Pew Survey: Irredentism Alive and Well in Russia


It’s no secret that grabbing accurate polling data out of Russia remains a chore. Due to governmental constraints, safety concerns, and broader issues with methodology – to say nothing of local polling centers connected to governing structures – much-hyped statistics on the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin should be taken with a grain or three of salt.

That said, one of the better barometers for Russian national sentiment remains the Pew Research Center, one of the few Western outlets willing to try gauge public sentiment in Russia. Pew released its latest assessment of Russian – and Ukrainian – views earlier this month, a batch well-worth combing through. And while the numbers out of Russia are far less definitive than results among the Western nations, they can still paint a picture of the views of a populace surging through neo-imperialism and slogging through an economic downturn that will continue for the foreseeable future.

And the picture is a bleak one. The numbers that should most concern the post-Soviet sphere – unlike what others have claimed – can be found in Russians’ views on borderlands. Per Pew:

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  • 61 percent of Russians believe parts of neighboring countries really belong to Russia.
  •  69 percent of those surveyed claim the breakup of the USSR was a bad thing for Russia.
  • Nearly 60 percent of Russians want Ukraine’s territory to splinter even further – 35 percent of those surveyed want eastern Ukraine to become independent, while 24 percent want Russia to outright annex Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Putin’s policies, as this poll makes clear, don’t exist in a vacuum; they come riding on a surge of nationalism unlike any post-Soviet Russia has seen. When this nationalism will cease, no one is quite clear. Considering the irredentist bug has begun infecting even the country’s most prominent liberals, we’ve almost certainly not seen the last of Russia’s interference in neighboring countries.

Aside from the revanchism, there are a few other numbers worth highlighting. Some of the results aren’t necessarily surprising. For instance, 50 percent of those surveyed blame the West for the current Ukrainian crisis, while 88 percent of Russians “have confidence in Putin to handle international affairs.” Per Pew, since Russia first began its occupation of the Crimean peninsula, overall confidence in the country’s leadership has risen 19 points.

But the Russians surveyed, no matter their level of support for Putin, have begun feeling the slings of the recession wrought by Russian policies and the collapse of oil prices. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed described their country’s situation as “bad,” with only 24 percent saying Russia’s economy was currently “good.” The numbers are comparable to 2008, but may only expand as oil prices continue to flag.

Hence, why so many Russians are willing to praise Putin’s handling of China. With 90 percent approval, the Kremlin’s relations with China present the brightest ray of hope for Russia’s economy. Recent rhetoric has begun pointing to the potential marriage of the fractured Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt – though this seems far less a move of choice, and far more a Russian attempt to hitch its faltered plans to one with more teeth.

Of course, if Russia continues dispatching troops and materiel to its neighbors, economic links will be tested. Considering Russians’ apparent desires for further territorial aggrandizement – and to support the neo-imperial policies that have already landed Russia in its current straits – latching onto China’s Silk Road Economic Belt may be one of the few beneficial policy choices the Kremlin will likely take.

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