In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
While lessons learned from regional military conflicts accounted for our most popular reads in January through June 2021, topics ranging from climate change to cybersecurity also dominated top positions in our ranking. Read on for a look at Russia Matters' top 10 most popular stories, based on reader analytics captured during the first half of this year. 

1. A Look at the Military Lessons of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: In this analysis,  director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA examines the implications of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh which continue to reverberate well outside the region given its potential significance for regional and great powers alike, while further spurring debates on the character of modern warfare. 

2. Who ‘Defeated’ ISIS? An Analysis of US and Russian Contributions: There can be little doubt that the United States and its allies played a much bigger role that Russia did in subduing ISIS, the author, a lecturer in security and development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, asserts in this analysis; but ISIS has plenty of life in it yet and any alleged victory is fragile.

3. Five Years After Russia Declared Victory in Syria: What Has Been Won? In this cost-benefit assessment, the author—a graduate student at Harvard University and a student associate at RM—questions whether Russia's intervention in Syria has paid off, or whether then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 prediction that the operation would end in a “quagmire” for Russia has come true.
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Red Square
The United States continues to be the country that is least friendly to Russia in the eyes of this country’s population, according to a study released by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the Levada Center, one day ahead of the June 16 Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. As many as 66% of respondents to the poll—which was conducted in May and which allowed respondents to select five countries from a list—identified America as hostile toward Russia. Ukraine and the United Kingdom came in second and third in the ranking, with respectively 40% and 28% of Russians categorizing them as most unfriendly (See Table 1). At the same time, the proportion of individuals with negative attitudes towards the United States increased from 42% in March 2021 to 54% in  May 2021 while the share of individuals who had positive view towards U.S. decreased from 40% to 31% over the same period of time. Popular attitudes towards the European Union also grew increasingly negative. The share of Russians who hold positive views of the European Union fell from 40% in March to 31% in May.

When it comes to countries that Russians view as most friendly, Belarus tops the list, according to the recent poll. (See Table 2). As many as 58 percent of Russians viewed Belarus as friendly as of May 2021. China came in second, with 38 percent (a slight decrease from 49 percent in 2020), followed by Kazakhstan (34 percent), Armenia (16 percent) and India (13 percent).
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Nearly half of 18-24 year old Russians are ready and willing to move abroad for purposes of becoming permanent residents in a foreign country, according to a recent national poll conducted by Russia’s leading independent poll agency, the Levada Center.

The poll, which was conducted in May, showed that almost 22 percent of Russians across all age groups said they were either definitely or most likely ready to move abroad. Since Levada began measuring the trend in October 1990, the percentage of Russians leaning towards immigration has reached the current levels only twice before—in May 2011 and May 2013.

The desire to move abroad tends to skew young, according to the poll. While nearly half (48 percent) of respondents aged 18-24 stated that they were definitely or most likely ready to go abroad, that figure fell to 33 percent among individuals aged 25-39, and to 21 percent among those aged 40-45.

The spread of what Russians describe as “suitcase mood” among younger respondents should be of concern to Russian authorities as the country’s workforce is simultaneously shrinking and ageing. The number of people of working age in Russia—defined in this context as between 15 and 72 years old—was 76.5 million in mid-2015; by late 2020, that figure had fallen to 75.2 million. Meanwhile the median age of the Russian population increased from 38 in 2010 to 39.6 in 2020, according to UN estimates. The authorities’ concerns should also be fuelled by the fact that Russia’s net number of immigrants declined by about half from 1,801,000 in 2010-2015 to 912,000 in 2015-2020, according to UN estimates.

Photo by Pxhere shared under the pubic domain. 

Originally posted on March 26, 2020. Last updated on June 2, 2021.

As cases of COVID-19 rise around the globe, upending daily life and forcing much of the world into pandemic-related lockdowns or other restrictions, many are wondering when the outbreak may peak in their countries and some sort of return to normal may begin. One person who correctly predicted the peak of the virus in China is Nobel prize winner Michael Levitt.

At the end of February, Levitt correctly forecast that China’s cases would total around 80,000 with approximately 3,250 deaths. As of March 16, with its outbreak considered largely under control, China had reported 80,298 cases total and 3,245 deaths. In making his prediction, Levitt focused not on the total number of diagnosed cases, but on the rate at which the number of daily confirmed cases changed.

We have tried to follow Levitt’s approach to measure and compare the rate of daily confirmed cases in the U.S. and Russia using data from Johns Hopkins University. Please see our results below.

Almost half of Russians blame the U.S. and its NATO allies for the escalation of tensions in eastern Ukraine, according to the results of a poll released April 29 by Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center. Forty-eight percent of respondents hold that view.

Those who believe the U.S. and NATO are to blame for the escalation dominate all age groups among the poll’s respondents. They account for 36 percent of respondents 18-24 years old, 40 percent among respondents 25-39 years old, 50 percent of respondents 40-54 years old and 57 percent of respondents 55 years old and older.

Among those who get their news from TV or the radio, 57 percent and 52 percent, respectively, blame the U.S. and other NATO countries. In contrast, only 26 percent of those who rely on Telegram channels for news hold that view. Such a disparity should come as no surprise, given that all national TV channels and many of Russia’s radio stations are controlled by entities either owned by the state or loyal to the Kremlin, which has been striving to portray Ukrainian authorities as controlled by the West.
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world map
On April 13, 2021, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the first such report to be issued since Joe Biden became the U.S. president in January. The previous report, issued in 2019 when Donald Trump was in office, identified China and Russia as the United States’ main competitors and “greatest espionage and cyber attack threats.”1 That assessment also featured a dedicated section on the “economic, political, counterintelligence, military and diplomatic” challenge of increased China-Russia cooperation, specifically within international organizations. In contrast to the 2019 document, the 2021 assessment elevates Iran and North Korea as major threats to the United States alongside China and Russia. The 2021 document also offers assessments on all the transnational issues discussed in the 2019 assessment, with a notable difference being that the threats of infectious diseases (such as COVID-19), climate change, environmental degradation and migration were allotted their own standalone sections as opposed to being grouped with other threats in the “Human Security” section. 

Below we give a rundown of the most salient differences between this year’s assessment and the previous one.
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Moscow crowd
After years of rapid expansion during President Vladimir Putin’s first stint as president, Russia's middle class has dwindled in the years since his return to office in 2012. Confrontation with the west after the annexation of Crimea, the resulting sanctions and the Kremlin’s focus on macroeconomic stability at the expense of prosperity have entrenched a stagnation which has hit middle-earners hard. By one count, Russia’s middle class shrunk 20 percent during the economic crisis that followed.

But even as their economic decline coincided with Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy, there is little evidence that Russia’s current and former middle-classers connect their plight to the Kremlin’s conduct beyond its borders. There may be economic discontent at home, but Russia’s confrontational stance against the west remains popular, and calls to reverse years of economic inertia focus squarely on what the government can do on the domestic front—meaning Putin feels little pressure from Russia’s long-suffering middle classes to change course on the world stage.
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This article was originally published by The Moscow Times with the subheading: "Talk of financial Armageddon should Russia be kicked out of the system may be overblown."

Ukraine has joined the chorus of voices calling for Russia to be disconnected from SWIFT—the financial messaging network that underpins the global banking system.

In a meeting with EU foreign ministers, Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba said he had called for a tough new package of sanctions, including the expulsion of Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) network, which currently links more than 11,000 banks operating in at least 200 countries and territories around the world.

The proposal—long popular among those who favor slapping hard-hitting sanctions on Russia—has picked up new supporters since last year’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Talk of a possible embargo reached fever pitch in Moscow in the days leading up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement of a new round of sanctions against Russia mid-April, with top Russian officials and banking figures talking up the dangers of being disconnected.

“We cannot rule out any potential threats," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last month when asked about the possibility. “Sanctions are unreasonable and unpredictable and therefore the situation forces us to be alert,” he added.
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Nearly half of Russians and Americans believe that relations between the two countries will not change over the next 10 years, though more than 60 percent of Americans and Russians see areas for cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and responding to epidemics, according to recent polling from the Levada Center and Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Only 10 percent of Americans and 19 percent of Russians believe relations will improve within the next 10 years. Forty-three percent of Americans and 29 percent of Russians believe relations will get worse, while the plurality of Russians and Americans believe relations will not change within the next decade, according to the Levada poll conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 2.
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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, as well as U.S. President George H.W. Bush, are well known to have worked effectively with their Soviet counterparts to advance bilateral arms control. What is less known is that Reagan, Bush and successive presidents also sought to convince the Kremlin to give the market economy a chance, as they believed that a transition by the Soviet Union to a market economy would have been in America’s interest. The 1992 Freedom Support Act submitted by the Bush Administration to Congress, for example, stated that “recent developments in Russia and other independent states of the former Soviet Union present an historic opportunity for a transition of the independent states of the former Soviet Union into the community of democratic nations…the entire international community has a vital interest in the success of this transition.”

Today, Russia’s transition to a market economy is at least partially completed, though estimates point to the state holding between 33 and 46 percent of the economy, with this control concentrated in “strategic” sectors such as energy and banking. Nevertheless, this transition did not succeed in embedding Russia into the Western camp. Nor did a similar effort to encourage China’s transition to a market economy yield the results the West had hoped for, such as democratization of the Middle Kingdom and its alignment with the U.S. and its allies.

Despite this, promoting worldwide economic reform has remained popular among U.S. leaders; most recently, Donald Trump sought to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of the benefits of a market economy during their 2018 summit in Singapore. Below, we have compiled a selection of calls for economic reform in Russia, in chronological order, made by U.S. presidents and their administrations beginning with Ronald Reagan.
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