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Russian Public Opinion on Nuclear Weapons and Security
March 15, 2000
Vladimir Orlov, PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia
Dr. Orlov's briefing shared the results and analysis of a Russian public opinion poll on nuclear weapons and security. The PIR Center initiated the polling project after recognizing the need for knowledge about Russian public opinion on nuclear weapons and security. In contrast to US polling efforts, this project is the first of its kind in Russia. The PIR Center has made a great contribution by starting the process and by creating the benchmark for future polls in Russia on nuclear weapons and security. Recently, the PIR Center added new questions pertaining to Vladimir Putin's role in the negotiations on nuclear issues.
The PIR Center has distributed the report to the Russian Foreign Ministry and other important Russian decision-makers. According to Dr. Orlov, on March 15, 2000, PIR Center representatives gave a briefing of the poll results to the Russian Duma. On March 16, 2000, the Russian Duma held a hearing on the ABM Treaty.
1) The existence of nuclear weapons; and
76 percent of Russians think that Russia needs nuclear weapons
- There were few differences in this response even when considering whom the respondents support politically.
- With exception, those respondents who support Grigory Yavlinsky had greater support for nuclear weapons in Russia.
Why do Russians think that Russia needs nuclear weapons?
1) To achieve superpower status;
2) To remain in parity/balance with the US; and
3) For deterrence.
47 percent of Russians support the first strike policy, which has been included in Russia's new nuclear doctrine
The majority of Russians fear the consequences of continued storage of nuclear weapons on Russian territory.
- 90 percent of Russians fear the threat of theft from nuclear weapons sites and nuclear power plants as a target for terrorists (This result is surprisingly high, considering that security of nuclear installations is much better now than in 1993-94.)
86 percent of Russians fear that nuclear weapons, if acquired by international terrorists, would be used against Russia
Russians indicated that they perceive no threat from Chechnya, just a general, constant fear.
75 percent of Russians think that the world is less stable, if the number of states with nuclear weapons increases
78 percent of Russians are against the sale of nuclear weapons technology and nuclear technology, if in violation of Russian international obligations
14 percent of Russians support sales even if in violation
National Missile Defense (NMD)
When asked about whether or not they have heard anything about the US's desire to create NMD:
- 54 percent heard about it for the first time
- 25 percent heard something about it
- 16 percent heard about it
- 5 percent haven't heard anything about NMD
Do Russians support ratification of START-II?
- 55 percent said yes (Taking into account the criticism of START-II by policymakers, this is a high percentage.)
- 25 percent said no
- 20 percent said it was difficult to answer
When asked if Putin should accelerate the pace of negotiations on nuclear disarmament, maintain the current pace, or abandon negotiations:
- 41 percent wanted Putin to proceed at the same pace
- 26 percent wanted Putin to abandon the policy of nuclear disarmament (This result was more than expected.)
- 17 percent wanted Putin to intensify negotiations
- 16 percent said it was difficult to answer
According to Dr. Orlov, most likely, Putin will listen to the 17 percent who want the pace of negotiations intensified.
Will Putin be able to defend Russia's interest in nuclear disarmament with the US?
- 69 percent said yes (The high percentage shows that most Russians trust Putin on this issue.)
- 23 percent said no
- 8 percent said it was difficult to answer
Q: Regarding the questions on Putin, is the 26 percent who wants Putin to abandon the policy of nuclear disarmament approximately the same group as the 23 percent who think that Putin will not be able to defend Russia's interest in nuclear disarmament negotiations with the US?
A: No, these are different groups. The 23 percent who do not support Putin mostly consists of hardliners. The group of 26 percent against nuclear disarmament include both those who do and do not support Putin.
Q: Have Russians really thought about these issues? Due to the poor social conditions inside Russia, do Russians really care about nuclear issues?
A: While 40 percent of Russians live below poverty level and social problems are a current priority for Russians, the PIR Center decided to proceed with the poll. The results obtained do not support the conclusion that Russians are not interested in nuclear issues. The low level of responses in the “difficult to answer” and “I don't know” categories indicate that Russians are interested in politics and nuclear issues. The remnants of the Soviet legacy may provide an explanation for the high percentage of Russians, especially those in the worst social situation, who want complete disarmament. Under communism, complete disarmament was one of the ideal goals. More educated Russians want Russia to keep nuclear weapons. They also speak more about details, such as deterrence and first strike.
Q: Would you elaborate on the group of 41 percent who support the current pace of negotiations on nuclear disarmament?
A: This group believes that negotiations are in a normal phase. The high percentage may be attributed to the fact that people are not aware of all the details.
Q: Did you correctly use the word “parity” when explaining why the majority of Russians support Russia possessing nuclear weapons? Do people understand the sacrifices necessary for Russia to maintain this parity?
A: Yes, “parity” means equal arsenals. Yes, the Russian people have certain sophistication in understanding the sacrifices to maintain parity. Russian respondents received a briefing on the basic issues and definitions prior to taking the poll. When asked how many nuclear weapons does Russia need, 32 percent said Russia needs the same number as the US, 26 percent said Russia needs more than the US, 3-4 percent said several hundred warheads, regardless of how many the US has. When asked whether Russia would be interested in symmetrical reductions, regardless of START-II provisions, the majority indicated that unilateral reductions are possible. Russians are more comfortable with the idea of parity, but do not forget that there is a group of Russians that supports complete nuclear disarmament.
Q: What are the perceptions of threat from other states? China? Islamic countries?
A: Russians think that the key threat is from the US and NATO, however, they perceive China, Iraq and Iran as threats.
Q: Why should we trust the PIR Center results? What is the reliability of the results?
A: The answer has two parts. One, regarding the changing views of Russians, the questions included in the poll were both non-comprehensive and comprehensive. Therefore, the questions are somewhat stable. Yes, current events will have an influence on responses, and most likely a negative influence. Two, the polling organization used is very reliable and professional. As in all poll results, there is an error margin. These results have an error margin of 2-4 percent.
Q: It seems surprising that 54 percent of Russians are unknowledgeable about the US's desire to change the ABM Treaty allowing them to build NMD. Why so many?
A: This is a surprising result, since the Russian media does publish about the NMD issue. This conclusion should be very helpful to Russian policymakers, make them aware that the Russian public does not know about this issue, and allow them to take this into account in the future. Perhaps the media does not properly generate the public's interest nor adequately explain the issue so that people can understand. When asked what Russia's response should be to the ABM issue, Russians said that it should be symmetric.
Q: Did you ask about Russians' attitude toward the possibility of importing radioactive waste into Russia for storage?
A: No, we did not ask, but maybe we should. We expect that Minatom will be receptive to the idea of importing nuclear waste. The PIR Center study concentrated on arms control and reductions. Russia has many good environmental groups, which could examine public opinion on nuclear waste imports.
Q: From the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article, why do 72 percent of Russians think that the US only implements provisions of nuclear arms reductions agreements that suit its best interest? Is this due to suspicion of the US?
A: This result was higher than expected and may be explained by recent events, such as, the Iraqi bombings, NATO enlargement, and Kosovo, which bring mistrust of the US. Even though there is mistrust, Russians still think that it is important to continue conducting bilateral meetings. Incidentally, the responses to this same question from the US perspective yield the same answers. That is, the majority of Americans think that Russia only supports nuclear agreements that suit its own goals.
Prepared by Jill Tatko
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