After 70 years of being told Nato was the enemy, most of the populations of the former Communist bloc continue to have mixed feelings about their former enemies – even if the geopolitics have changed radically.
Unsurprisingly the country with highest share of citizens that still consider Nato a threat is Russia, where 67% consider the military alliance is an enemy and only 3% think it is a protector, with the remaining 20% having no view.
Attitudes towards Nato in Russia have hardened rapidly over the last five years. Before the start of Russia's intervention in Ukraine in 2014 Russians were increasingly feeling themselves part of the global community and unease with Nato fell to only 38% in 2013, although even then most Russians were indifferent to it and only 11% actively thought of Nato as a protector.
Belarus remains unreformed and un-integrated so it is no surprise that Nato continues to be regarded with suspicion there: half (54%) of Belarusians view Nato as a threat, a 19-point jump from four years ago. Along with the Russians and Belarusians, more people in Kazakhstan (31%), Kyrgyzstan (30%), Moldova (27%), Armenia (20%) and Tajikistan (34%) view Nato as a threat than as protection. Indeed the only post-Soviet country that sees Nato in a positive light (apart from those that are now members or that have been attacked by Russia) is Azerbaijan –21% see it as a protector vs 16% that see it as a threat.
However, very surprisingly more Ukrainians see Nato as a threat (35%) than as a protector (29%). This is despite the war in the east with Russia and the government's very vocal rhetoric in favour of Nato, which opened a representative office in Kyiv in July.
Georgia is another country that has been victim of Russian aggression following a week-long war in 2008 and large parts of its territory are effectively still occupied by Moscow. Here the numbers are what you would expect – only 8% see Nato as a threat, which is on a par with Poland, but 37% see it as a protector.
Clearly attitudes are changing as a result of Russia’s military aggression and the populations of both Georgia and Ukraine have warmed considerably towards Nato in recent years, although in Ukraine it has gone a lot more slowly. Nevertheless, joining the military alliance would still be a very controversial decision amongst Ukrainians, quite apart from the response the move would provoke from Moscow.
Moreover, despite the annexation of the Crimea and fighting in Donbas, the support for Nato in Ukraine has actually been declining in recent years, according to Gallup.
“The view of Nato as a threat has increased in recent years [in Ukraine] after years of steady decline between 2008 and 2014. In 2014, after Nato sanctioned Russia after it annexed Crimea, Ukrainians for the first time were more likely to see Nato as protection (36%) than a threat (20%). However, the percentage viewing it as a threat shot back up to 35% in 2016 as the Ukrainian population has grown tired of the ongoing conflict between its military and Russian-backed separatists, as well as a poor economy and rising crime rates. Without a clear end in sight to the conflict, Ukrainians may be losing confidence in Nato's ability to help them in this crisis," Gallup said in a recent report.
Ukrainians are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the West, which they were hoping would ride to their rescue both militarily and economically. However, despite the warm relations and stirring rhetoric, life at street level has deteriorated significantly and the war continues, becoming a frozen conflict that has already claimed 10,000 lives. There has been no Marshal Plan nor blue helmets from the West.
The situation elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is very different. The highest support for Nato is in Kosovo, where 90% of the population see Nato as a protector and only 3% as a threat – as it really is a protector there. In Central Europe there is some residual uneasiness, with those seeing Nato as a threat hovering in the mid-teens in most countries, but 50%-60% see it as a protector.
Indeed, the only countries where more people see Nato as a threat than as a protector are Serbia (64% vs 6%), which is a long standing Russia ally, and Montenegro (29% vs 21%).