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Nuclear Weapons: The Russian Public Speaks
by Vladimir Orlov & Ivan A. Safranchuk
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
January 10, 2000

For the first time, a public opinion poll reveals what the Russian public thinks about a wide range of nuclear security issues, from the start process to nuclear smuggling.

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The poll, “Examining Attitudes of Russians Towards Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Threats,” was sponsored by Moscow’s pir Center (Center for Policy Studies in Russia) and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute in California. Research was conducted by Fond Obshestvennoye Mneniye—a well respected, politically independent Russian polling company.

The survey, released November 16 of last year, polled 1,500 people in 56 localities throughout the Russian Federation. It clarifies how Russians think about nuclear weapons—including the role they play in world politics, their importance for Russia’s security, and how they might be used domestically by international terrorists. The results demonstrate that, as elsewhere, the public does not always agree with official government and military positions.

Big picture items

Russians generally valued the concept of nonproliferation, with 76 percent believing that the world would be less stable if more countries had nuclear weapons. Education level was a major influence on how respondents answered that question. For instance, 81 percent of those with a higher education said that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would decrease global stability, compared with 74 percent of those with a secondary education and 64 percent with only a primary education.

In the related area of nuclear arms reductions, 55 percent of those polled supported start ii ratification, with only 25 percent against. However, 72 percent believed the United States would implement only those treaty provisions of benefit to itself.

The answers to questions about U.S. plans to develop a national missile defense system (nmd) resulted in some of the most thought-provoking responses: 54 percent of respondents had no previous knowledge of U.S. nmd plans, 25 percent had heard something about them before, and only 16 percent claimed to be well-informed on the issue. When asked what measures Russia should take in response to a U.S. nmd system, 54 percent supported the development of a Russian nmd system, 32 percent preferred diplomacy, and only 8 percent supported a buildup of Russian strategic nuclear forces (the course of action declared most probable by Russia’s military and political elites).

Domestically speaking

Terrorism continues to be a big concern for Russians, and 86 percent of those polled expressed fears that international terrorists might use nuclear weapons against Russia. Only 10 percent thought that such an attack was improbable, and only 4 percent found it difficult to answer this question, indicating that the overwhelming majority of the population is concerned about nuclear terrorism. In contrast, 52 percent expressed concern about nuclear attack by foreign states.

Respondents were even more worried about sabotage of Russian nuclear facilities, including power plants and nuclear munitions storage sites. Ninety percent expressed such a fear. Granted, the poll was conducted after devastating explosions in Moscow and other Russian cities killed more than 1,500 people, but the fact that nine out of every 10 of those asked said that nuclear sabotage is possible demonstrates how great their fear is—and how little they trust official statements claiming that “all strategic facilities are under control.”

The vast majority, 83 percent, also thought it possible that fissile materials could be smuggled out of the country. Ordinary Russians, the poll revealed, simply do not buy assurances by senior officials, including the Minatom leadership, that there is no way for nuclear thieves to steal weapons-grade fissile materials from the country’s nuclear facilities.

It’s not just materials leaving their country that concerned the average Russian. Even when it might help their economy in a crisis, 78 percent of those polled were against transferring Russia’s nuclear weapons and technologies to other states if it contradicted Russia’s international obligations or domestic law. Our analysis of answers concerning international stability, nuclear weapons proliferation, and the transfer of Russian nuclear technologies indicates that even those respondents who believed in world stability based on the proliferation of nuclear weapons were against selling Russian nuclear weapons and technologies abroad.

Strength still appeals

A significant number of Russians continued to find comfort in their country’s nuclear weapons, with 76 percent of respondents supporting the wording in the Russian National Security Concept that says, “Nuclear weapons play a decisive role in providing national security.” Many respondents, 40 percent, believed that Russia would have a say in world politics if it kept its nuclear weapons; 37 percent supposed that other states wouldn’t dare attack a nuclear-armed Russia; and 23 percent presumed that nuclear weapons were necessary because the development of nuclear technologies promotes technical progress.

Twenty-four percent acknowledged that it is costly for Russia to maintain its nuclear arsenal, but 32 percent believed that Russia should have as many nukes as the United States. And 26 percent supported the idea of possessing even more nuclear weapons than their Cold War adversary.

Almost half of respondents, 47 percent, also thought that Russia should keep the right to first strike, which corresponds with the official government position. However, a large minority, 38 percent, held the opposite view, and another large group, 18 percent, found the question difficult to answer.

The vast majority did not want to see their nuclear weapons deactivated: 82 percent thought that Russia’s nuclear arsenal should be on active duty and ready for use, while only 12 percent believed that nuclear weapons should be kept in storage. At the same time, most of the respondents backed the concept of detargeting. Some 51 percent were sure that Russian nuclear weapons should not be targeted at any state.

Significantly, nearly one-fifth of respondents, 18 percent, believed that Russia didn’t need nuclear weapons at all, and Russians generally seemed to back the idea of complete nuclear disarmament. For instance, 57 percent of respondents thought that the world would be more stable if all nuclear weapons were eliminated. Respondents 60 years of age or older were surprisingly the biggest supporters of complete nuclear disarmament—67 percent believed that eliminating all nuclear weapons would contribute to international stability.

Politically speaking

People’s political preferences generally had very little impact on their answers. However, 85 percent of the supporters of Grigory Yavlinsky (leader of the Yabloko party, a 1996 candidate for the presidency, and a 2000 presidential hopeful) were more inclined than others to believe that Russia needed nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, those who voted for Yury Luzhkov (Moscow’s influential mayor and the leader of the Fatherland-All Russia political coalition) had the most pacifist intentions. Only 73 percent thought that Russia needed nuclear weapons.

Followers of Yevgeny Primakov (another leader of the Fatherland-All Russia coalition and currently the most likely competitor to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the next presidential elections) demonstrated their distrust of the United States in implementing nuclear arms reduction treaties. Most of them, 79 percent, said the United States would not act fairly in fulfilling international agreements.

The followers of Sergei Kiriyenko, former prime minister and a member of the right-wing Pavoye Delo bloc, were strongly against nuclear arms proliferation—87 percent were sure that the world would not be more stable if more countries possessed nuclear weapons.

The majority, 54 percent, of the adherents of Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party) believed that Russian nuclear arms should be permanently targeted at certain states. However, among the supporters of all the other politicians, only a minority shared this view.

It turns out that the supporters of Gennady Zyuganov (the leader of the Russian Federation’s Communist Party) gave the least backing to the idea of U.S.-Russian nuclear parity. About 23 percent of his supporters maintained that Russia should have the same number of nuclear weapons as the United States; 31 percent were sure that Russia needed more. Moreover, Zyuganov’s supporters accounted for the largest number of start ii opponents.

Vladimir Orlov is the director of the PIR Center in Moscow. Ivan A. Safranchuk is a research associate at the center.