Could a U.S.-Russia 'Reset' Change Public Distrust?

Vladimir Putin gives an address on March 18, 2014.

While an improving tenor in official relations could lead Russians to warm to the United States, American public opinion may be more resistant.

At first glance, recent public opinion surveys in Russia and the United States paint a gloomy picture on the state of U.S.-Russia relations. Mutual favorability ratings are at their lowest levels since the end of the Cold War, and each public shows significant distrust toward the other. Some sobering numbers: Three in four Russians disapprove of the U.S. approach to international problem-solving, and 55 percent of Americans believe that relations between the United States and Russia are worsening. And that was before the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election, which the CIA believes to be true.

But could another “reset” and revived cooperation drive these numbers in the opposite direction?

Not so fast. While data show that an improving tenor in official relations could lead Russians to warm to the United States, American public opinion may be more resistant. Sustained news about alleged Russian hacking, Moscow’s safe harbor to Edward Snowden and Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal – in addition to Putin’s low favorability ratings among Americans – means that there will likely still be considerable bipartisan support in Congress for containing Russia.

The View from Russia

The Trump-Putin relationship probably means more to Russians than to Americans at this point, since Trump has yet to be inaugurated and his intentions for the world stage are still unclear. According to a November poll by the Levada-Center, the Russian public seems optimistic about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Sixty percent of Russians think Trump is a better president for Russia compared to 5 percent for Hillary Clinton. Of those Russians who favored Trump, 63 percent said he is preferable because he is friendlier to Russia than Clinton. The same poll found that 54 percent of Russians think that the U.S.-Russian relationship will improve after Trump’s victory. Russia’s political elite has also praised Trump’s victory. Upon hearing the news that Trump won the election, the Duma purportedly burst into applause. The day after the election, Russia’s two largest stock markets gained almost 2 percent.

Close personal connections have played a significant role in establishing trust between Putin and previous European leaders, such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French President Jacques Chirac. But some analysts advise caution in predicting the longevity of the Trump-Putin bromance. Georgy Bovt recently warned that the relationship could deteriorate quickly given Trump’s bombastic nature. Others are waiting to see Trump’s full cabinet because—as Dmitri Trenin recently emphasized—Trump’s inexperience makes his cabinet picks all the more influential. Evgeny Minchenko has pointed out that Trump’s secretary of defense choice, James Mattis, is no friend to Russia. However, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is a strong advocate of lifting the sanctions on Russia and improving U.S.-Russian relations.

The View from the United States

A change in U.S. leadership is not likely to reverse American distrust toward Russia, nor is it likely to appease American critics of Russian foreign policy. Despite Trump’s dismissal of Russia’s involvement, Republican senators Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio support further congressional investigations into Russia’s alleged involvement in trying to skew the U.S. elections, as do many Democrats. A Bloomberg poll conducted in August of this year found that 69 percent of Americans are bothered by Trump’s praise for Putin (42 percent bothered a lot, 27 percent bothered a little, and 27 percent bothered not at all), and 64 percent of Americans view Putin unfavorably versus 10 percent who view him favorably. Only 43 percent of Americans viewed increased Russian world leadership as desirable in the 2015 Chicago Council Survey. And Trump himself will likely enter the White House with a relatively low approval rating compared to past presidents, though his support, now at 47 percent, has risen somewhat since the election.