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Al-Monitor/Premise poll: Russia's role seen as negative in Turkey, Yemen, Iraq

The Russian invasion of Ukraine hurt the region economically, as supply chain disruptions and food shortages topped respondents concerns in Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on September 30, 2022. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — One year after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s image has taken a hit in Turkey, Yemen and Iraq, according to the latest Al-Monitor and Premise Data poll released on Thursday.

The poll shows that supply chain issues and the interruption of Russia's and Ukraine’s wheat exports have severely impacted the region, particularly Egypt, which received 80% of its grain from Russia and Ukraine before the conflict. 

The poll conducted in Turkey, Yemen and Iraq offers insights into the implications of the war in the Middle East region and the changing perceptions of the Kremlin even in Egypt, a historic ally of Moscow.

The poll of 4,435 respondents was conducted between Dec. 15, 2022, and Jan. 10, 2023, across five countries: Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen. The margin of error is +/- 3-4%.

In Turkey, Iraq and Yemen, Russia is proportionally seen more negatively than positively by the population. In Turkey, 39% of people said Russia plays a negative role versus 30% who said Russia plays a positive role. Iraq, the results were 29% negative to 25% positive, while in Yemen, the results were 35% negative to 13% positive. 

In contrast, respondents in Egypt and Tunisia exhibited relatively positive views of Russia. In Egypt, 36% of people said Russia plays a positive role in the country, compared to 23% who said Russia plays a negative role. In Tunisia, the positive view was 29% to the 14% negative. 

The most common response in each country, however, was neutral. This received 30% in Turkey, more than 40% in Egypt and Iraq, and more than 50% in Tunisia and Yemen. 

A multitude of factors could be influencing public opinion on Russia in different directions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine severely disrupted Egypt’s wheat imports from both countries. Moreover, Egypt is also experiencing high inflation related to the supply chain shocks from the war. The price increases particularly hurt lower-income Egyptians, Amr Emam reported for Al-Monitor from Giza last month. 

Official relations between Egypt and Russia have not been as impacted by the war. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Moscow last month, and Moscow has maintained strong defense ties with Cairo. Egypt received Russia’s Ka-52 “alligator” attack helicopters from Russia in 2017, for example. Egypt and Russia also both backed Gen. Khalifa Hifter in the Libyan civil war. 

Russia has been working to boost its soft power throughout the Arab world for years. This has included Russian-state media outlets boosting Arabic-language content. 

“Overreliance on social media platforms for news in MENA enables Moscow to reach millions. RT and Sputnik Arabic produce significantly more content on Twitter than BBC Arabic or Al Jazeera,” read a 2022 report from the Washington-based Middle East Institute. 

Russia is not heavily involved in Iraq or Yemen, but the Russian energy company Rosneft has invested heavily in Iraq. Tunisia has also been negatively impacted by the Ukraine war. Tunisia’s food crisis will likely worsen without international help, Francisco Serrano wrote in a memo for Al-Monitor PRO last month. 

Turkey and Russia have a complicated relationship. The two countries were on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war for years, though Turkey has recently warmed toward Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is largely due to the fact that Assad has retaken most of the country with Russia’s help. Turkey notably bought Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2017, despite vocal opposition from the United States. 

A large number of Russian tourists also visit Turkey. Around 2.1 million Russians visited Turkey between January and July of last year. This was the second-most of any country in that time period. 

For comparison, people expressed similarly mixed views toward the United States and China. In Egypt, 33% said the United States plays a positive role in the country, compared to 45% in Iraq, 47% in Tunisia, and just 18% and 19% in Turkey and Yemen, respectively. 

The United States is heavily involved in the region, making it unsurprising that there are mixed views. The United States supports Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi despite widespread human rights abuses under his rule. Democrats regularly push US President Joe Biden to press Sisi more on the issue. 

The legacy of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq is also very much alive given the continued political instability in Iraq

The United States also continues to support Saudi Arabia militarily. The kingdom is leading the intervention in Yemen on behalf of the government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. 

In Turkey, public opinions toward the United States have been affected by Washington’s support for Kurdish forces in neighboring Syria. Turkey considers the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has a polarizing reputation in Turkey due to its history of attacks in the country. 

China was held in higher regard than Russia in Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen, where 52%, 43%, 48% and 31% said the People’s Republic plays a positive role, respectively. In Turkey, only 19% said that China plays a positive role in their country. 

Like Russia, China is seeking better relations with the Middle East. China is especially interested in Egypt economically and is the lead funder of Egypt’s New Administrative Capital project. 

Blame for the war in Ukraine received mixed results in the region, though more people blamed Russia for the war than the United States. In Egypt, 31% of people blamed Russia for the war, compared to 21% who blamed the United States and 10% who blamed Ukraine. In Turkey, 41% blamed Russia, while 25% blamed the United States. In Iraq, 32% blamed Russia and just 14% blamed the United States. 

The poll also provided details into how Russia’s relations with Middle Eastern countries are being perceived. The poll asked people in the region to indicate what Russia’s primary contribution is to their country. In Egypt, the largest result was food with 29%, followed by security and defense with 22%. In Turkey, food supply was first by far with 32%. In Tunisia, food supply was also the clear No. 1 with 21%.

Education, health and infrastructure were mostly below 10% in each country. 

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