In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met on sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany on July 7, 2017

Snapshot Analysis: Pew Survey Indicates More People Trust Putin Than Trump Across World. Why?

August 17, 2017

Pew has just released a summary of its Spring 2017 survey of residents of 37 American, Asian, African and European countries who were asked to express their views on Russia, the United States and China – and the results are remarkable. A median of only 26 percent of those surveyed have confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” while a median of 60 percent have no such confidence. This was still, however, sufficient for the Russian leader to beat out U.S. President Donald Trump. Respondents in as many as 22 out of 36 countries trust Putin more than Trump, according to the poll. (In Tanzania, an equal share of respondents trusted Putin and Trump.) It is quite astounding that in spite of having taken Crimea from Ukraine, stirred trouble in Donbass, and intervened militarily in Syria, Putin is still enjoying greater confidence than Trump in the majority of the countries polled.

Perhaps Trump would do well to reflect upon his foreign policy, given the fact that more people trust the leader of the country that NATO’s leadership has described as an adversary, including in such NATO countries as Germany, France, Greece and Italy, as well as Japan and South Korea. In addition to flaws in Trump’s policies, the results may also reflect the fact that not all residents of the surveyed countries necessarily share the West’s mistrust of Russia. The countries where 50 percent or more trust Putin are Greece (50 percent), the Philippines (54 percent), Vietnam (79 percent), and Tanzania (51 percent). Greeks are obviously historically predisposed toward Russia, while in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated vows to seek closer ties with Russia might play a role. The Vietnamese also traditionally view Russia, which aids them militarily and prevents excessive pressure from China, as an ally.In contrast, 74 percent of Americans have no confidence in Putin, which should come as no surprise given the Ukraine crisis and alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Similar reasons can explain why, according to Pew, “Europe is the region least confident in Putin, with a median of 78 percent expressing a lack of confidence in the Russian president.”Neither Putin nor Trump have seen their perceptions improve since 2016, when Pew last surveyed the global favorability of the leaders. Confidence in Putin as a world leader among a smaller group of European and Asian nations was comparable to its level in 2017, around 20 percent. For Trump, who was the presumptive Republican presidential candidate at the time of the survey, trust was even lower. Only in two countries, China and Italy, did more than 20 percent trust Trump as a world leader. In contrast, more than half of respondents in all but one of the 15 countries surveyed in 2016 had confidence in then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

The 2017 survey also finds that people hold an unfavorable view of Russian as a country in roughly half of the 37 nations surveyed. The only countries where 50 percent or more view Russia favorably are the Philippines (55 percent), Vietnam (83 percent) and Greece (64 percent).  People in the surveyed countries generally don’t view the Russian government favorably when it comes to respecting personal freedoms. A median of only 30 percent believe that Russia adheres to this democratic idea. This is higher than it is for China (25 percent), but considerably lower than it is for France (60 percent) and the U.S. (54 percent).In contrast, 63 percent of Americans hold negative views of Russia, while in Europe, a median of 61 percent hold unfavorable views of Russia. At the same time, the share of Americans who feel favorably toward Russia has increased from 22 percent in 2015 to 29 percent today. The improvement in attitudes has been even more notable on the Russian side. While just 15 percent of Russians in 2015 felt favorably toward the U.S., some 41 percent did in the spring of 2017. We are betting, however, that Russians have cooled toward America since the spring, as hopes for mending fences under Trump have proven largely futile in spite of his meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Germany in July. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that Russia is predominantly a Christian Orthodox country, only 38 percent of Christians in Lebanon view it favorably, while 83 percent of Shiites do. This also is, perhaps,  a reflection of Russia’s operation in Syria, where Moscow supports an Alawite-led regime in alliance with Iran.

Despite being mistrusted and viewed unfavorably by many, Russia is not regarded as a major threat. Only a median of 31 percent in the countries surveyed consider Russia threatening. This is identical to the perceptions of China and comparable to perceptions of America (a median of 35 percent view the U.S. as a threat). The only countries where more than 50 percent see Russia as a major threat are Poland (65 percent) and Turkey (51 percent). This is not surprising in either case. Poland has been repeatedly conquered by Russia in the past, while Turkey has lost a number of wars to the Russian Empire. More recently, tensions between the two countries flared over the conflict in Syria and the shooting down of a Russian warplane by a Turkish fighter jet.  Interestingly, with the exception of Turkey, majorities in Middle Eastern countries do not view Russia as a threat, which is significant given Russia’s operation in Syria. In America, meanwhile, some 47 percent view Russia as a threat, and a median of 39 percent in Europe view Russia as a menace. Our hunch is that the results would have been more favorable to Russia in Europe and Asia if residents of such allies as China and Serbia were included in the survey—and this would have impacted its global median scores.

Photo from official Kremlin site.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.