President Donald Trump has garnered a great deal of criticism in the United States for his performance at the summit with Russian Vladimir Putin. But how was Trump’s performance viewed by the Russian public?
Our analysis of Russian polling data collected before and after the summit suggests one outcome of this meeting was a significant rise in Trump’s personal favorability and image. However, the number of Russians with a favorable opinion of Americans significantly declined as a result of the summit.
The Russian Public Opinion Research Center, or VCIOM, asked a series of questions about Trump, the US and US-Russian relations on their weekly poll a few days before the summit. VCIOM repeated the same questions on a subsequent telephone poll of 1,600 respondents on July 18, two days after the summit. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
This repetition of questions on a second random sample of Russians allows us to carefully analyze the impact of the summit on Russian public opinion as if it was a “natural experiment.” In other words, the Russian respondents randomly surveyed prior to the summit are a “control group” against which we can compare the impact of the summit on the “treatment group,” or the Russians randomly surveyed after the summit. Our analysis tested for significant differences on poll questions and controlled for important demographic characteristics.
A safer, more caring Trump?
Just two days after the meeting, our analysis shows a statistically significant improvement in Trump’s image among the Russian public. For instance, the number of Russians who said they “really” or “rather” like Trump significantly increased from 10 percent to 14 percent.
In addition, prior to the summit, large percentages of Russians viewed the American president as “self-centered” and “dangerous.” Although these negative numbers remained high, there was a significant decline in Trump’s negativity ratings after the summit with the percentage of Russians labeling Trump as dangerous dropping from 58 percent to 51 percent. The percentage of Russians describing Trump as “self-centered” also significantly decreased while the percentage of Russians who viewed him as “strong” significantly increased by 3 percentage points.
Better relations ahead?
Trump’s overtures to Russia and dismissal of Russia’s active interference in the US election appear to have impacted how Russians see the US-Russia relationship. Prior to the summit, 39 percent of Russians believed the relationship would either “significantly” or “somewhat” improve after the meeting. This number significantly rose to 43 percent of Russians post-summit. Likewise, the percentage of Russians describing the relationship with the United States as “good” significantly rose from 34 percent to 37 percent post-summit.
Leaving the US behind?
But what about attitudes toward Americans and the image of the US more broadly?
What we found was surprising. The percentage of Russians who had a favorable opinion of Americans significantly declined after the summit — dropping 5 percentage points from 30 percent to 25 percent just two days after the meeting.
In addition, prior to the summit VCIOM had also asked Russians what traits they associated with the US. The vast majority of Russians viewed the US as “interfering with other countries,” “aggressive” and not “trustworthy.” On these and other traits that Russians were asked about there was no change after the Helsinki meeting. In other words, the Russians maintained their highly negative image of the United States.
Trump vs. the United States?
Why did Trump’s favorability and image improve, while opinion of Americans declined and the negative image of the United States remain unchanged?
The answer lies in two parts.
The first part is the widespread criticism Trump has received in American media and political discourse for his dismissal of election interference and American security agencies’ assessments of Russian culpability. Multiple polls conducted in the wake of the summit show that a majority of Americans disapprove of how Trump handled the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A plurality of Americans (45 percent) also believe Trump’s relationship with Putin is too friendly and not appropriate.
We suspected that how the summit impacted Russian public opinion would be largely determined by how the Russian media framed the outcome. As a result of the near-universal American criticism of Trump’s overtures to Russia and apparent friendly relationship with Putin, the Russian media framed the American people as unfairly attacking Trump because he wanted to normalize relations with Russia. This most likely contributed to some deterioration in attitudes toward the US and Americans among Russians.
The second part was the indictment of the Russian national Mariia Butina as a secret Russian agent attempting to infiltrate American policymaking circles. She was arrested on the same day as the summit. The Russian foreign ministry and the Russian media are calling the indictment “a political put-up job” aimed at “whipping up anti-Russia hysteria in the US.” The dominant narrative inside Russia is that this indictment is another example of Russophobia among the American people. They see it as an attempt by parties inside the US government to sabotage Trump’s overtures to Russia.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether a possible future visit by President Putin to the White House would result in further divergence in opinions about Trump and the US among Russians. If Putin is met with antipathy and protest by the American people while Trump plays the gracious host, then Russian opinion about Trump may further improve. At the same time, a strongly negative reaction by the American public to Putin’s visit may further worsen the image of the United States and Americans in eyes of the Russian public.
Erik C. Nisbet is an associate professor of communication, political science and environmental policy and faculty associate with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University and Olga Kamenchuk is an associate professor (clinical) & research associate at the OSU Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University