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Study sheds light on Russian elites

A new Levitt Center poll shows that high-ranking Russians have soured considerably on the U.S. since 1993, when the survey was first administered. Their perception of the U.S. threat to their national security is higher than ever, and they are also more militaristic and expansionist.

The poll released in May is perhaps the only publicly available survey of Russian elites conducted since 2012, when Vladimir Putin became president for the third time, says Sharon Werning Rivera, a poll director and associate professor of government. “A lot has changed since Putin returned to the presidency. Russian foreign policy has become much more assertive, and extremely anti-Western stories are standard fare on state-run television. We wanted to see whether elites support this turn in foreign policy,” she says.

The survey reveals that elites probably do support Putin’s assertive foreign policy, or at any rate, they say they do.

That was one of the findings Rivera and a team of student researchers uncovered when they began to dig into the mountain of data generated by the survey. The team published a study in The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog on July 22. They noted that since Putin became president again, Russia annexed Crimea, initiated a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine and dispatched its military there, and intervened with its military in the Syrian civil war, among other moves.

The rise in anti-Americanism among the elites was expected, given the abysmal state of U.S.–Russian relations, Rivera says. What surprised her, however, was the change in how the elites perceive their national interests. Since 1999, every survey in the series showed that elites increasingly believed Russia’s national interests should be mostly limited to its borders. Not this time.

“It’s really reversed, where they now contend that their interests extend beyond existing territory,” she says. Also, for the first time, more elites say that military force -— as opposed to a country’s economic potential — will “decide everything” in international relations. 

The poll is the seventh in a series conducted by the same highly regarded Moscow firm. For this one the firm did face-to-face interviews with 243 high-ranking Russians in February and March. William Zimmerman, now research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, started the survey and invited Rivera to co-direct it.

The poll yielded a rich collection of data that Rivera and her researchers have only begun to mine. Over the summer, she and three students obtained a Levitt Research Group Grant to study the poll. Rivera will dig deeper during her sabbatical this year.

World politics major Emma Raynor ’18 was a coauthor of the “Monkey Cage” report and part of the summer research group. “This research has been an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. I knew I wanted to go into international relations, but I had never seen this side of it,” she says. “I have never been much of a numbers person, but I have been forced out of my comfort zone into the world of statistics, which, though confusing at times, is incredibly valuable knowledge to have.”

One of the summer group’s tasks was to prepare to present this fall at the U.S. Naval War College, an opportunity born of a Hamilton connection.

Rivera and the Levitt researchers were meeting in Kirner-Johnson when Andrew Winner ’84, who was on campus with his son Charles ’19, came looking for Rivera. Winner is chair of the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the War College, and he invited Rivera and the student team to present.

 — Maureen A. Nolan

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Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Magazine

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