New Perspectives on Foreign and Domestic Policy

August 14, 2020

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



Since the end of the “reset” in US-Russian relations in 2012, the bilateral relationship has been marked by acrimony and mutual recriminations. At the same time, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has pursued a more muscular foreign policy around the globe, whether in Syria, Africa, or the post-Soviet region. Russia and the West are often at odds over the scope and purpose of these interventions.

New data from the Survey of Russian Elites (SRE) suggest that U.S.-Russian relations will not improve any time soon, at least insofar as they depend on the foreign policy attitudes of high-ranking Russians. Collected between February and March 2020, the data show that although the percentage of Russian elites who view the United States as a threat is down considerably from the last survey in 2016, respondents are also more inclined to worry about both the growth of U.S. military power and the possibility of information warfare emanating from the West. They are also significantly more favorably disposed toward sending Russian troops abroad to assist foreign countries and to provide security for Russia’s international friends than in all previous waves of the survey. In addition, Russian elites blame the United States more than Russia for the deterioration of bilateral relations.

The eighth in a series that began in 1993, the 2020 survey consists of 245 interviews conducted in February and March 2020 with high-ranking individuals working in Russia’s federal bureaucracy, parliament, military and security agencies, private businesses, state-owned enterprises, academic research institutes, and media outlets. In each wave, between 180 and 320 individuals were interviewed.

Other findings include the following:

  • The need to address Russia’s domestic problems is clearly the respondents’ top priority. Assessments of the economic progress made over the past 20 years are particularly dim.
  • There is little appetite for a return to Soviet political institutions, even though support for state control of heavy industry remains substantial.
  • Support for the unification of Russia and Ukraine has consistently declined since 1995 and is now at an all-time low.

The 2020 wave of the SRE was directed by Hamilton College’s Professor and Chair of Government, Sharon Werning Rivera (principal investigator), and William Zimmerman of the University of Michigan (co-principal investigator), in consultation with the survey’s international advisory board. Funding for the survey was provided by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. SES-1742798); the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center and Office of the Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College; and the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia, Center for Political Studies, and Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

The Survey of Russian Elites is the only repeated cross-sectional survey data of Russian elites and constitutes a unique resource for the scholarly and policy communities. The combined data set, including the 2020 wave, includes 1,909 interviews with high-ranking Russians working in a broad range of occupations in Moscow.

The analyses in this report were conducted by Hamilton College students Sterling Bray ’20, James Cho ’22, Max Gersch ’23, Marykate McNeil ’20, Alexander Nemeth ’22, Spencer Royal ’22, John Rutecki ’22, and Huzefah Umer ’21 under the direction of Professor Rivera. Chicago Council of Global Affairs intern and Northwestern University senior Jack Benjamin also participated in the preparation of the report.

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