The Debate

Russia’s Growing Isolation

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The Debate

Russia’s Growing Isolation

As international polls show growing dislike of Russia over Ukraine, East Asia may be its last option for cooperation.

Russia’s Growing Isolation
Credit: Global Panorama via

Many decades ago, when Russia presented a far more stable face to its neighbors, Tsar Alexander III offered a frank, realpolitik observation. “Russia,” he said, “has only two allies: its army and navy.” This of course wasn’t true during the Tsar’s imperial reign – alliances shifted, and isolation never reigned. Even during the Soviet period, Moscow’s power found external relationships – Cuba and China, Hungary and Poland – that represented traditional, if temporary, alliances.

More than a century later however, Alexander’s words may finally have resonance. After six months of fomenting separatism and ethnic strife in Ukraine, and after a year of persecuting sexual minorities and muzzling nearly every form of free media, Russia has ensconced itself in a swath of paranoia and isolationism. And the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 will only exacerbate Russia’s self-imposed seclusion. Either the world has embraced Russophobia or, more likely, Moscow’s policies have engendered enough spite and disdain that Russia has become the most loathed nation extant.

Earlier this month, before the Russian-backed separatists likely claimed the lives of 298 civilians, Pew Research released the latest batch of numbers for its Global Attitude Project. This set focused on Russia – namely, on the remarkable drop-off in favorable views of the country since 2013. The results are, perhaps surprisingly, stark. As Pew wrote, “Russia is broadly unpopular in many countries around the globe. … [and] President Vladimir Putin’s leadership also continues to inspire little confidence worldwide.” Fewer than 20 percent of the nations surveyed had seen their views on Russia improve in that timeframe, while the bulk of those countries questioned saw impressions on Russia, already teetering, slide steeply into negative territory.

Nearly three-quarters of those in Europe and the U.S. hold unfavorable views of Russia, led by Poland (81 percent unfavorable), Germany (79 percent), Italy (74 percent) and Spain (74 percent). Indeed, all European nations – save for Greece, with its Orthodox population and anti-Berlin legacy – carry heady negative numbers against Russia. Moreover, there’s been a widening berth between the public’s and elite perceptions in Europe, with negative perceptions across Europe – even in France (73 percent) – outpacing both the negative views from the U.S. (72 percent) and their own leaders’ dithering.

Widening out, the same dearth of support can be found in much of the Middle East – including Jordan (75 percent) and Israel (68 percent) – as well as almost the entirety of South America. Two of Russia’s main BRICS partners find the country disagreeable, with 51 percent in South Africa and 59 percent in Brazil saying they maintain unfavorable views of Moscow. Even Russia’s erstwhile autocratic compatriots seem to be souring to Moscow’s role, with Venezuela (a 10 percent slide since 2013), Uganda (9 percent) and Egypt (7 percent) seeing significant single-year drop-offs in the way they view Russia.

The numbers are unambiguous – and they don’t exist in a vacuum. When aired with comparable Pew perspectives of the U.S. or China, one of the three powers within this new triangulation is disliked more than the others. As of 2014, that honor belongs to the only nation to have illegally annexed, subversively invaded, and threatened the stability of its neighbor. Russia, at least according to the most comprehensive survey available, is the most derided country on the planet.

There is, however, perhaps a bit of good news for Moscow in the poll – which helps explain the repositioning we’ve seen over the past few months. East Asia presents the lone region that still sees Russia in a positive light: with Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines all ending with net-favorable ratings. Moreover, China (66 percent favorable) not only boasts the second-highest favorability ranking for Moscow – after Russia, of course – but it has also, and more importantly, seen the greatest change in favorability, with nearly 20 percent more people seeing Russia favorably this year than last. After all the wreckage and the ramifications of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, China has somehow managed a 33 percent swing toward viewing Russia in a favorable light in a single year.

And this is where we geopolitics emerges through the poll numbers. Where Russia has found both distrust and distaste within both the West and much of the developing world, it is East Asia – and China especially – to which it has turned. East Asia is the only amenable region left for Moscow. It doesn’t matter if China managed to negotiate Russia into a lopsided gas deal recently. It doesn’t matter if Japan sees Russia only as a necessary, convenient counterweight to Chinese hegemony – one Tokyo would gladly leave if possible. As these poll numbers attest, Russia doesn’t have a choice. East Asia is its last option.

Even Russia’s closest nominal partners – Armenia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – have made noises about finding new patrons recently. It’s telling that these three are the main players surrounding Putin’s Eurasian Union (EEU). They should, in theory, be interested in standing nearest to Russia. Yet all three have begun the process of looking elsewhere, turning the EEU from a potential force into an empty husk.

However, this was all before MH17. These numbers, and these trends, were already in motion before a rocket likely fired from Russian-led rebels, cost the lives of nearly 300 civilians. And even if there is never any solid evidence of Moscow’s hand in the separatists’ BUK missiles – even if the separatists have sufficiently managed to contaminate the crash site, looting bodies and hauling evidence away – the very real possibility of their responsibility will only tamp international views of Russia that much further.

Alexander III wasn’t correct when he offered his geopolitical assessment over a century ago. He sold himself, and his nation, short. But in 2014, he wouldn’t be far off. And Putin at least recognizes this. As he said last week, “Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance.” Spinning his decreasing room for maneuver, Putin attempted to game his nation’s stigma into a positive.

But those are just words. Russia, through its own hubris and folly, has found itself friendless and disliked. At last, the only two allies it can count on are indeed, its army and its navy. And that may be the most dangerous alliance it has found yet.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, focusing on post-Soviet political development. He can be followed on Twitter at @cjcmichel.