Russia, the East and the experts
7 Jul 2017|

Professionals and experts are often heard with dissonance today. Two contrasting recent studies concerning European views on Russia shine a partial light on why that’s so. They also may point to future issues of strategic significance.

The RAND Corporation interviewed academics, researchers, and journalists from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Poland and Sweden, together with EU, NATO and US officials for its 2017 research report European Relations with Russia. The other study by the Pew Research Center, Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe, reported on a 2016 population survey of 18 countries, including Russia.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and interventions in Donbass and Georgia provided the context for the RAND study. RAND’s experts concluded, ‘Most NATO members bordering Russia regard it as potentially posing an existential threat and feel that this threat can best be addressed by the deployment of US and NATO troops on their territory.’ RAND’s conclusion that ‘Russia’s behaviour requires a strong response is widely accepted by most European countries’ seems to capture the position of expert and political elites.

The expert consensus highlighted proximity to Russia as central to threat perception and that Eastern Europeans saw the need for NATO troops on their territory as a priority. While Western Europeans emphasised illegal people movements and extremist violence over a Russian threat, the study also observed that ‘officials interviewed emphasized the critical importance of US leadership in NATO’.

The national security experts’ assessment of the existential nature of the threat was perhaps predictable. Russia was seen as the aggressor and the situation in Eastern Europe was a ‘crisis’. The consensus was that European relations with Russia has changed ‘irremediably’, tensions will continue, and Russia will need to change its behaviour to improve the situation.

By contrast, a majority of respondents to the religiously framed Pew survey agreed with the statement, ‘A strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.’ In the predominately orthodox countries of Armenia, Serbia, Belarus, Greece, Moldova, Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania agreement was high. Majorities also agreed in Catholic Croatia (50%) and religiously mixed Bosnia (55%). Notably, in Georgia, which has experienced a Russian military intervention, 52% of those surveyed responded positively to the question. Not surprisingly, 85% of Russians also concurred.

Substantial minorities agreed with the statement in Catholic nations Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland as well as in the religiously mixed or predominantly unaffiliated countries Latvia, Estonia and Czech Republic. However, overall there was a closer correlation between those respondents self-nominating as being of orthodox religion and the desire for a strong Russia.

Those results aren’t a simple rejection of the West. Except for Bulgaria, the majority believed working with the US and the West was in their country’s interests. However, the study also revealed that a preference for democracy was weak everywhere apart from Greece and Lithuania. In 11 of the 18 populations surveyed, less than 50% said democracy is always preferable to other forms of government.

A disconnect with other core European Union values emerged. Roughly half of total respondents agreed that there’s a conflict between their country’s ‘traditional values and those of the West’. Secularism, pluralism and multiculturalism have limited appeal in orthodox countries where 42% believe governments should actively support religious values and encourage belief. Pew results on moral issues mirror Russian orthodox positions—opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriage, and conservative views on the family, gender roles and gender equality.

Among the NATO countries surveyed—Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Latvia and Estonia—only in Romania and Estonia a did a majority believe NATO would intervene militarily if they got into a serious conflict with Russia. The survey revealed ‘widespread skepticism’ over the military commitment of the US.

The resurgence of the Orthodox church in post-Soviet Russia and its close association with the Putin government is well documented. While some view the Russian Orthodox church as Putin’s tool, the position is more complex. There is, however, a substantial overlap in their views on Russia’s historical role and exceptionalism. Pew found that, where there’s no national orthodox patriarch, most orthodox believers acknowledged the primacy of the Russian patriarch.

RAND’s experts gave no weight to the salience of the religious, moral and social world shared between Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. To the contrary, they assumed the legacy of Russian occupation and domination—from Czarist to Soviet times—was the primary factor in popular ‘perceptions of current relations with Russia’. The expert consensus was, ‘negative bilateral images persist in many of these countries at the popular level’.

The divergence revealed by these studies doesn’t indicate that governments in Central and Eastern Europe will fall because of differences over Russia. The domestic politics are too complex and particular for that. But Russia is well positioned to take advantage of, or manipulate, any serendipitous situation that arises. Putin’s Russia has the ability to leverage off the affinities with Central and Eastern European populations afforded by shared religious, moral and social values to its advantage and to the detriment of Europe.

The results show not only the cleavages in values in Europe and the lack of confidence in NATO and the US. They also reveal the outlines of a dormant Russian strategic advantage in the blinkered view of the experts. The views of elites and officials are well off the mark about the drivers of attitudes of many Central and Eastern European citizens toward Russia.

Elite misunderstanding could lead to political missteps. Therein lies scope for serious strategic miscalculation.