Polls show that Russian-US relations are running a high temperature, but what’s the diagnosis? Within Russia, there are many who actually welcome the global status that comes with a “Cold War.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev talk on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit plenary session Myanmar, November, 2014. Photo: AP / RIA Novosti

Data published by Gallup on Feb. 16 show a large rise in anti-Russian sentiment in the United States. Over the past year, the proportion of Americans who consider Russia as a critical military threat has increased from 32 to 49 percent, and, even more notably, for the first time in many years, Russia heads the list of America’s external enemies, ahead of North Korea, China and Iran. According to the poll, 18 percent of U.S. residents put Russia at the top of this “black list.”

Likewise, Russian attitudes towards the United States have also changed sharply for the worse. According to polling data from the Levada Center, on the eve of events in Crimea, Russian opinion was divided roughly down the middle, but by December 2014, 78 percent of respondents had a negative view of America.

Although this surge of mutual negativity is quite understandable, and still regarded by many as simply another temporary deviation from the norm, anyone with an eye on the swinging pendulum of Russian-U.S. relations (shifting from affection to antipathy and back again), would draw some rather disconcerting conclusions about the medium-term prospects for relations between the two countries.

Impassioned Russian anti-Americanism

The graph of Russian attitudes to the United States since the late 1990s marks four well-defined troughs: the bombing of Kosovo in 1999, the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and the Ukrainian crisis in 2014-2015. During the first three crises, resentment toward the United States grew rapidly each time, but then, literally within a few months, the situation returned to normal, and the favorable assessments once again outnumbered the negative.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Source: Levada Center 

The most recent Ukrainian downward spike has lasted longer than any before it and shows no signs of abating. But the most unpleasant statistical observation is not even its duration. The graphs show that the percentage of those disgruntled with America grew from crisis to crisis (53 percent, 66 percent, 67 percent, 78 percent) and, even more disheartening, each time the layer of Russian society bearing goodwill toward the United States “no matter what” became even thinner. In 1999, it accounted for about 32 percent of public opinion; in 2003 — 28 percent; in 2008  23 percent; and today cannot even scrape past 18 percent. The undecided respondents made up 15 percent in 1999, today  only around 4 percent.

The steady rise in disaffection with Russia since 2011

Unlike the unflinching rise in Russian anti-Americanism with every passing crisis, American attitudes toward Russia up to 2011 were more stable (but also with a downward trend). A cooling was observed in the same years and for the same reasons as in the Russian public opinion polls, but the crest of negative emotions never rose above 1999’s record level of 59 percent. The U.S. position has always drifted more smoothly back to normal after negative bursts, presumably because Russia has less emotional resonance with Americans than America does with Russians, for whom the country remains embedded in the national consciousness to this day.

 Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Source: Gallup

However, starting 2011, the graph shows an accelerating negative trend in attitudes toward Russia. By early 2014, the Kosovo-related peak had been surpassed, and by 2015 the number of negative assessments had risen to 70 percent (compared to 24 percent who maintained a positive attitude). Add in the fairly strong rhetoric of President Obama and other U.S. politicians on Russia, and the suggestion is that the confrontation is rising to a new qualitative level, which political and diplomatic means will struggle to quell any time soon.

The Cold War returns?

Pessimistic experts inclined to regard the current crisis in Russian-U.S. relations as a new Cold War have in recent months been handed many arguments to support their thesis. Perhaps the most obvious sign that the Cold War is on its way back is the gradual disappearance of even ritual lamentation over the confrontation with the United States from the lips of Russian politicians and experts.

For a long time now, the Kremlin has viewed confrontation with America not as a problem, but as a foreign policy asset, with the potential to attract like-minded supporters in the international arena. In particular, as during the traditional Cold War, Russian diplomacy is trying to play on anti-American sentiment in Europe to split the Euro-Atlantic bloc and restore sanctions-wrecked relations.

This focus on the Russian-U.S. face-off has been particularly evident since December 2014, after the sharp devaluation of the ruble and the (then) latest escalation in Ukraine.

As a result, only a tiny streak of liberals in the Russian elite will emit a sigh at the U.S. survey data. For the majority, they only serve as psychological confirmation of Russia’s greatness based on the principle of “fear equals respect.” In this frame of reference, the Cold War is not an evil, but the restitution of lost status, and therefore many in today’s Russia are becoming less afraid, and even welcoming, of it.

Cold War Lite

Still, many circumstances indicate that the current standoff between Russia and the United States does not match the Cold War in terms of scale. Public opinion polls cannot serve as the sole indicator of the level of antagonism, since what matters is not only the answers people give, but also the questions they are asked.

A famous Cold War-era study of U.S. public opinion by sociologist Tom Smith (1983) explored the changing perceptions of American and Soviet military and economic potential, the prospects for nuclear disarmament, and the activities of the U.S. Communist Party. It is remarkable that these and many other topics of critical importance for 1983 have lost all relevance today.

On the other hand, during the real Cold War no one would have thought to ask Americans who they saw as their main enemy — the Soviet Union had no worthy rivals to this title, at least from the 1960s onwards.

Nowadays many in Russia are pleased that their country has the capacity to startle the United States a fraction more than North Korea, Iran or Ebola. Instead of economic competition, Russians see a severe crisis and the structural degradation of the Russian economy. Implicit and explicit threats to turn America into “radioactive dust” sound in unison with the calls of radical terrorist groups, and do more to marginalize Russia than exalt it.

Both the survey data and the news from the field in Ukraine suggest that a new “hybrid” war between Russia and the United States is already in progress, but to compare it with the Soviet-U.S. Cold War would do an injustice to that truly mighty confrontation between two equal adversaries. The current events could be better described as “Cold War Lite.” This war will perhaps be no less fierce, but is unlikely to stretch over several decades.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.