foreign countries and provide security for Russia’s international friends than in all previous waves of this survey.

The SRE provides the only repeated cross-sectional survey data of Russian elites, and as such, it constitutes a unique resource for scholarly and policy communities. The eighth in a series that was begun in 1993, this 2020 survey consists of 245 interviews conducted in February and March 2020 with high-ranking individuals working in Russia’s federal bureaucracy, parliament, military and security agencies, private businesses, state-owned enterprises, academic research institutes, and media outlets. In each wave between 180 and 320 individuals have been interviewed. Sharon Werning Rivera, professor and chair of government, is the survey’s principal investigator.

“The data also point to some important differences between elites’ foreign policy attitudes and their views about domestic politics,” says Rivera. “The Putin era is characterized by an increasingly closed political system, Kremlin control of major media outlets, and clear messaging about the need to create a multipolar world in which Western power and aggression can be checked. All of these conditions are conducive to ‘cueing’— a process by which highly placed individuals carefully read Kremlin signals and adopt policies that mirror those of the top leadership. In fact, our data show evidence of possible cueing effects in several important foreign policy arenas, such as Syria and China. These effects are not visible, however, in attitudes toward several crucial domestic issues … the elite stratum does not share the Kremlin’s preoccupation with insulating the polity from foreign meddling.”

Elites’ views on foreign and domestic policy diverge in yet another aspect. Although foreign policy issues are on the respondents’ minds, the need to address Russia’s domestic problems is clearly their top priority. Concern about Russia’s inability to solve its internal problems has grown in the past four years. Seventy percent think it either represents or is close to constituting an “utmost danger” to the security of Russia. Only concerns about further NATO expansion to the “Near Abroad” are at the same threat level. “Assessments of the economic progress made over the past 20 years are particularly dim. At the same time, there is little appetite for a return to Soviet political institutions, even though support for state control of heavy industry remains substantial,” says Rivera.

Finally, in some arenas, the 2020 data reveal the continuation of trends detected in previous waves of the SRE. For instance, the rank order of desirable partnerships has remained stable for the past eight years, with the European Union remaining the most favored option, followed closely by China. Similarly, support for the unification of Russia and Ukraine has consistently declined since 1995 and is now at an all-time low.

The 2020 wave of the SRE was co-directed by William Zimmerman of the University of Michigan. Funding for the survey was provided by the National Science Foundation, the  Levitt Public Affairs Center and Office of the Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College, and the University of Michigan.

Hamilton College students including Sterling Bray ’20, James Cho ’22, Max Gersch ’23, Marykate McNeil ’20, Alexander Nemeth ’22, Spencer Royal ’22, John Rutecki ’22, and Huzefah Umer ’21 provided analyses for the report under the direction of Rivera.

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