Only a Quarter of Americans See Russia as an Enemy

The crisis in Ukraine has changed public opinion, but not radically.
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Ever since the Russian military occupied Crimea, Mitt Romney has been doing something of a victory lap for his much-ridiculed comment, during the 2012 presidential campaign, that Russia was America's top geopolitical foe. But on Tuesday, during a stop in the Netherlands, President Obama refused to call Romney a prophet. Russia, he said, is a "regional power"—and a weak one at that.

Americans, it seems, fall somewhere in between the Romney and Obama camps. In a survey released on Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of respondents now consider Russia a "serious problem," up from 36 percent last fall, and 26 percent consider Russia an "adversary," up from 18 percent in the fall.

But the top-level numbers mask another trend: It's mainly Republicans who are growing seriously concerned about Russia. Check out the 18-percentage-point jump among GOP supporters who view Moscow as an adversary. It's also worth noting that older respondents, who lived through the Cold War, are more worried about Russia.

Even so, Republicans remain divided about whether the U.S. should respond aggressively to Russian actions in Ukraine. And among all Americans, there's hardly any appetite for Washington confronting Moscow militarily.

Pew notes that, for the first time since at least 2008, the American public now sees Russia as a greater concern than China; 68 percent view Russia as an "adversary" or a "serious problem," compared with 58 percent who feel the same way about China.

But the fact is, in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, Americans have never really agreed en masse that a particular country, as opposed to non-state actors like terrorists, is a clear-cut U.S. enemy. When pollsters insist that Americans pick an archrival, there's little consensus. In a Gallup poll in early February, for instance, Russia (9 percent) didn't even crack the top three "greatest enemies."

This isn't to suggest that Americans are taking Russia's Crimea invasion lightly. A CNN/ORC poll earlier this month found that 29 percent of respondents viewed Russia as a "very serious threat" to the United States—the highest level since 1985. And that was before Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula.

But plotting the results for this question from the early 1980s through today suggests another reality: American public opinion about Russia is still a long way from where it was at the height of the Cold War.

CNN/ORC via Datawrapper

 

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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