What difference does it make what Americans think, anyway?
Almost 80 percent of Americans have little trust in president Vladimir Putin's handling of world affairs. That's according to PEW Research results released this August. Clearly, Putin does not have a good reputation.
I wondered how aware Russians are of their president's level of disrepute. To get some insight into that I asked a select group of Russians for their opinions. These are professionals from the fields of business, academia, and government.
This wasn't a scientific study with results that could be projected upon the Russian population at large. My interlocutors' comments were simply anecdotal and based upon their own personal experiences.
One participant, for instance, found that Putin is viewed very positively. He cited candid chit-chat with a Washington taxi driver who talked about Putin with greater respect than he ascribed to American politicians.
The cabbie wasn't just a lone voice on that. A Gallup poll from last December put Putin on the list of the most admired men in America.
By a 2 to 1 margin, though, my select group senses that Putin is viewed negatively in America. Those who seem most in touch with this issue are evenly divided on whether to call his image negative or very negative.
Some have a so-what attitude toward the negative feelings of Americans. "Right now, we are not very interested in the opinions of Americans," remarked one government official.
So I asked whether Putin's image in America serves Russia well. Here I found that almost no one believes that it does. But there is a modicum of uncertainty. One person from the field of academia remarked that "there is a clear controversy about this."
Any population's views of leaders is not static. It varies over time and is influenced by current events. I was interested, however, in how participants see Putin's reputation trending.
What I found is that twice as many think things are getting worse. Those believing things are getting better were already convinced he has a positive image. It's worth noting that I collected these impressions prior to the SU-24 shoot-down and before Putin's stepped up role in resolving the Syria crisis. Answers might be somewhat different today.
Despite the pooh-poohing of any relevance of American attitudes toward Putin, there is reason to consider the other side of that issue. American media consumers have readily believed denigrating stories that allege Russia has no real stake in solving the ISIS problem. Earlier they took in stride allegations that Putin was getting ready to roll tanks across Ukraine and into Poland or the Baltics. That paved the way for American initiatives to strengthen its military presence in areas Russia considers far too close. So in a very real sense the negative view of Russia's leadership leads to uncomfortable real world consequences.
With that in mind, I asked my select group how influential they believe the Kremlin has been in improving Putin's reputation in America.
A large majority think either there has been no positive effect or that the Kremlin hasn't even made an effort at all. One respondent explains, "The Kremlin doesn't think that maintaining good relations with the US is a top priority. That's why they're doing nothing about it."
Another person points out that "the American media plays a prime role in the perception of Putin in the US." He links that phenomenon with the fact that Russia and America are now pursuing divergent interests in the world. "That's why the American media are always screaming that Putin is evil," he said. And still another respondent commented, "The negative stories about Putin are nothing more than a propagandistic play for the hearts and minds of the American people, nothing more."
One discerning observer offered that "the United States and Russia are both promoting negative images of each other." That is actually borne out in another finding from the August PEW Research report. While 80 percent of Americans look down on Putin as a world leader, Russians think even worse of president Barack Obama. Nearly 90 percent have no trust in his handling of world affairs. You can draw your own conclusions as to what that means.
This all leaves open the question of who 's behind the omnipresent vilification of Putin in American news media. In 2011 I wrote a book titled The Phony Litvinenko Murder. It documents how the mainstream news story of Putin's complicity in the 2006 polonium death of Alexander Litvinenko was a fabrication. I tie the phony reports to a malicious campaign that was waged by Boris Berezovsky, the Russian outlaw oligarch who was hiding out in London at the time.
That was then, and this is now. And so the question is still open on who the present-day culprits are in spreading fallacious stories about Putin. For background on that one please see my earlier article "Who's Running the Defamation Campaign Against Russia?"
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