Mystification and Demystification of Putin’s Russia - Research Summary
- Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been rather unsuccessful since the annexation of Crimea in employing traditional soft power tools; i.e., in making Russia more attractive. However, it has been highly successful in a certain sense of sharp power; i.e., in creating the illusion of near omnipotence in influencing Western policy processes, changing electoral outcomes and replacing leaders. This mystification of Russia in the whole Western world is the greatest result that the Kremlin’s spin doctors might have achieved so far.
- Our research demonstrated that the vast majority of the Hungarian population tend to overestimate Russia’s military potential and its economic power compared either to facts or to the performance of the other countries, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary and China.
- Two-thirds of Hungarians overestimate Russia’s relative military expenditure, putting it frequently ahead of the United States and China - while the former spends ten times as much and the latter three times as much as Russia.
- Half of the respondents rank Russia in the top six among Hungary’s export partners and a further 31% estimates its rank to be between place 7 and 12, while in reality it was in 17th position according to data from 2017.
- There is a minority that massively overestimates Russia in nearly all aspects, albeit they still constitute a significant part of the Hungarian population. Those preferring Hungary to have closer relations with Russia are a lot more likely to overestimate Russia’s economic potential and its importance. These voters are overrepresented in Viktor Orbán’s ruling pro-Russian Fidesz party. Additionally, the voters of some opposition parties that often mention Russia’s rising influence tend to overestimate Russia’s economic potential as well.
- Therefore, the Kremlin’s information policy aimed at depicting the country as more powerful than it really is highly successful in Hungary, as the Hungarian population indeed overestimates the country’s military and economic potential.
- While this study focused on Hungarian public opinion, our presumption is that this is more of a general trend in the Western World. Results from Pew Research support this hypothesis: the relative majority of citizens on the globe think that Russia is stronger now than it was ten years ago.
- While a certain level of alarmism is definitely welcome about Russia, especially given the hybrid warfare it wages against the West, the flipside of this alarmism can be a vast overestimation of Russia’s economic and military potential - the largest sharp power success of Russia so far. While the Kremlin is not successful in painting Russia as a likeable country, it is indeed successful in painting Russia as stronger, bigger, and more powerful than it really is. In the context of information warfare, this false perception is definitely an asset that Russia can exploit, creating an admiration based on its perceived strength compared to the weaknesses of the Western world.
- To counter this tendency, politicians, policy-makers, pundits and journalists should talk more about the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, especially when it comes to its economic potential and ability to change political outcomes in the West.
The present paper is the summary of the research project entitled “Mystification and Demystification of Putin’s Russia,” which contrasts the views of the Hungarian population on Russia’s military and economic potential with facts. By combining public opinion polling and conventional descriptive research, the project intends to provide an innovative contribution to the ongoing academic and policy discourse on Russia’s power potential and influence.
Unquestionably, the impact and perception of Russia has long been a highly popular subject of study, particularly since the events that took place in Ukraine in 2014. There have been numerous research projects conducted on Russia’s power potential, Moscow’s global role and Russia’s military, economic and energetic power. Most recently, Chatham House’s Keir Giles published an extensive study on why Russia is set on a confrontational course with the West, entitled “Moscow Rules. What Drives Russia to Confront the West.” According to Giles’s analysis, Russia is unlikely to abandon its confrontational policy in its relations to the West as long as the composition of Russian elites remain unchanged.
Hungarian scholars have also published important works on Russia’s economic and military power. András Deák’s work on Moscow’s economic potential is a must-read for those interested in the topic, and the studies of Csaba Weiner and of the late Zsuzsa Ludvig can also be of similar interest to them. All three authors have also addressed economic relations between Russia and Hungary specifically. Zoltán Sz. Bíró’s article series on Russian foreign policy, published in the journal Nemzet és Biztonság, is of similar importance on foreign affairs, while Anita Deák, János Deák, László Nagy, and Krisztián Jójárt have published extensively on Russia’s military potential.
However, of course, it is not only the fundamentals what matter, but perception as well – especially in the context of hybrid warfare. Concentrated academic and policy attention has also been paid to public opinion on Russia. In the Central-European context, the Bratislava-based GLOBSEC Policy Institute has been conducting surveys since 2017 on the geopolitical and Russia-related attitudes of the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). Their last survey showed, for example, that in three out of the four Visegrad countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin is more popular than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The International Republican Institute did a somewhat similar survey on how the Visegrad populations assess the role and power of Russia, including the possibility of security cooperation with Moscow.
In Hungary, the Center for Russian Studies at the Eötvös Loránt University has been surveying the Russia-related attitudes of Hungarian society since 2006. Their surveys provide the sole available, long-term dataset on how Hungarian public opinion on Russia has changed in the last decade. Political Capital Institute also conducted numerous surveys on the topic, and wrote analyses on how people’s political party preferences affect their views on Russia and Russia’s role in supporting Hungary’s far-right groups. Moreover, the Global Attitudes and Trends project of the PEW Research Center is covering the Hungarian populations’ attitude on Russia, including the perception of Russia in general and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most recently, an overview was prepared by one of the authors on the Hungarian population’s attitudes towards Russia in terms of geopolitical orientation and political preferences. It shows that Russia’s perception have improved significantly since 2006 in Hungarian public opinion, and the change since 2010 is even more notable.
In the context of hybrid warfare and intensifying Russian attempts to project its sharp power in the Western world, the most crucial question is how successful the Kremlin can be in persuading the Western public that Russia is big, good and strong. Polls by Pew Research indicate that so far, Russia has been rather unsuccessful in the classical sense of soft power; i.e., in making Russia more attractive and likable. In fact, there has been a considerable decline in Russia’s perception in the West since the annexation of Crimea, with a few exceptions among EU/NATO member states (e.g. Greece and Hungary) and segments of the political landscape (voters of parties on the radical right). However, Russia (and China) can be successful in changing perceptions through other means; namely, sharp power. Using the sharp power toolkit, “they seek to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments of targeted countries,” which is what Russia seeks to do by exporting conspiracy theories. “This authoritarian influence is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation.” In line with this, some experts on Russia, such as Mark Galeotti, have the opinion that Vladimir Putin has been highly successful in one thing, namely creating the illusion of an almost omnipotent leader through generating a lot of discussion on Russian influence. In line with this statement, a recent Pew Research study found that a relative majority of the global population think that Russia is a more important geopolitical player than it was ten years ago.
Up to this point, no research we know of has combined the logic of descriptive, analytical Russia studies with public opinion polling, providing a reality check by comparing how the Hungarian population assesses Russia’s military, economic, geographical and social potential with Moscow’s actual power. Political Capital intends to use this assessment to contribute both to Hungarian and international research and public discourse on Russia. Additionally, our results will have important policy implications as well on ways to demystify Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Following a methodological introduction, the paper assesses altogether nine aspects of Russia’s power, structured into three main blocks. First, Russia’s military potential and readiness to use force gets contrasted to the Hungarian population’s perception of such issues. Second, the country’s economic strength, its importance in EU gas supplies and in Hungary’s export are analysed, while the third block assesses Hungarian public opinion on Russia from the geographic and human security aspects.
The paper follows an inductive and critical approach. Every part starts with assessing how the Hungarian population perceives Russia’s power in the given field. Thereafter, it contrasts their opinion with reality. During the project, expert interviews were conducted with Hungarian scholars, policy analysts and journalists covering Russia to enrich research results with additional details.
In sum, we found that the Hungarian public sees Russia as stronger, more populous, and economically more influential than it is. Studying the reasons of this discrepancy was not among the objectives of the project. While the interviewed experts provided some explanations, and we came up with some hypothesis of our own, this study did not ambition to assess them in detail. The question of why perceptions differ so much from reality has the potential to serve as the basis of a future project. Moreover, the replication of this research in other countries would be really important to check how widespread the mystification of Russia is.
This research, conducted between September 2018 and February 2019, would not have been possible without the generous support of the British Embassy in Budapest, for which Political Capital is particularly grateful. Our sincere hope is that this innovative research may contribute not only to the policy discussion on Russia but may also serve as an example for other countries to conduct similar projects that contrast the local public opinion on Russia to Moscow’s real power potential and importance for the given country. In addition, we are thankful for the experts we interviewed, who provided their take on the results and helped interpret the data. We are thankful for our colleague Patrik Szicherle as well, who helped to improve the text. All errors possibly remaining in the text are solely of the authors’ responsibility.
Overview of the methodology
As the main part of our research project, we commissioned a face-to-face survey (CAPI) to measure how Hungarians assess Russia’s military, economic, geographical and social potential. The poll was conducted by Medián in October 2018. 1,200 persons were interviewed, the sample is representative of the adult population in terms of gender, age, education and type of settlement. The margin of sampling error is +/- 2.8%.
The questionnaire was developed by Political Capital. We put various types of questions on the questionnaire. The most used variety asked respondents to rank the relative positions of selected countries according to their military, economic, geographical or social potential. The countries in focus are Russia, the subject of our research; China and the United States of America, world powers competing with Russia; Germany and the United Kingdom, major European powers; and Hungary. Besides these relative rankings, we also asked respondents to estimate the exact population of China, Russia and the US. Furthermore, we asked them about the perceived natural gas dependency of the EU on Russian imports and the perceived importance of Russia as a foreign trade partner of Hungary. In order to measure the active, hostile influence potential of Russia, we asked respondents to assess how conceivable it is that Russia spreads fake news and disinformation to influence the views of Europeans or that Russian spies secretly commit targeted liquidations within the EU.
The questions and tabulated distributions of answers in the total sample are available in the Appendix.
During the research, eleven expert interviews were conducted with policy-makers, analysts, academics, other Russia experts and specialists on security policy. All interviews were conducted in a semi-structured way, addressing all questions of the survey, but not necessarily in the same order.
As all interviewees, except for two, spoke on the condition of anonymity, it was decided not to mention any names or other information that would make the identification of any of them possible. Nevertheless, the authors would like to express their utmost gratitude to all the interviewees for their insightful comments.
The complete research summary is available here (pdf, 2 MB).
The results of this research were introduced on a conference held on 27/02/2019. Thomas Whitehead (Embassy of the United Kingdom to Budapest) and Peter Krekó (Director, Political Capital) opened the conference. The participants of the „reality check” panel on Russia’s power potential were James Sherr (Estonian Foreign Policy Institute/Chatham House), András Deák (HAS Institute of World Economics), Annamária Kiss (CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies), and András Rácz (Political Capital). The summary of the conference is available here. You can watch the full conference here.
Listen to our podcast where James Sherr, Péter Krekó and András Rácz discuss questions of Russia’s contemporary foreign and security policy.
 GILES, K.: Moscow Rules. What Drives Russia to Confront the West. Brooking Institution, 2018, Washington D.C.
 DEÁK, A.: A kéretlen integráció. A putyini Oroszország világgazdasági beilleszkedése, 2000-2013, Akadémiai Kiadó, 2017, Budapest.
 WEINER, Cs.: “Tracking Russian FDI in Hungary”, In: DEÁK, A. (ed.): The End of an Era in Eurasia? Conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Economic Downturn in the Post-Soviet Space. East European Studies, No. 6. Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, pp. 120–168, 2015, available: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2837232 Retrieved on February 4, 2019.
 LUDVIG, Zs.: Oroszország és a kibővült Európai Unió gazdasági kapcsolatai, Akadémiai Kiadó, 2008, Budapest.
 SZ. BÍRÓ, Z.: “Oroszország és a poszt-szovjet térség biztonságpolitikája, 1991-2014 (I.)”, Nemzet és Biztonság, 2014/3, pp. 41-54., available: http://nemzetesbiztonsag.hu/letoltes.php?letolt=607 Retrieved on February 21, 2019. Retrieved on February 23, 2019.
 DEÁK A. – DEÁK J.: “Az Oroszországi Föderáció fegyveres erői átalakításának helyzete, az abból levonható következtetések”, Hadtudomány, 2012/1-2., pp. 35-46., available: http://mhtt.eu/hadtudomany/2012/1_2/HT_2012_1-2_4.pdf Retrieved on February 23, 2019.
 NAGY L.: “Oroszország biztonságpolitikája, különös tekintettel az orosz-atlanti kapcsolatokra”, Hadtudomány,2018/1, pp.73-89., available: http://real.mtak.hu/77913/1/HT20181_75_91_u.pdf Retrieved on February 23, 2019.
 JÓJÁRT, K.: “Az orosz haderőreform értékelése IV. – védelmi költségvetés”, Nemzet és Biztonság, 2017/6., pp. 79-88., available: http://nemzetesbiztonsag.hu/letoltes.php?letolt=851 Retrieved on February 4, 2019.
 GLOBSEC Trends 2018, Globsec Policy Institute, 2018, Bratislava, available: https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/GLOBSEC-Trends-2018.pdf Retrieved on February 22, 2019.
 Visegrad Four Poll Reveals Vulnerabilities to Russian Influence, International Republican Institute, May 24, 2017, p. 31, 37-41, 47., available: https://www.iri.org/resource/visegrad-four-poll-reveals-vulnerabilities-russian-influence Retrieved on February 22, 2019.
 SZVÁK, Gy.: (ed): A magyarok orosz képe (2006-2016), Russica Pannonicana, 2017, Budapest.
 JUHÁSZ, A. – GYŐRI L. – ZGUT, E. – DEZSŐ, A.: “The Truth Today Is What Putin Says It Is” The Activity of Pro-Russian Extremist Groups in Hungary, Political Capital, April 2017, available: http://www.politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/PC_NED_country_study_HU_20170428.pdf Retrieved on February 22, 2019.
 Pew Global Research: Global Indicators Database, available: http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/27/survey/all/ Retrieved on February 22, 2019.
 KREKÓ, P.: “Russia in Hungarian public opinion”, TÁRKI Social Report 2019, pp. 358-371., available: http://www.tarki.hu/sites/default/files/2019-02/358_371_Kreko.pdf
 LETTERMAN, C.: Image of Putin, Russia suffers internationally. Pew Research Center, December 2018, available: http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/12/06/image-of-putin-russia-suffers-internationally Retrieved on February 22, 2019.
 Walker, C. (2018). What Is" Sharp Power"?. Journal of Democracy, 29(3), 9-23.
 See for example: Ilya Yablokov. 2015. ʻConspiracy Theories as a Russian Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today (RT)ʼ, Politics, 35 (3/4): 301-315. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-9256.12097. Retrieved 1 January 2018.
See also Political Capital’s research on conspiracy theories:
 Wilson, J. L. (2015). Russia and China Respond
 Walker, C., & Ludwig, J. (2017). From'Soft Power'to'Sharp Power': Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World. National Endowment for Democracy.
 GALEOTTI, M.: We need to talk about Putin: Why the West gets him wrong and how to get him right, Penguin Books, 2019.