A Russia-backed rebel in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday. Russia has used “hybrid war” tactics to mask its operations there. Credit Mstyslav Chernov/Associated Press

A Russia-backed rebel in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday. Russia has used “hybrid war” tactics to mask its operations there. Credit Mstyslav Chernov/Associated Press

It’s disappointing when Western news media promulgate Russian polls touting the unbelievably high popularity of President Putin as if it was a true reflection of Russian sentiment.  But to see one of the most respected US pollsters add credibility to such questionable results is perverse.

Why should we in the West promote Russian propaganda?

The pollster in question is Pew Research.  It recently conducted an 11,116 person, multi-nation study of public attitudes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In its questions, the poll euphemistically referred to the invasion as “the situation involving Russia and Ukraine”.  That’s a bit like calling the terror invasion of ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East as “the situation involving Sunni and Shia Muslims”.  To date the “situation” has claimed more than 6500 Ukrainian lives. Russian military losses are about 2000 KIA.

Polling was conducted in Russia, Ukraine, the USA, Canada and several EU countries including Germany, France, UK, Italy, Poland and Spain.  Study results were carried by some of the most influential Western news outlets including the  New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, BBC News, and Financial Times, among others.

Among its many findings, the study “confirmed” the extravagant popularity accorded President Putin by Russian pollsters like Levada.

For example, Pew reported that:

  • 88% of Russians have confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs
  • 83% approved of the way he was handling Ukraine

But what exactly did Pew confirm?

The methodology used to produce the Levada numbers has come under question as being biased and unreliable.  Similar influences, described below, cast doubt on the Pew poll.

Pew itself noted its methodological concerns of sampling in Ukraine. It decided not to poll in Crimea because “the survey was too politically sensitive to conduct in Crimea” (page 7).  Strangely, Pew had no such politically sensitive qualms for polling in Russia.  In fact, if anything, the political situation in Russia as it related to Ukraine is at least as sensitive as in Crimea.

Russian sensitivity about Ukraine was precipitated by two factors: state propaganda and fear.

The propaganda was channeled through national media (most effectively television) that had been coerced to do the state’s bidding. If a person didn’t know the facts about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it would be difficult to find out from local media.  Theirs would be an alternate reality created by the propaganda.

If on the other hand, a person knew things that conflicted with state propaganda, he or she would be fearful of sharing this with unknown poll interviewers. (Political opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was not fearful of voicing criticism of Putin and that got him killed.) This self-censoring behavior was observed by the German social scientist Margaret Noelle-Neumann who named it “the Spiral of Silence“.

In short, it doesn’t matter who polls in Russia.  Regardless of whether it’s the American Pew or the Russian Levada, the polling environment in Russia is toxic.  Polls there primarily measure the effectiveness of state propaganda.  Somewhere, hidden below the surface, lies real public opinion.

Perhaps the one question that best demonstrates the absurdity of polling politically contentious issues in Russia was the response to how Putin was handling corruption.  The Pew survey found 62% of Russians approved of his handling of corruption.

Here are some facts about Putin’s “handling of corruption”.

  • He started working with the Russian mob laundering their money when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. His mob connections continued when he became head of FSB (formerly the KGB) during which time he made at least 37 unofficial visitsto meet Russian mafia leaders operating in Spain.  Details of this tawdry past are emerging in the British government’s inquiry of the assassination of former FSB spy Alexander Litvinenko allegedly by the FSB on orders from Putin.
  • Through legal chicanery, he stole the giant Yukos oil company from its rightful owners and delivered it for safekeeping to his crony oligarchs.  Recently, the courts in the West have awarded shareholders a $50 billion settlementfor their loss.
  • Billions of dollars are unaccounted from the $51 billiontaken from the Russian treasury to build facilities for the Olympic winter games in Sochi.  The major contractors were Putin cronies.  The previous winter games in Vancouver cost $8.7 billion.

It’s not surprising that Putin has become a wealthy man from these activities.  While the precise figures are highly debatable due to the financial secrecy surrounding Putin and his inner circle, it has been estimated that from a personal worth of $40 billion in 2007, Putin’s current worth lies in the vicinity of $200 billion.  While some would argue that being the world’s most powerful dictator money is irrelevant, $200 billion is a telling measure of just how much power Putin wields. What’s not debatable is that on an admitted salary of well under $200,000 per year, wealth in the billions is not the result of being a good saver.

With credentials as sterling as these, no Russian should have any confidence in how Putin handles corruption.

Either through ignorance or by choice, Russians were not in a position to accurately answer the question on corruption. The 62% approval is clear testament to that.

But it’s not only in Russia that corruption is a monumental problem.  It is also the case in Ukraine. When Pew asked Ukrainians how their President, Petro Poroshenko, was handling corruption, the response was strikingly different — only 27% approved.

Again, let’s examine the polling context.

In Ukraine, Poroshenko can’t scratch his nose without being criticized.  Unlike Russia, Ukraine has a vibrant, competitive free press.  Every government official is subject to criticism.  Exposés of corrupt practices and officials are an everyday occurrence.  The police, the court system, public contracting tenders, the oligarchs – no one is spared.  Civil society is engaged in rooting out corruption.  It is, after all, why the Maidan revolution happened.  Ukrainians understand that it’s a cancer that needs to be excised or else the country has no future.

Unfortunately, with a war in the East and the economy in shambles, progress against corruption is slower than everyone would like. Hence the low 27% approval of Poroshenko’s efforts.  In light of what is going on in the country, this figure makes sense.  In the absence of propaganda, the figure of 27% is (arguably) more indicative of how few Russians truly approve of Putin’s efforts to deal with corruption than Pew’s 62% approval.

The impact of state propaganda in influencing Russian public opinion was not limited to corruption. It was apparent in every dimension queried by the Pew poll.

The rise of antipathy towards the West was particularly striking.

Pew found that between 2010 and 2015, favorable opinion among Russians towards United States, European Union, and NATO decreased dramatically.

  • Russians favorable to the United States — decreased from 57% to 15%
  • Russians favorable to the European Union — decreased from 69% to 31%
  • Russians favorable to NATO — decreased from 40% to 11%

During this time period, there were no unprovoked anti-Russian policies or programs initiated by any of these parties.  In fact, most in the West almost forgot that NATO even existed.  Economic sanctions against Russia came only after its invasion of Ukraine.

So what prompted this propaganda deluge?

The anti-West sentiment was created to justify, in part, Putin’s imperial ambitions in his unprovoked invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory. A popular revolution against the corrupt Yanukovych government becomes a fascist, anti-Russian coup engineered by the US.

It also helped deflect the attention of the Russian public from the country’s flagging economy (well before the drop in oil price and the economic sanctions) and Putin’s efforts to expand his dictatorial powers internally.

But for the most part the intent of the propaganda, as forcefully chronicled in Anne Applebaum’s review of Karen Dawisha’s book “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?”, was to mask the criminal activity of Putin and his KGB cronies to steal the Russian state from its citizens.

The bottom line is we truly have no idea what genuine opinion of Russians is on issues that are critical to the West’s understanding and response to Putin’s aggressive military posturing. These opinions have been driven below the surface making them immune to polling.

To pretend its poll is revealing what Russians are really thinking, Pew is guilty of what might be called polling hubris. We know polls have pretensions of being scientific. But in Russia, propaganda has poisoned the well.  Polls cannot do what they are designed to do.

On its part, Western news media should be ashamed for being so uncritical in accepting these findings as gospel. Have they forgotten the first commandment of journalism — independently verify a source (hint: it’s not by citing similarly flawed polls)?

There is also the matter of influence.  Because it’s a prestigious US polling firm, Pew polls carry far more weight among journalists, policy makers, and Western leaders than, say, a Russian outfit like Levada. Showing Russians support Putin internationally in his military adventurism and internally in his efforts against corruption is a terrible abuse of polling and is harmful to the efforts of Western democracies to form a united front against Russian aggression.

So if you’re listening Pew, stop doing your Russian polls. They’re not helpful.

And if you’re a journalist — stop aiding Russian propaganda by relying on polls that merely corroborate the effectiveness of the propaganda and start paying attention to the social environment in which the polls are taken.

By Oleh Iwanyshyn, for National Newswatch

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved in public opinion polling since the mid-70s, first with the Institute for Behavioral Research at York U niversity, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and more recently with ViewStats Research, a company he cofounded in 1997.  He writes on the role of public opinion polls in matters of politics and public policy.  His articles have appeared in iPolitics, The Hill Times, and National NewsWatch. For more, see his blog poll stuff.