Perspectives on Foreign and Domestic Policy

May 11, 2016

PR Contact: Vige Barrie 315-859-4623
Principal Investigator: Sharon Werning Rivera

Full Report (PDF) Powerpoint (PDF)

Survey data on whether Russian elites support the more muscular foreign policy that has been pursued during Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term (2012-present) have been largely unavailable–until now.

As one of the few surveys of Russian elites - perhaps the only publicly available survey -  conducted since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, the newly released Hamilton College Levitt Poll, titled The Russian Elite 2016, represents a unique resource. This poll has been funded by the college's Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

The poll is based on 243 face-to-face interviews conducted in February and March 2016 lasting, on average, an hour with high-ranking individuals or “elites” working in Russia's:

  • federal bureaucracy,
  • parliament,
  • military and security agencies,
  • private businesses,
  • state-owned enterprises,
  • academic research institutes, and
  • media outlets

Major findings include:
  • Perceptions of the United States as a threat to Russia’s national security are the highest since 1993, increasing from 26.9% in that year to 54.1% in 2004 to 80.8% in 2016.
  • Although previous surveys showed that elites increasingly said that Russia’s national interests should be limited to its existing territory, the 2016 data reveal a marked departure from that pattern. In 1999, 82.3% of elites agreed that Russia’s national interests for the most part extend beyond its existing territory. This percentage declined in 2004 (to 71.9%) and in 2012 (43.4%). Yet in 2016, this percentage returned to the high point previously reached in 1999: 82.3% agreed that Russia has expansive national interests.
  • Elites also hold that the Russian government is intervening in Syria to prevent the spread of terrorism to Russia. Seventy-six percent of Russian elites respond that their government is engaged in the Syrian conflict in order to neutralize and eliminate the spread of military activities by Islamic radicals and terrorists to Russia. 
  • Elites said that the United States was primarily to blame for the 2013-14 crisis in Ukraine. Three-quarters of Russian elites report that the conflict in Ukraine was brought about by the United States attempting to foment another “color” revolution in Ukraine.
  • For the first time since 1993, more elites report that a country’s military, and not economic, potential is decisive in international relations. In 2016 a majority of elites (52.3%) agreed with the statement that “military force will always ultimately decide everything in international relations.”
  • A preference for “the current political system” has been increasing over time, from less than 25% in 2004 to more than 40% now.
  • The perceived hostility of the United States is at an all-time high, with 88.0% of respondents in 2016 answering that the United States is either “fairly” or “very” hostile to Russia. This is the highest percentage since the first survey was conducted in 1993 when 9.5% of the sample rated the United States as hostile.
  • The perceived danger concerning the growth of America’s military might is at its lowest with only 7.4% indicating this was the “utmost threat” to Russia's security.
  • Elites predict that the chances of someone other than Putin and the Kremlin-backed political party, United Russia, coming to power in the next 10 years are unlikely. Close to 80% (79.1%) of respondents replied that it was unlikely or completely unlikely that someone other than Putin would become president in the next decade. Eighty percent also said that it was unlikely or completely unlikely that a party or movement other than United Russia would come to power in the next ten years.
  • More elites – 32.1% – regard the inability to solve domestic problems as the “utmost threat” to Russia’s security than any other threat, including the growth of the U.S. military at 7.4%. Terrorism is ranked second on the list, with 22.2% rating it as the “utmost threat.” Threats to security posed by border conflicts with the states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) declined and reached an all-time low in 2016, with only 4.5% of Russian elites stating that a border conflict with a CIS state was the “utmost threat” to Russia’s security.
  • Less than 10% of elites would choose the United States as a coalition partner. Asked which coalition partner they would choose – the European Union, China or the United States – 33.7% of those surveyed answered that none of the options would be suitable.

The seven sub-groups interviewed in the 2016 survey consisted of the following numbers of respondents: 

  • Executive Branch: ministers, deputy ministers, and heads of agencies in the federal bureaucracy, etc = 35
  • Legislative Branch: deputies in the State Duma and Federation Council who are members of the committees on defense, security, relations with the CIS, and foreign affairs = 30
  • Private Business: owners and CEOs of major private firms in the oil and gas, electricity, banking, hotel, restaurant, furniture, pharmacological, medicine and retail industries = 35
  • State-Owned Enterprises: directors and deputy directors of state corporations and industrial, defense, and petrochemical enterprises that are at least 50% state-owned = 36
  • Media: editors and deputy editors of major media outlets = 36
  • Science and Education: chancellors, vice-chancellors, directors, and deputy directors of universities and large academic research institutes with international connections = 35
  • Military and Security Forces: officers serving in the armed forces, Federal Security Service, Federal Protective Service, and Ministry for Emergency Situations holding the rank of colonel or higher = 36

This survey was conducted by the same Russian polling firm that completed previous elite surveys forming the basis of this series in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2008 and 2012. With the addition of the 2016 survey, the series spans 23 years and is the only repeated cross-sectional survey data on Russian elites available in the world.

The survey was directed by Associate Professor of Government Sharon Werning Rivera of Hamilton College (Principal Investigator), William Zimmerman of the University of Michigan (Co-Principal Investigator), and Eduard Ponarin of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg (Co-Principal Investigator). Funding for the survey was provided by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College. Additional funding for incorporating the 2016 data into the existing codebook was provided by the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia at the University of Michigan. The analysis of survey results presented in this report was conducted by Hamilton students under the supervision of Sharon Werning Rivera.

The 1993-2012 surveys are currently deposited with the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan.

Quality control was enhanced by careful interviewer monitoring: the firm contacted 10% of the respondents by phone to check that they had actually been interviewed and assessed 100% of the questionnaires for completion throughout the data collection phase.

The interviewers reported that on the whole, the survey was viewed “favorably” (blagozhelatel’no) by the respondents and that the majority of respondents expressed a desire to learn the results of the survey research.

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