In 1956, Lord Ismay, Secretary General of NATO, formulated a task to “keep Russians out of Europe.” Today, such exclusion continues to be the main strategy of NATO countries. Many people who follow the state of affairs in post-Soviet countries may believe that residents’ perceptions of NATO are polarized, with Georgia and Ukraine—two countries where Western leaders came to power through “velvet revolutions”—on one side, and Russia and Belarus on the other. It is not a secret that Russia has reacted negatively to NATO missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, as well as to the idea of admitting the Ukraine and Georgia to the NATO alliance. 

Gallup World Polls conducted in 2008 and 2009 revealed that the situation is somewhat different. Gallup asked the following question in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region, which includes 10 CIS countries, associate CIS member country Turkmenistan, and former CIS member Georgia: “Do you associate NATO with the protection of your country, with a threat to your country, or do you see it as neither protection nor threat?” 

Attitudes Toward NATO in the CIS Region

Among all countries surveyed, Georgia, on average, has the highest percentage of residents (54 percent) who associate NATO with the protection of their country. Georgians’ views of NATO are nearly the mirror opposite of the views of Russians and Belarusians, among whom roughly one-half associate NATO with a threat to their countries. These differences largely reflect the overall weakening of Russian-Georgian relations that has occurred as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili pursued NATO membership and closer ties with the West. Relations, of course, reached their breaking point in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Notably, Georgians’ opinions about NATO in 2009 are relatively unchanged from what they were in the months before the war and the country’s subsequent withdrawal from the CIS.

Ukrainians’ perceptions of NATO, on the other hand, align far more closely with Russians’ and Belarusians’ opinions than they do with Georgians’ views. More than half of Ukraine’s population lives in the eastern and southern regions, where residents are traditionally oriented toward Russia. This orientation, in addition to their dissatisfaction with Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko’s pro-NATO efforts, helps explain the sizable 41 percent of residents who perceive NATO as a threat to their country. Ukrainians’ views, like Georgians’, remained relatively the same between 2008 and 2009.

As with Ukraine and Georgia, views about NATO across the rest of the CIS region are largely defined in terms of a country’s relations with Russia and its citizens’ sociocultural ties. Historically, Tajikistan has been oriented both toward its neighboring countries that share the Persian language (Iran and Afghanistan) and toward Russia, on which it depends for security and labor migration. The wars in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Russia’s constant hidden or open opposition to the United States, may influence Tajikistanis’ views of NATO—and hence the organization’s relatively low average protection rating of 9 percent. It is interesting to note, however, that the percentage of Tajikistanis who associate NATO with protection rose significantly between 2008 and 2009—from 5 percent to 18 percent—and potentially reflects their increased level of approval of the new US leadership (30 percent in 2008 versus 42 percent in 2009).

In Azerbaijan, a move toward modernization and integration into the world economy helps explain the relatively high 36 percent of residents who associate NATO with the protection of their country and the 9 percent who perceive it as a threat. Baku is moving toward closer ties with Turkey, an important and strong NATO member with which Azerbaijan has cultural and linguistic connections. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s economy is growing quickly because of energy projects that are in opposition to Moscow’s interests—for example, the Baku-Jeykhan oil pipeline. The North-Atlantic Alliance’s activity in the Middle East to constrain political Islam may also contribute to the stability of nearby secular Azerbaijan. 

Similar to Azerbaijanis, more than one-third of Turkmen (36 percent) associate NATO with the protection of their country, while 7 percent say it is a threat. Long-isolated Turkmenistan has traditionally had a close relationship with Russia but in recent years has reached out to the West and NATO. A few months before Gallup’s survey, Turkmen-Russian relations suffered when a pipeline connecting the two countries exploded and each side pointed fingers at the other. The fallout between the two allies may help explain the relatively high protection rating.

Changing Attitudes

In most countries surveyed, opinions about NATO did not change as dramatically as they did in Tajikistan between 2008 and 2009. Gallup, however, observed meaningful changes in seven out of 11 countries, which suggests that opinions in each country are somewhat soft.

In Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, citizens grew more likely to associate NATO with the protection of their countries in 2009. And while the percentages of residents associating NATO with protection did not change, residents in Armenia and Belarus became somewhat less likely to perceive NATO as a threat. Only in Kazakhstan did the percentage of respondents saying that NATO is a threat increase, from 19 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2009.

Perceptions in the CIS Region’s Major Cities

Since Soviet times, influence within a country has radiated from its major cities, since they have the highest concentration of resources, government structures, and businesses. This is particularly evident in Russia, where majorities in both St. Petersburg and Moscow view NATO as a threat. It is also particularly relevant in Ukraine, where opinions have recently been shifting in NATO’s favor.

Significantly more residents of St. Petersburg, Russia, (68 percent) associate NATO with a threat to their country than do residents of any other major city surveyed in the CIS region. There are several possible explanations behind this tendency. Perhaps people in St. Petersburg tend to associate themselves more with the leadership of Russia, who came from this city—the cradle of Russian revolution. St. Petersburg residents’ memories of the blockade during World War II and location of the Baltic Fleet may also play a role in the perception of NATO today. In comparison, a significantly lower 53 percent of those in “Merchant Moscow” perceive NATO as a threat. Elsewhere in Russia, far away from these major cities, Gallup found attitudes toward NATO that are more moderate. 38 percent of residents in the Ural Mountains and 47 percent of those in the Northwest view NATO as a threat.

Unlike many of their fellow Ukrainians and residents of other major CIS cities, residents of Kiev, Ukraine, are equally divided in their views of NATO: 30 percent associate NATO with protection while 31 percent see it as a threat. 

Among CIS metropolises, residents of Baku, Tbilisi, and Tashkent show the most tolerant attitudes toward NATO. In Baku, more residents perceived protection in 2009 than in 2008, a trend that may be attributable to the population’s higher education and residents’ increased awareness of NATO-sponsored programs such as education related to civil security in emergency situations. 

Age and Attitudes Toward NATO

In Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the Slavic core of the former Soviet Union, age is a noteworthy factor in respondents’ attitudes toward NATO. The older the respondents in these countries, more likely they are to associate NATO with a threat. Suspicion and lack of trust in NATO since Soviet times can possibly explain older residents’ attitudes, although these attitudes have become less hostile from generation to generation. Interestingly, age differences on this question were relatively nonexistent in other countries surveyed.

Sociocultural Differences and Attitudes 

Overall, the closer that Ukraine’s, Belarus’, Kazakhstan’s, and Kyrgyzstan’s regions are geographically and socioculturally to Russia, the more cautious they are of NATO—and the more likely their residents are to perceive NATO as a threat to their countries. These perceptions can be examined more closely by dividing the countries into separate areas of influence. 

In Ukraine, the data clearly reveal how distrust of NATO increases as one travels farther east and south in the country. Of the regions surveyed in Ukraine, the people most likely to perceive NATO as a threat are residents in the southern part of the country, which includes the Autonomous Republic of Crimea where residents have halted NATO’s planned training in the region on several occasions. 

In Belarus, where perceived threat is among the highest measured, there are stark differences by region. In eastern Belarus, residents associate NATO with a threat more so than do residents in western Belarus (56 percent versus 41 percent). The surveyed region in western Belarus included the capital, Minsk.

Kyrgyzstan’s northern region (Bishkek, Chuysk, Issyk-Kul, Narynsk, and Talassk regions) and Kazakhstan’s northern regions (Kustanay, Pavlodar, and North-Kazakhstan regions) represent areas where residents are sympathetic toward Russia. These areas in particular show a higher proportion of Russians, Ukrainians, and other native populations of Russia than in other regions of these countries. In fact, the south is more Muslim and more ethnically Uzbek, and its population is less oriented toward Moscow. 

Bottom Line

Citizens in Russia are not alone in their distrust of NATO, but the views of citizens elsewhere in the region are not nearly as polarized as many would expect, nor are they in the manner that some probably expect. 

In many countries, relations with Russia and the sociocultural closeness that residents feel toward that country and its people largely define their attitudes toward NATO. Thus, it would be imprudent for leaders in these countries to make public policy decisions about their relations with either Russia or NATO—and expect buy-in from their constituents—without taking this connection into account. Furthermore, because these opinions can and do change quickly—as is evident in several countries—it would be wise for leaders to continue monitoring the public’s pulse.

The way residents of the former Soviet republics view NATO as a threat or protection to their countries indicates the fundamental basis of this rooted suspicion. Perhaps this is why Russians continually remind themselves of Condoleezza Rice’s comment in 2001 during an interview with Le Figaro: “I will not repeat this often enough, the principal threat to the world today, in my eyes, is that a Russia with its back to the wall would let part of its nuclear arsenal fall into bad hands . . . I also know that at certain times the views of the Kremlin will conflict with ours.” 

Comments from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2009 suggest NATO is sincere about changing the perception of the Alliance as a threat, as he called for a new partnership between Russia and NATO. “Let me make a very clear statement as secretary general of NATO. NATO will never attack Russia. Never,” Rasmussen emphasized. “And we don’t think Russia will attack us either. We have stopped worrying about this and Russia should stop worrying about this as well.”

Gallup’s studies suggest that residents in many countries have not completely shut the door on NATO and that their perceptions may still be soft. So opportunities for outreach exist for both NATO and Russia in many countries, particularly those in Central Asia where citizens largely don’t have an opinion. 

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with between 1,500 and 4,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted between April and August of 2008 and between April and August of 2009 in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Russia. Results in Turkmenistan are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults in July and August of  2009. For results based on each total sample of national adults, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranges from ±1.8 percentage points in Russia to ±3.7 percentage points in Turkmenistan. Samples in Russia and Ukraine are nationally representative, with urban oversample. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.