WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Russia’s image took a hit worldwide after it invaded Ukraine in 2022, according to a recent Gallup report, including in post-Soviet states that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.
Quick Summary: Since 1991, Russia has sought to regain preeminence over countries that formed the Soviet Union. To expand its influence, Russia has employed various carrots and sticks that include soft power -- such as diplomacy and an emphasis on commonalities in history, culture and language -- as well as more coercive means such as the spread of disinformation and economic or military pressure.
For President Vladimir Putin and other Russian nationalists, the idea of a “privileged” sphere of influence among post-Soviet states is crucial to the perception of Russia as a great power.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its image has suffered significantly across many, but not all, post-Soviet states. Here are five key takeaways from Gallup’s 2022 data on approval of Russia’s leadership in those countries.
1. Overall, approval of Russia’s leadership fell sharply among most of Russia’s neighbors between 2021 and 2022. In countries that have been generally skeptical of Russia’s leadership in recent decades -- Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states -- the gap between the lower percentage who approve and the higher percentage who disapprove has turned into a chasm.
In four countries historically sympathetic to Russian leadership -- Armenia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan -- the percentage who disapprove now exceeds the percentage who approve. For example, approval of Russian leadership in Armenia dropped 13 percentage points (from 45% to 32%) between 2021 and 2022, while disapproval rose 20 percentage points (from 38% to 58%).
Although disapproval rose and approval fell in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the magnitude of those shifts was less pronounced. Views of Russian leadership remained highly favorable in both countries in 2022.
2. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine affected views of Russia’s leadership across post-Soviet countries more than the 2014 conflict did. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and support for separatist territories in the Donbas in 2014 precipitated marked declines in approval of Russia’s leadership among Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians. In those countries, the gap between the approval and disapproval trends persisted through 2021, only to grow even larger in 2022.
Though the Russian occupation of Crimea and support for separatist territories did not appear to have much effect on perceptions of Russia’s leadership in the other post-Soviet countries, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine precipitated significant changes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Moldova. For instance, more than twice as many Azerbaijanis in 2019 approved of Russian leadership as disapproved (60% and 27%, respectively). In 2022, the opposite held: 23% approved and 46% disapproved.
Multiple line graphs. Approval/Disapproval of Russian leadership in 11 countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Trends are from 2006 to 2022 in all cases. Approval has dropped and disapproval has grown in all of the 11 countries since 2014 except Uzbekistan (where it remains above 50%); approval has dropped but remains above 50% in Kyrgyzstan; in all other countries, in 2022, approval is below 50%. Approval has dropped to close to 0% in Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia and Georgia in 2022.
The likely reasons that this shift occurred in 2022 but not in 2014 are somewhat unique to each country.
First, the violation of territorial sovereignty in Ukraine, the thin justification for the land grab, and the magnitude of violence are fertile grounds for concern, particularly in countries with their own ethnic divisions.
- In Moldova, Russian peacekeepers remain in the breakaway region of Transnistria, which runs along the Ukrainian border. Moldovan leaders worry that Russia may attempt to connect this territory if it succeeds in defeating the Ukrainian army.
- In Kazakhstan, a large ethnic Russian population lives in the territory bordering Russia. This causes perennial concerns that its residents may be more sympathetic to Russia. Some Kazakhstanis may also continue to resent the Russian-led intervention in early 2022 that helped put down a countrywide uprising sparked by a huge rise in oil prices.
Second, the focus on Ukraine has distracted Russia from its traditional role as regional power broker and chief mediator. That effect is most visible in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Russia historically acted as a stabilizing force in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The largest shift in perceptions of Russian leadership occurred after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
More broadly, leaders in these countries may see an opportunity to carve greater autonomy from a less engaged Russia, and the populations may be reflecting domestic elite messaging.
Importantly, the post-Soviet region is far from monolithic, and the turn against Russian leadership did not occur everywhere to the same degree. For example, while approval fell substantially in Kyrgyzstan, residents are still much more likely to approve (63%) than disapprove (30%) of Russian leadership. In Uzbekistan, the shift was even more muted, with approval falling from 69% to 63%.
3. People who identify as ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, Estonia and Latvia -- the countries with the largest such groups as a percentage of the national population -- are increasingly rejecting Russia’s actions.
The concept of “Russkiy Mir” (which translates literally as “Russian world”) refers to the set of linguistic, cultural and historical ties -- a Russian heritage -- shared by people spread across the post-Soviet space. Russian nationalists believe they have an important mandate to protect this diaspora population from perceived threats. A central justification for invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 involved the false claim that Ukraine was committing atrocities against ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
In 2022, for the first time since Gallup began collecting data in 2005, more self-identified ethnic Russians disapproved than approved of Russia’s leadership in Estonia (53% and 14%, respectively) and Latvia (49% and 14%, respectively). In Kazakhstan, self-identified Russians remained more likely to approve (47%) than disapprove (37%) of Russian leadership, but this 10-percentage-point difference in 2022 was much smaller than the 42-point difference in 2021.
Multiple line graphs. Approval/Disapproval of Russian leadership among Russian and non-Russian residents of Kazakhstan, Estonia and Latvia. Trend from 2007 to 2022 in all cases. Approval of Russian leadership among ethnic Russians has trended downward in all three countries since the mid-2010s, with slightly less than 50% approving among ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan in 2022, while in Estonia and Latvia, approval has dropped to 14% in 2022. Meanwhile, among non-Russians, approval has dropped to near 0% in Latvia and Estonia, and to just above 20% in Kazakhstan.
4. Fewer people living in the countries with the largest Russian diasporas per capita -- Kazakhstan, Latvia and Estonia -- are identifying as Russian. This decline became more apparent across all three countries in 2022.
Between 2007 and 2009, roughly three in 10 residents identified as Russian in Kazakhstan (33%), Latvia (30%), and Estonia (29%). In 2022, people identifying as Russian nationality declined to 15% in Kazakhstan, 19% in Latvia, and 21% in Estonia.
5. Russia’s diminished stature in its own sphere may leave space for other superpowers -- such as the U.S. and China -- to gain influence in the region. Approval ratings in the Baltic states and especially in Ukraine show U.S. leadership has gained greater favorability relative to Russian and Chinese leadership.
Declining approval of Russia’s leadership in Armenia has been accompanied by sizable increases in favorability toward both the U.S. and China.
In Kazakhstan, Moldova and Azerbaijan, however, views toward U.S. and Chinese leadership remain largely steady despite the sharp decline in favorability toward Russia. The two post-Soviet countries where approval of Russian leadership still far outstrips U.S. and Chinese leadership are Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Multiple line graphs. Mean approval minus mean disapproval of U.S., Russian, and Chinese leadership among 11 countries that are geographic neighbors to Russia and formerly part of the U.S.S.R. These include Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Uzbekistan. Trends are from 2006 to 2022 in all cases. In most cases (exceptions are Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), net approval has fallen below zero, and there has been a steep decline in 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Approval of Russia in 2022 was higher than of China or the U.S. in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and it was about the same for all three countries in Moldova and Kazakhstan, but in all other countries, approval of Russia was lower than approval of the U.S.
Many observers believe a “great game” in terms of jockeying for power and influence is underway in post-Soviet countries, especially in Central Asia. Such analysis often characterizes this game as a zero-sum contest that Russia is currently losing. While there are signs this may be happening in some countries, the picture appears somewhat mixed, at least from the perspective of the “soft power” represented by public opinion of Russian leadership.
However, the general conclusion from Gallup’s 2022 leadership ratings is clear: In much of the region where Russia’s power and influence are greatest, its actions have seriously eroded its status and prestige. This seismic shift in public opinion may signal the twilight of Europe’s last empire.
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