ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Americans’ views of Russia have plummeted to levels not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a newly released survey by the U.S.-based Gallup polling center.
The data say 52 percent of Americans see Russian military power as a direct threat to U.S. vital interests, and that a third identify Russia as the United States' arch rival, thereby displacing North Korea from the top position in Gallup's semi-annual ranking of perceived U.S. enemies.
The percentage of Americans who view Russia unfavorably also increased a single percentage point to 73 in the latest poll, a record high in Gallup's trends.
The findings follow a January 2018 poll by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center showed that two-thirds of Russians called the United States their main enemy.
Pavel Sharikov, a senior research fellow at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says although the latest results are a cause for concern, the outlook may not be as bleak as it seems.
"From my perspective, both Moscow and Washington have contributed to these numbers," he said, noting that numerous variables - from Western sanctions over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and accusations of meddling in U.S. elections, and the recent collapse of the INF weapons treaty - have sparked unprecedented levels of belligerent rhetoric.
"From the United States, there is a lot of criticism toward Russia, which Russian politicians take very seriously and very dramatically, and they react to this criticism" with escalated threats,” Sharikiv said.
"This sentiment in Russia [is] that it should remain a strong military power...the president's and generals' rhetoric about the Russian military being on the rise, about Russian weapons systems being so robust," he said. "This is also what leads to Americans perceiving Russians and Russia as a military threat. So these polls are a very big concern."
But general Russian public perceptions of the United States, Sharikov said, differ significantly from opinions held among the pro-Kremlin community. And a spate of recent polls in Russia, he added, indicate an increasingly positive perception of Americans.
"It used to be, a couple of years ago, the general Russian public opinion was that Russia and the United States are enemies, but I have looked at the recent polls of the Levada Center, and there has been a very clear trend toward a positive perception of the United States and Europe among Russians, especially among the younger generation," he said.
"For a very long time, the negative perception of the United States was very clearly related to a very high rating of President [Vladimir] Putin, so right now there is no correlation," he said. "And while President Putin's ratings are very dynamic - and, right now, it's getting lower - the general Russian public opinion is getting more positive toward the United States."
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says general public fears of warfare expressed by people polled on “both sides of the ocean” aren't likely to affect diplomatic ties in any significant way.
"Major political decisions are being made at a different level," he said. "Besides, the relations between the countries are already quite poor. It just doesn't help to improve the situation when ordinary people start thinking in a negative way."
Outside St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, where just days ago the choir sparked controversy with a performance of a Soviet-era satirical song about a nuclear submarine attack on the United States, locals appeared to be more nonchalant about the Gallup findings.
"This kind of published research just reinforces existing fears and biases and ultimately worsens relations," said one young St. Petersburg resident, an engineering student, who asked to remain anonymous.
"People will believe whatever they see reported on television and online," she said. "And, in Russia, what do they hear most about? U.S. political interference in other countries and sanctions. So of course they view the U.S. as a major enemy."
On the streets of Moscow, too, one young professional, a psychology professor, echoed the opinion that news reports loaded with mutually antagonistic statements by U.S. and Russian officials - not to mention myriad online media threads - largely exaggerate perceptions of reciprocal enmity.
"All this gossip about Russian aggression began during Soviet times, in the mid-20th century or even earlier, and it's never going to stop until people unplug from mass media," he said, rolling his eyes at the mention of Gallup and Levada Center polls.
"I guess you can perceive me as an enemy if you want, but you're perfectly safe to come have a drink with me if you like," he added, laughing. "Thirst can be a truly dangerous thing, right?"
One Moscow-based American largely echoed that sentiment, emphasizing interpersonal connections over international relations.
"I think these polls are asking too general of a question and most people are totally politically incompetent," said Robert, who chose to withhold his last name. "I think everyone should have a voice and democracy is a necessity but international politics isn’t a simple thing, and even experienced politicians can’t understand a lot of it - too many moving parts and cultural misunderstandings."
Adding that he believes Russia and the United States are mutual enemies at the national level, he sees most of the conflict unfolding in geopolitical proxy disputes in places such as Syria.
"As an expat in Russia, and former expat in China and Cambodia, I don’t feel distrust or angst from locals, although they would have logical reason to feel it," he said. "I feel different from the locals, of course, but my connection with them is on a personal level, not a political one. They realize and I realize, too, that governmental decisions are far, far removed from individual people themselves, especially in non-democratic countries like those I’ve lived in.
"I’ve spoken with people about politics in each of these countries and every one of them has shared my feelings of people connections, not political connections, between individuals," he added.
Gallup conducted the poll among 1,016 Americans living in all 50 states between Feb. 1 and Feb. 10.
Olga Pavlova contributed to this report from Moscow.