"A plain extrapolation of recent political developments in Russia into the future should lead one to regard outright war with NATO as an improbable, yet possible, scenario. It is not unlikely that Russian public discourse will, during the coming years, continue to become more hostile to and paranoid about the United States, moving in that direction at the same speed at which it has been moving since 2000. What is in this case in store for the world is not only a new cold war, but also the prospect of a hot and perhaps even nuclear war."
(Umland seems to like the word "paranoia" ("paranoid"): he uses it later again when describing Russia's attitude toward the United States. Well, a person who predicts a nuclear war between Russia and United States would know a thing or two about paranoia…)
Central to Umland's narrative is his assertion that in the 1990's, Russia enthusiastically embraced "the Western value system and partnership." However, "with the beginning of Vladimir Putin's rise in 1999", Russia's views of the United States began to continuously deteriorate.
To prove his point, Umland invokes poll data collected by the Levada Center. Here is how he flies his numbers:
"Whereas in a poll conducted by Russia’s leading sociological survey agency, the Levada Center, in July 2000, 69 percent of the respondents said that they had a “very good” or “mainly good” opinion of the United States, by July 2008 this number shrank to 43 percent. In the same period, the number of those with a negative or very negative view of the United States rose from 23 percent to 46 percent."
(Frankly, it's a mystery to me what is so magic about these numbers. Why should the "shrinking" of a favorable opinion of the United States in Russia to 43 percent necessarily indicate that the two countries are moving to the brink of a war? A year ago, I discussed a Pew Research Center report showing that over the period between 2000 and 2006, the favorable opinion of the United States has dropped from 62 percent to 39 percent in France, from 78 percent to 37 percent in Germany, and from 50 percent to 23 percent in Spain. Following Umland's logic, in 2006, the United States was twice as close to a war with Spain than with Russia in 2008.)
As I argued a few months back, there are no reliable data whatsoever proving that, in Umland's words, "Russia's' views of the United States were deteriorating continuously" in recent years. A Levada Center's poll published in December 2007 (from which Umland apparently took his July 2000 numbers) presented the following numbers for the favorable opinion of the United States in Russia between 2000 and 2007: 69%, 65%, 61%, 57%, 58%, 57%, 51%, 64%.
And then, there is a VCIOM poll published in July 2008 that, too, addresses the issue of "rising" anti-Americanism in Russia. The poll asked essentially the same question, "What is your general attitude toward the United States?", and compared responses given in July 2003 vs. June 2008 (pretty much the same time period that Umland is talking about). In 2003, 48 percent of the respondents defined their feelings toward the United States as "very positive/generally positive" and 40 percent as "generally negative/very negative." In 2008, the numbers were 49 and 29 percent, respectively.
One would still want to account for the more than 20 percent (from 64 to 43) drop in favorability that, according to Umland, had occurred between 2007 and July 2008. The problem here is that it's not clear which of the Levada polls this number, 43 percent, came from. (Like many other Russia "experts", Umland doesn't have a habit of referencing the polling data he's referring to. I guess that gives him an opportunity to creatively interpret cherry-picked numbers.)
I thus had to do my own research. Of 18 reports published by the Levada Center in July 2008, none was tackling the issue of the U.S.-Russian relations. Nothing of the sort could be found among nine Levada reports published in June, either.
It was only in August that the issue of Russians' attitude toward the United States came back to the attention of Levada's pollsters. We all know what happened between July and August of 2008: the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia. We also know that the Russians overwhelmingly blamed the United States for supporting the aggressor, Georgia, in this conflict. It is also a well-known fact that the Russians were justifiably outraged by the biased coverage of the conflict in the American media.
Did it result in rampant anti-Americanism in Russia? Hardly. An August 11 Levada poll revealed that 48 percent of Russians believed that the United States threatened Russia's national interest (37 percent of respondents believed it didn't); 62 percent of Russians said that the United States interfered in Russia's domestic affairs (only 25 percent said it didn't). Yet, 22 percent of Russians felt positively "toward Americans" whereas only 18 percent felt negatively (58 percent took a "neutral" position).
Another August poll characterized U.S.-Russia relations as "friendly/good" (6%, <2% for Georgia), "normal" (16%, 1% for Georgia), "lukewarm" (39%, 9% for Georgia), "tense" (28%, 41% for Georgia), and "hostile" (8%, 44% for Georgia). Any indication, anyone, that the Russians are emotionally preparing for the nuclear war with the United States?
True, at the end of September, a poll showed that the favorable attitude of Russians toward the United States had taken a severe hit: only 23 percents of the respondents expressed positive views of the United States, whereas 67 percent expressed negative views. Such a high index of "unfavorability", -43 percent, was recorded by the Levada pollsters only once before, in April 2003, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, when 39 percent more Russians view America negatively, rather than positively.
The very same poll indicated that that the rise of negative feelings toward "foreigners" wasn't United States-specific: the indexes of "unfavorability" for parties the Russians considered "hostile" in the Georgian war — Georgia, Ukraine, and, to a lesser extent, the European Union — all have reached their historic low.
The temporary character of these trends became evident by the end of November, when yet another Levada poll recorded a rebound in favorable opinions of the United States: already 33 percent of the respondents viewed it favorably (23 in September), whereas 51 percent (67 in September) still held a grudge. There is every reason to believe that, having expressed the anger at the role the Americans played in supporting Georgia's aggression in South Ossetia, Russians are gradually regaining their usual, generally positive, attitude toward the United States.
(I haven't been following Levada polls recently, but took a note of the fact that in a January poll, "The Person of the Year 2008", president-elect Barack Obama took the sixth place, having become the only foreigner among the top ten.)
One doesn't have to be a political scientist, like Umland, to understand that the reckless foreign policy adventures of the Bush administration have resulted in a spike of anti-American sentiments all across the world. As the Bush presidency comes to an end in just a couple of days, hopes around the globe are that President Obama will reverse the disastrous course of his predecessor.
Russia is no exception. Far from gearing for the nuclear war with the United States, Russian political leaders, on many occasions, have expressed their willing to work, in a positive way, with the incoming administration. So far, signals coming from Washington, have been encouraging, too, as both Obama and the Secretary of State-to-be, Hillary Clinton, promised to pursue a cooperative approach towards Russia.
No matter how he picks and interprets his polling numbers, Andreas Umland isn't paranoid. He's got an agenda: he doesn't want the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to take place.