While breaking the norms of international behavior at its own discretion, Russia may fancy itself a champion of change in the world order; but in fact, it is increasingly seen as an arrogant maverick and a sore loser. Russian media reported, with little commentary, the findings of the recent Pew Research Center poll. According to this international survey, perceptions of Russia in the world have reached a new low, including in the United States, where only 22 percent of respondents expressed a positive attitude (against 37 percent in 2013), while 67 percent hold a negative view (Kommersant, August 6). This is hardly surprising given that Russians also express a strongly anti-American attitude. But what is rather unexpected is the decline of positive perceptions of Russia in China (down to 51 percent from 66 percent in 2014), while in Russia the warm feelings toward China reached a high of 79 percent (Rbc.ru, August 5).
This divergence in attitudes reflects deepening doubt in China regarding Russia’s stance in the Ukraine conflict and particularly regarding its quickly worsening economic performance. China has certainly encountered its own economic turbulence this summer, and that makes it extra careful about investing in Russia, which remains in denial as to the depth of the crisis, despite published data showing Russian import volumes have shrunk by 40 percent in the first half of 2015 (Newsru.com, August 7). This unfolding recession undermines the projected value of connecting the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project (Gazeta.ru, July 29). While Moscow entertains big ideas about gaining synergy from various Eurasian integrationist projects, Beijing channels investments into shaping them according to its strategic interests (Novaya Gazeta, August 7).
Meanwhile, the lack of substance in Russia’s “pivot” to Asia was highlighted last week at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Kuala-Lumpur (August 6). There, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to dodge sharp questions about the Russian veto to the United Nations Security Council’s draft resolution on establishing a tribunal for investigating the downing of Flight MH17 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 6). At the same time, Russia had nothing to contribute to the deliberations regarding key issues in Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea disputes (Kommersant, August 7). The only trick that Lavrov could find for attracting attention was to accuse US President Barack Obama of breaking his promise to stop the deployment of the ballistic missile defense system in Europe when the Iranian nuclear problem is solved (Lenta.ru, August 7). The accusation was duly dismissed by the US State Department.
Despite declaring a shift of its political priorities to Asia, Russia remains preoccupied with its conflict with Europe. And it is in Europe that Russia is perceived most negatively (70 percent in France and Germany), and President Vladimir Putin scores even lower (a 92 percent negative rating in Spain). While in Russia, 60–70 percent of respondents also have a negative view of the European Union (Levada.ru, June 29). Energy exports, which used to constitute a solid foundation for Russian-European relations, are increasingly a source of tensions, and Gazprom has specifically been targeted by US and EU sanctions (Rbc.ru, August 7). Last week, France made the final step in canceling the contract on building for the Russian Navy two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships and returned Russia’s pre-payment. Moscow may be glad to have the money back, but it faces a $50 billion bill to former Yukos shareholders and has no legal loopholes at its disposal to challenge the verdict of the Hague arbitration tribunal (Novaya Gazeta, August 6).
Russia is by no means Europe’s only problem, but neither in the Greek financial calamity nor in the Mediterranean refugee crisis can Moscow position itself as part of the solution. In the Syrian civil war, it is rather a part of the problem, and Lavrov’s latest initiative on building an anti–Islamic State coalition that would include the Bashar al-Assad regime adds to this spoiler role (Moscow Echo, August 4). Russia knows perfectly well that the new coordination of combat efforts between the United States and Turkey is far from rock solid, and Moscow seeks to erode it by accentuating the disagreements (Slon.ru, August 7). Such maneuvering has severely compromised Russia’s reputation in the region: in Jordan, as many as 80 percent of respondents expressed a negative view of Russia, while in Israel, with its large Russian-speaking community, this disapproval has risen to 72 percent. Even in Turkey, which used to benefit from economic ties with Russia, only 15 percent hold a positive opinion of the Russian government (Rbc.ru, August 5).
Putin may dismiss these public opinion polls and presume that world leaders will continue to take him seriously as long as his domestic support is absolute. The Russian president has, however, inescapable problems with sustaining the “patriotic” mobilization amid a deepening recession (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 5). Seeking to make sure that his control is effectual, he ordered the physical destruction of food products that were smuggled from Europe despite the prohibition on imports (Carnegie.ru, August 7). Whatever propaganda spin is put on this shocking campaign, the majority of Russians will undoubtedly perceive the government’s act of destroying food at a time when hundreds of thousands of citizens are monthly falling below the poverty line as an outrageous malefaction (Forbes.ru, August 6).
Seven years ago, Russia launched its week-long war with Georgia. And what seemed then a victory can now be recognized as one of the worst August disasters in Russian history. On the one hand, it is true that the war generated a moment of national unity, which was deeply false but politically very useful. It also produced a conviction that the West was weak and divided, while the reproach in public opinion did not matter. Almost a year and a half ago, Putin sought to reproduce that moment of “patriotic” unity with the annexation of Crimea, but that spectacular triumph soon thereafter delivered him the Donbas quagmire. He also counted on the timidity of Western leaders, but the depth of public indignation in Europe and the US compelled them to take a firm stance and to insist on this firmness over 18 months, despite Moscow’s diplomatic machinations aimed at undermining the West’s unity. Every miscalculation has to be compensated with yet another show of external aggressiveness and domestic repression, but now the Russian elite increasingly worries that the Kremlin’s next supreme whim could prove a blunder too far.