Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes and Jacob Poushter pewglobal.org In recent years, Russia’s relationship with Western countries, specifically with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has been on a roller-coaster ride. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a New START agreement that reduced the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side by roughly 30%. But Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and
support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine has once more strained
relations between Russia and Western nations.
Going forward, most NATO members are willing to provide economic aid
to Ukraine and offer it NATO membership. But they generally shy away
from sending arms to Kyiv or escalating economic sanctions against
Moscow. And at least half in Germany, France and Italy are unwilling to
use military force to defend other NATO allies against Russian
Russia, Putin in Disfavor
Both Russia and its current president, Vladimir Putin, are held in
low regard in the eight NATO countries surveyed. Public attitudes toward
both Russia and its leader have been in steady decline over the past
few years, though in the past 12 months views of Russia have rebounded
slightly in Germany, Italy and Spain. Nevertheless, the median favorability of Russia is down to 26% from 37% in 2013. And the median confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs is down to 16% from 28% in 2007.
Russia’s current image problems are especially bad in Poland. Poland has
had a long, painful relationship with Russia, having been invaded,
dismembered and occupied by a series of Russian and Soviet regimes. Thus
it is hardly surprising that just 15% of Poles have a favorable view of
Russia. But the Poles have not always despaired of their ties with
their neighbor. As recently as 2010, 45% of Poles had a favorable view
of Russia – three times the current share. Just as striking, in 2010
only 11% had a very unfavorable opinion of Russia. Now more than three times that number, 40%, intensely dislike Russia.
The British have similarly turned against Russia. Only 18% in the
United Kingdom voice a favorable view of the country. This is down from
25% of the British in 2014 and 50% in 2011. It is also notable that in
2011 only 7% of the British said they held very unfavorable views of Russia. In 2015, that proportion has quadrupled to 28%.
Only 22% of Americans express a favorable opinion of Russia. This is
largely unchanged from last year, but down from 49% in both 2010 and
2011. At the same time, however, intense animosity toward Russia seems
to be waning in the past year. The proportion of Americans holding very
unfavorable views is down 11 percentage points, from 38% in 2014 to 27%
in 2015. Still, older Americans are more than three times as likely as
younger Americans (40% vs. 11%) to see Russia in a negative light.
Fewer than three-in-ten Germans (27%) hold a favorable view of
Russia. This assessment has improved 8 points since last year. But it is
down from a recent high of 50% in 2010. German men are twice as likely
as women to have a positive opinion of Russia.
Views of Putin in NATO countries have historically been very low and
have dropped even further in some countries in recent years. Putin’s
peak popularity was in 2003, a heady time when 75% of Germans (rivaling
the 76% of Russians with faith in Putin), 54% of Canadians, 53% of
British, 48% of French, 44% of Italians and 41% of Americans had
confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs.
Putin has never again attained this level of trust in the West.
Today, fewer than a quarter voice confidence in his leadership in any
country, including just 9% in Poland and 6% in Spain. These attitudes
are largely unchanged from 2014. It is older and more highly educated
people in both the UK and the U.S. who are most likely to voice no
confidence in Putin.
is widespread public concern in some NATO member states that Russia
poses a military threat to neighboring countries aside from Ukraine. Seven-in-ten
Poles say Moscow poses a major danger, as do roughly six-in-ten
Americans (59%) and about half of British (53%) and French (51%).
But only 44% of Italians and 38% of Germans see Russia as a major
menace. Notably, while older Americans (64%) are far more likely than
younger ones (51%) to say Moscow is a military danger, it is younger
French (63%) rather than their elders (47%) who are the most worried.
When it comes to the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, NATO members tend to see Russia as responsible for the fighting.
A majority of Poles (57%) say Moscow is behind the violence in Ukraine,
as do four-in-ten or more French (44%), Americans (42%) and British
(40%). But only roughly three-in-ten Germans and Italians (both 29%)
agree. Older Americans (50%) and Brits (45%) are more likely than their
younger compatriots (33% of both Americans and British) to blame Russia.
And in all but Germany, those who blame Russia for the violence in
eastern Ukraine are the most likely to see Russia as a military threat.
Other actors in the Ukraine drama are seen as less culpable for the
hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Three-in-ten French, 25% of Germans and
22% of Italians say pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists are responsible
for the violence there. Few say the responsibility lies with the
Ukrainian government itself. And only in Germany (12%) does a
double-digit minority believe that the actions of Western governments in
Europe and the U.S. are accountable for the hostilities.
Overall, NATO members have a favorable view of their 66-year-old alliance. A median of 62% expresses a positive perception of the organization.
But this generally upbeat attitude masks national differences that
highlight current tensions and possible future difficulties for the
coalition. It also does not capture differences within countries. For
example, people who place themselves on the right of the ideological
spectrum are more supportive than those on the left in Spain, France and
Germany. But only in Spain do more than half of people on the left have
an unfavorable attitude toward NATO. In the U.S., a majority of
Democrats (56%) voice a favorable opinion of the organization, but only
about four-in-ten Republicans (43%) share that view.
Given their contentious history with Russia and their proximity to
the fighting in Ukraine, it is not surprising that 74% of Poles hold a
favorable opinion of NATO and the security reassurance membership in it
provides. Polish support for the alliance is up 10 percentage points
from 2013. Six-in-ten or more French (64%), Italians (64%) and British
(60%) also hold a favorable view of NATO. However, roughly a third of
the French (34%) and about a quarter of Italians (26%) express an
unfavorable attitude toward NATO.
The greatest change in support for NATO has been in Germany, where
favorability of the alliance has fallen 18 points since 2009, from 73%
to 55%. Germans living in the east are divided – 46% see it positively,
The American public’s attitude toward NATO belies the U.S. role in the organization. U.S. defense expenditures account for 73 percent of the defense spending of the alliance as a whole. And this is among the highest proportion
of total alliance security spending since the early 1950s. But only 49%
of Americans express a favorable opinion of the security organization.
This is unchanged from 2013 but down from 54% in 2010 and 2011.
Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who say they have an unfavorable view of NATO has grown from 21% in 2010 to 31% in 2015.
The greatest support for helping Ukraine is for the most passive option: economic aid. A median of 70% backs providing the government in Kyiv with financial assistance in response to the situation involving Russia.
The strongest proponents of such aid are Poles (77%), Spanish (77%),
Canadians (75%) and Germans (71%). The most reluctant to provide
financial assistance are the Italians, with 44% favoring it and 41% in
opposition. It is older Spanish (81%) and Americans (68%) who back aid
more than their younger compatriots (66% of Spanish and 53% of
Americans). People on the left are more supportive than those on the
right in France, Italy and the UK.
Ukraine’s relationship with NATO has long been the topic of
contentious debate, both within the country and among the members of the
Western security pact. Since the end of the Cold War, governments in Kyiv have wavered between a desire to eventually join the alliance and a desire to remain nonaligned.
of 57% of the NATO publics surveyed support offering Ukraine NATO
membership in response to the situation involving Russia. About
two-thirds of Canadians (65%) favor that option, as do roughly
six-in-ten Americans (62%) and Poles (59%). Germans (36%) and Italians
(35%) are the least supportive of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. In fact,
a majority of Germans (57%) and a plurality of Italians (46%) oppose
offering Kyiv this option.
NATO membership for Ukraine is backed more by older (66%) than
younger Americans (55%). Conversely, younger Germans (51%), French and
Poles (both 64%) favor it more than their elders (32% of Germans, 52% of
French and 54% of Poles).
Notably, despite recent developments, support for Ukrainian
membership in NATO is relatively unchanged in a number of alliance
countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland – compared with attitudes
expressed in 2009, when Pew Research Center
asked publics a standalone question: if they favored Ukraine joining
NATO in the next decade. Among the nations surveyed, support for
Ukrainian membership in the defense alliance has increased by double
digits in the U.S., the UK and Spain.
The prospect of Ukraine one day joining the European Union (EU)
is at the heart of much recent Ukraine-Russia tension and helped spark
the Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine that eventually led to the
ouster of Viktor Yanukovych and his government in February 2014.
six EU member nations surveyed are divided over offering Ukraine
membership in the EU in response to the situation involving Russia and
Ukraine. The strongest support comes from the Spanish (65%) and
Poles (60%). Italians (37%) are the least willing to offer Ukraine a
spot at the EU table. And more than half of Germans (54%) and French
(53%) are openly opposed to membership. Notably, a majority of older
Germans (57%) are against Ukraine joining the EU, compared with 42% of
younger Germans. People on the left are more supportive of EU membership
for Ukraine than people on the right in Italy, the UK, France and
is relatively little support among NATO members for sending arms to the
Ukrainian government. A median of only 41% back such action. Despite
Poles’ general antipathy toward Russia, their concern about the military
threat posed by Russia and their blaming Moscow for the current
violence in Ukraine, only half (50%) want NATO to give arms to Kyiv.
Americans are divided on the issue: 46% support sending weaponry, 43%
oppose it. A majority of older Americans (56%) favor arming the
Ukrainians, while more than half of younger Americans (54%) oppose it.
And majorities in four of the eight nations are against helping arm the
Ukrainians. The strongest opposition is in Germany (77%), Spain (66%)
and Italy (65%).
In a related question concerning the situation involving Russia and
Ukraine, Americans, Canadians and publics in the six EU member states in
the survey were asked if they thought that the economic sanctions
imposed on Russia by the EU and the U.S. should be increased, decreased
or kept about the same as they are now. Outside of Poland, there is
little appetite for escalating financial penalties. About half of Poles
(49%) back ratcheting up economic sanctions. Roughly three-in-ten
Italians (30%), Canadians (28%) and Americans (28%) agree. But only
about a quarter of the French (25%) and the Spanish (24%) go along. Only
one-in-five Germans want more economic pressure applied to Moscow.
There is also relatively little interest in decreasing sanctions, except
in Germany (29%). Most publics – including 53% of both Americans and
British – want to keep the penalties about where they are now.
half or fewer in six of the eight countries surveyed say their country
should use military force if Russia attacks a neighboring country that
is a NATO ally. And at least half in three of the eight NATO countries
say that their government should not use military force in such
circumstances. The strongest opposition to responding with armed force
is in Germany (58%), followed by France (53%) and Italy (51%). Germans
(65%) and French (59%) ages 50 and older are more opposed to the use of
military force against Russia than are their younger counterparts ages
18 to 29 (Germans 50%, French 48%). German, British and Spanish women
are particularly against a military response.
More than half of Americans (56%) and Canadians (53%) are willing to
respond to Russian military aggression against a fellow NATO country. A
plurality of the British (49%) and Poles (48%) would also live up to
their Article 5 commitment. And the Spanish are divided on the issue:
48% support it, 47% oppose.
in NATO are reluctant to help aid others attacked by Russia, a median
of 68% of the NATO member countries surveyed believe that the U.S. would use military force to defend an ally.
The Canadians (72%), Spanish (70%), Germans (68%) and Italians (68%)
are the most confident that the U.S. would send military aid. In many
countries, young Europeans express the strongest faith in the U.S. to
help defend allied countries. The Poles, citizens of the most front-line
nation in the survey, have their doubts: 49% think Washington would
fulfill its Article 5 obligation, 31% don’t think it would and 20%
is also internal German disagreement on what to do about Ukraine and
Russia. German reunification has not closed the east-west divide in that
country, a division that has its origins in the Cold War.
Overall, Germans see neither Russia nor Putin in a positive light. But eastern Germans (40%) are twice as likely as western Germans (19%) to have confidence in Putin.
And more than a third of those in the east (36%) have a favorable
opinion of Russia compared with just 24% of western Germans. Easterners
(28%) are also less likely than westerners (40%) to believe that Russia
poses a military threat to its neighbors. And they are more likely to
want to ease economic sanctions on Russia.
Conversely, people living in western Germany (57%) are more supportive of NATO than are those in the east (46%). And they are more likely than their eastern compatriots to support the use of military force to defend other NATO allies.
is a similar partisan divide over what to do about the situation in
Ukraine. The smallest division is over economic aid to Kyiv: 69% of
Republicans back such assistance, as do 60% of Democrats. But while 60% of Republicans would send arms to the Ukrainians, only 39% of Democrats agree.
With regard to U.S. and EU economic sanctions on Russia,
substantial percentages of both parties favor keeping them about the
same (44% of GOP and 54% of Democrats). However, 40% of Republicans
would increase those sanctions, but only 23% of Democrats approve of
Members of both parties support NATO membership for Ukraine. Such
support is greater among the GOP (71%) than among Democrats (59%).
Moreover, there is a partisan difference about U.S. obligations to come
to the military assistance of other NATO members. Nearly seven-in-ten
Republicans (69%) say that Washington should come to the aid of its
allies in the event of Russian aggression. But only 47% of Democrats
back that long-standing U.S. treaty obligation, while 48% oppose it.