A new poll shows that a majority of Russians still support the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, but far fewer back any similar move toward the parts of the war-torn eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk held by Russia-backed separatists.
The survey, conducted jointly by Moscow's Levada Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and released on April 3, also shows a clear majority of Russians saying that Moscow's international policies have worsened the country's economy and standards of living.
Since the 2014 seizure of Crimea, Russians have largely been supportive of President Vladimir Putin's decision, support that's been bolstered in part by state TV propaganda. But that backing has slipped as Russia's economy has faltered, and the costs of Crimea's integration into Russia have climbed.
The Levada-Chicago Council report found that in March 2015 -- a year after the annexation -- around 70 percent of Russians polled thought the annexation was a positive thing for the country. That figure slipped to 59 percent by August 2015, as world oil prices dropped precipitously and the effects of Western economic sanctions began to be felt, putting a brake on Russia's economy.
Support rebounded by March 2018 to levels comparable to three years earlier, but then slipped in February 2019 to 62 percent, according to the poll.
The survey also asked Russians whether they supported a similar annexation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Russia-backed fighters have been battling Ukrainian forces since April 2014 and now hold parts of both provinces, including their administrative centers. More than 13,000 people have died in the fighting, and more than 1 million have been displaced.
An overwhelming majority said that the separatist-held areas should not be part of Ukraine: 29 percent supported annexation, and 46 percent said they should be independent states. Just 13 percent said they should remain part of Ukraine.
Though Russia's relations with the West had been worsening for some years prior, the Crimea annexation tipped relations into near outright hostility. The Levada-Chicago Council poll found that a clear majority of Russians, 58 percent, thought Kremlin foreign policy had worsened the state of the economy, and 64 percent said it worsened living standards.
Strong majorities, however, said those policies had improved the state of Russia's armed forces and international influence, while just a small plurality, 44 percent, said they had improved Russia's international image.
The survey, conducted between February 14 and 20, polled 1,613 Russians 18 years and older, in face-to-face interviews in eight regions of the country.
The poll's margin of error is 3.4 percentage points.
A similar survey conducted last month by the state-funded Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) found that a majority of Russians thought Crimea's annexation was either wholly good or both good and bad for Russia. However, the poll also found that younger Russians -- between the age of 18 and 30 -- were decidedly less sanguine about the benefits.
One of Russia's only independent polling organizations, Levada has in recent years come under increasing pressure from authorities unhappy with its closely watched surveys.
In 2016, the center was labeled a "foreign agent" under a law aimed at reducing what the Kremlin considers to be foreign influence on Russian public lift. The Justice Ministry announcement said the move was made because Levada had received some financial support from a U.S. university. Levada and the Chicago Council also published joint polls that surveyed Russians and Americans on their views of each other's country.
Large majorities of Russians and Americans said they believed the United States and Russia were more rivals than partners, but in the United States, the number of Americans who said Russia was a threat to U.S. security has doubled in 2017, from 18 percent to 39 percent.
The poll also found that the number of Americans who felt Russia tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election had risen only slightly since 2017, from 61 percent to 66 percent.
That portion of the poll was taken prior to the release of a four-page summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's two-year investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign.
Congressional Democrats are fighting to get a hold of the entire 400-page report that Mueller submitted to the Justice Department.