Contestable Claims

Far too often we see a significant gap between Russia-related claims, even by top officials and respected authors, and the reality on the ground. We also often encounter a wide divergence in expert views on crucial policy questions related to Russia. This section has two basic aims: (1) to dispel misconceptions that could adversely affect the quality of U.S. policy toward Russia, particularly when vital U.S. interests are involved, through rigorous fact-checking where possible and (2) to identify and debate key dilemmas for decision-makers per the adage that “truth is born in argument.”

We invite you to explore the section and send us more claims to fact-check or debate using the rectangular red button below. (For most fact-checks, we’ve adopted the "traffic light" rating system: red for incorrect; yellow for partially correct; green for correct.)

Russia Is Running Out of Missiles ... or Not

December 15, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

missileIs Russia running out of precision munitions, such as missiles, in its war against Ukraine? That is the question I posed to some of my professional acquaintances and myself last month, hoping some of us would come up with an accurate answer. Three weeks later, I am still searching for that answer, but my efforts have not been completely in vain. What I have found is that, starting as early as the spring, multiple Western officials and experts have announced that Russia was running out of precision munitions, and yet Russia has continued to use scores of attack missiles, such as Kalibr missiles, well into winter. I have also found that most of these announcers did not specify the kinds of munitions Russia was close to depleting, with one proclaiming that Russia was “running low on everything.” Nor have most of these announcers specified when the exhaustion of Russia’s arsenals could occur. That didn’t stop leading American and European media outlets from repeatedly quoting such announcements,  with most of the media reports I have come across showing no effort to either verify the forecaster’s claims or put them into context (i.e. state whether there have been earlier claims of that kind and whether or not they proved to be correct).

One of the first, if not the first, claim that Russia was running out of precision means of attack was made exactly one month after Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24: Russia is running out of precision guided munitions, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl was quoted as saying by Reuters on March 24. Kahl did not specify when Russia might fully run out of which precision munitions.

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Will Post-Soviet Russia’s Economic Gains Be Wiped Out by Ukraine War in 2022?

September 28, 2022
RM Staff

stocksThree months after the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, economist Anders Aslund wrote that, by starting the war, President Vladimir Putin had “in a single day … wiped out most of the economic gains Russia had made since 1991.” CNBC issued a similar verdict in March. While the word “most” would typically mean more than 50%, Aslund clarified to RM that his assessment wasn’t meant to be strictly quantitative—more a turn of phrase to describe the scale of Western sanctions’ impact on Russia.1 Nevertheless, we think it is important to determine how much of Russia’s past gains in economic output may be erased by Putin’s war in Ukraine by the end of this year. Would the forecasted losses amount to more than half, i.e., “most”?

Here's what we found: If “economic gains” are measured as growth of GDP—the only metric for which sufficient data is available2—and if the latest projections of changes to Russia’s GDP in 2022 from the World Bank and IMF are more or less correct, then the decline in Russian economic gains this year will total about 16%-24% of the gains accrued from 1992 to 2021, which is far from “most.”

The table below shows the increase in Russia’s inflation-adjusted GDP from 1992 to 2021 by three different measures and the forecasted drop in GDP between 2021 and 2022, including the World Bank’s June 2022  forecast that Russia’s real GDP will contract by 8.9% this year and the IMF July 2022 forecast that Russia’s real GDP growth will total -6%.3

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Fact and Analysis Check: Is Odesa ‘Putin’s Obsession?’

August 29, 2022
Graham T. Allison

Port of OdesaThe New York Times’ lead story on the front-page of its Sunday Aug. 21 edition declares: Odesa is “Putin’s Obsession.” Needless to say, this is a big idea. In the midst of a brutal war, after an attempted Kyiv coup failed, Russian aggressors have succeeded in capturing all of Luhansk, 75% of Donetsk, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and most of the southern tier, establishing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, this proposition—if it were true—could provide a clue about where this phase of the bloody war might plausibly reach stalemate. Recognizing its importance, the editors gave veteran reporter Roger Cohen a rare 6000 words in which to make his case. He uses that space argue that Odesa is “the Russian leader’s obsession”; “the big prize in the war”; “militarily … the highest-value target”; and the “grain port to the world.”

When I read the article, I reacted: say what!? As a long-time student of the Soviet Union and Russia who has been tracking and writing about Putin’s war against Ukraine, I asked: how could I and every other analyst I know in and out of the U.S. government have missed this? Having now reviewed the evidence the article presents to support its key claims, and compared it to what is known from what other experts including Bill Burns (now Director of CIA but formerly Ambassador to Moscow whose 2019 memoir offers the best brief profile of Putin), Fiona Hill (former assistant to Trump and before that the National Intelligence Officer for Russia), Angela Stent (another Russia scholar who earlier serviced as NIO for Russia) and others, our fact-analysis check concludes that each of these claims is false or misleading.

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No End in Sight to ‘Beginning of Putin’s End’

August 10, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

dandelionWhen scanning commentaries on post-Soviet Eurasia from English- and Russian-language sources, certain words or phrases stand out as fads that later fade away. So when RFE/RL described on July 30, 2022, a “bold prediction” by Russia expert Iver Neumann that we are witnessing “the beginning of the end” of Vladimir Putin’s regime, it seemed like one of the newest fads that have emerged after Putin’s decision to (re-)invade Ukraine in February. We decided to reaffirm that hunch as Neumann’s prediction began to gain traction in other media. With no skills or means immediately available for meta-analysis, we searched in Factiva, Google, Yandex and other open sources for “beginning of the end”+ “Putin” and “начало+конца”+ Путин.

The search revealed that proclaiming the beginning of Putin’s end was a trend long before his troops marched into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. In fact, the earliest such proclamation we found was made on Oct. 26, 2002: a column by Moscow-based sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky that asks in its headline whether the Russian authorities’ mishandling of the deadly hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater during the second full year of Putin’s presidency meant the beginning of his political end. 

In total, we have found 38 predictions of the beginning of Putin’s end made from Dec. 31, 1999, (Putin’s ascent to the presidency) to July 30, 2022, including 22 made before the invasion of Ukraine (Table 1) and 16 made after the invasion (Table 2).

Many of the pre-invasion predictions that we found in texts and/or their headlines1 were made during federal electoral campaigns in Russia or in the aftermath of these elections. Their authors typically accused Putin and whichever party he supported of either campaigning unfairly or winning illegally (or both) when explaining why the beginning of Putin’s end was near. But it wasn’t all about elections. The beginning of Putin’s end was also forecast over his government’s handling of hostage crises (2002 and 2004), the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (2005), the decline in Russians’ living standards (2011), a faltering economy (2012), Russia’s intervention in Syria (2015) and even Putin’s mysterious disappearance for several days in March 2015. 

As for the post-invasion predictions, all 17 that we found pointed to the invasion as the primary reason behind the beginning of Putin’s end (interestingly, the first was made only hours after Putin announced the launch of his “special military operation” shortly before 6:00am Moscow time on Feb. 24).

Angelina Flood contributed to researching this post.

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‘Crippling’ Sanctions? Russia’s Economy Is Afloat—For Now

August 05, 2022
Joshua Henderson

rublesDespite the latest Western sanctions against Russia approaching their half-year point, Russia’s war effort in Ukraine rages on. How has Russia sustained its campaign in the face of what many major news outlets and at least one academic institution have called “crippling” sanctions? One possible answer: Russia’s economy is not as crippled as people think. Just last week, the IMF revised upward its annual projection for changes to Russia’s GDP, saying it would contract not by 8.5% but only by 6% this year (at the same time, the IMF downgraded its forecasts for global, U.S., EU and Chinese growth). The World Bank has likewise revised its 2022 forecast for Russian economic output, saying it would shrink by 8.9% instead of the 11.2% estimated in April. Russia’s Central Bank, meanwhile, cut interest rates to below pre-invasion levels, another sign Russia’s economy is doing better than anticipated. While the U.S. and its allies are focusing on the long-term impact of sanctions, a number of other indicators show that, despite sanctions, Russia’s economy is doing as well as—or better than—other major economies.

Of course, there is clearly a negative side to the state of the Russian economy, from shrinking imports to plummeting equity indices. But getting a full picture means looking at positives and negatives. Here are some of the positives, which have been underreported in my view, to help our readers have a more complete picture when forming their opinions on Russia’s economic performance in the wake of sanctions.

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A Debate on West’s Role in Russia’s Ukraine War: What It Was, Is and Should Be

August 03, 2022
RM Staff
NATO training in Ukraine, 2015

The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began Feb. 24 has left tens of thousands of people dead, countless others maimed and millions displaced. It’s caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage and its fallout has echoed throughout the global economy. It’s forced European nations to revamp decades-old security policies and has influential voices in foreign affairs warning about the threat of nuclear war. Little wonder that Western policy shapers are keen to better understand their nations’ role in the conflict.

Two prominent American analysts see the U.S. role very differently. On one side of the debate is international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago; on the other is national security expert Joe Cirincione, who for many years headed nuclear arms control initiatives such as the Ploughshares Fund and the Carnegie Endowment’s non-proliferation program.

Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 Mearsheimer, a leading proponent of the realist school of international relations, has argued that the principal responsibility for “the Ukraine crisis” lies with the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, with the allies that have followed its lead. He most recently made this point in a June 16 speech reprinted below. Although Mearsheimer acknowledges that Putin started the war and is responsible for Russia’s conduct of it, his “central claim is that the United States has pushed forward policies toward Ukraine that Putin and other Russian leaders see as an existential threat, a point they have made repeatedly for many years.” Key among these policies has been the U.S. push to bring Ukraine into NATO and make it “a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.” It does not matter, Mearsheimer writes, what the authors of these policies intended; what matters is how Moscow saw them. His second main point in the speech is that Washington’s reaction to the outbreak of war has focused, together with its Western allies, on “decisively defeating Russia in Ukraine.” This, he believes, has prolonged the war there, subjected Ukraine to “even greater harm” and raises the risk of escalation, all the way up to the possible use of nuclear weapons. The key to a peaceful settlement from Russia’s perspective, he argues, “is making Ukraine a neutral state, ending the prospect of integrating Kyiv into the West.”

Cirincione rejects these arguments in an article written for Russia Matters, also reprinted below. While he has long criticized certain NATO policies threatening to Russia—like the initial inclusion of Eastern European countries in the military bloc and the placement of missile systems in Romania and Poland—he argues that the drivers behind them were numerous, mundane and often influenced by the Eastern Europeans’ own security imperatives. Even if the presence of significant NATO footholds in Ukraine did constitute a red line for Moscow, Cirincione feels that the West cannot “militarily abandon Ukraine and … cede it to Russia’s sphere of influence,” as Mearsheimer implicitly suggests. Cirincione also believes that Putin’s fears about Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics growing “too close to the West” stem from his fears that such closeness would foment “popular resistance to his increasingly authoritarian rule at home.” And he presents thought-provoking evidence against Mearsheimer’s earlier claims that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have been primarily defensive, spelling out the various ways Moscow has been taking control of Ukrainian territory. Cirincione’s final objection to Mearsheimer’s arguments is on moral grounds: that now, amid the blood-curdling brutality of Russian forces’ targeting of Ukrainian civilians, is not the time to analyze which past policies led to the problem; now, he writes, the West’s singular focus should indeed be to “defeat Russia’s invasion.”

As is customary in such debates, we have invited Prof. Mearsheimer to write a rebuttal, but he declined.

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Is Russia Isolated? Condemnation of Its Invasion of Ukraine Isn’t Global

July 28, 2022
Joshua Henderson

Lavrov in EthiopiaAs the West’s increasing punitive measures bear down on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Africa this week, trying to develop economic ties and rally political support from governments there. Why Africa? For one, the continent is forecast to become the world’s “next growth miracle.” As important, not one African country to date has imposed sanctions on Russia, and when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the African Union via videolink, only four African heads of state reportedly attended. While some analysts and Western officials claim that Russia is isolated, the inconvenient fact is that condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is far from universal. The U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was met with abstention or outright opposition from countries accounting for about half of the world’s population, while the resolution to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council was abstained from or opposed by nations representing a whopping 75% of the world’s population.

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Has Russia Reached Its ‘Culminating Point’ in Ukraine?

July 20, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

tankThis week’s reports that Russia’s invasion seems to be “entering a more aggressive phase” throw into stark relief one recurring theme in analysis of the Ukraine war: the prediction that Russian forces will soon exhaust their capabilities, reaching what the famous Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as a Kulminationspunkt, or “culminating point,” of attack. In his book “On War,” Clausewitz defined this as a “point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive, and to wait for Peace.”

We have put together a compilation of such predictions, beginning in March 2022. Some were made that month, and may have rested on a looser definition of culminating point than Clausewitz’s original, predicting that Russian forces would not be able to sustain their offensive on the many fronts of their initial invasion; indeed, by late March, Russia started moving troops away from Kyiv, marking Moscow’s new strategic focus on eastern Ukraine.

However, the predictions continued even as Russian forces made advances in the east, most recently capturing nearly all of the Luhansk region that remained in Ukrainian hands. If nothing else, this timeline reaffirms the truism that making predictions can be an ungrateful business, particularly amid the fog of war.

Check out the compilation here.

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Debate: Kissinger vs. Soros on Russia’s War in Ukraine

June 09, 2022
RM Staff

Henry KissingerPredictably, war was the talk of the town in Davos this past May. In speeches at the annual World Economic Forum, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and billionaire philanthropist George Soros both offered their own, diverging takes on what the West should and could do to end the hostilities initiated by Russia in late February. Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russel Mead succinctly captured the differences between the two men's positions: Kissinger "urge[d] against attempts to defeat or marginalize Russia, calling on Ukraine to accept the territorial losses of 2014 to end the war," while Soros "warned that victory in the war against Vladimir Putin's Russia was necessary to George Soros'save civilization' and urged the West to provide Ukraine with everything it needs to prevail."

Russia Matters has decided to advance the indirect debate between Kissinger and Soros by asking Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council to explain why they agree or disagree with the key propositions put forward by Kissinger and Soros at Davos (listed below) with regard to the Russian-Ukrainian war and, more widely, how to deal with Russia.

 

  1. Kissinger has long said Ukraine should have some form of neutrality in order to be a "bridge between Russia and Europe"; at Davos he said that, while "that opportunity ... does not now exist in the same manner, ... it could still be conceived as an ultimate objective."
  2. Soros said at Davos that Russia's invasion of Ukraine "may have been the beginning of the Third World War and our civilization may not survive it."
  3. Kissinger said at Davos that "negotiations on peace need to begin in the next two months," implying that otherwise the war could spill over into other parts of Europe; "ideally," he said, "the dividing line [between Ukraine and Russia] should return the status quo ante," i.e. with Moscow exercising de facto control over Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
  4. Kissinger cautioned against turning the war into a battle “against Russia itself,” rather than for “the freedom of Ukraine,” because “Russia has been, for 400 years, an essential part of Europe,” critical to maintaining a “European balance.” The West’s policies, he said, “should keep in mind the restoration of this role is important to develop, so that Russia is not driven into a permanent alliance with China.”
  5. Soros said that “we must mobilize all our resources to bring the war to an early end. The best and perhaps only way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin as soon as possible.”

In his response, Gvosdev sees the two men’s differences flowing from “fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of the international system and whether ‘means’ or ‘ends’ should have primacy in the formulation of policy, as well as their respective sense of time frames for action.” Haring, in turn, believes that Russia is an imperial power that must be defanged; in her response, she largely agrees with Soros, arguing for the Kremlin’s complete defeat, which she defines as “pushing Russia out of the Donbas completely, bringing Russia’s war criminals to justice … and forcing Moscow to pay for the damages it has caused.”

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Does Russia’s Economy Matter?

May 05, 2022
RM Staff

circuit boardEminent U.S. observers from presidents to a powerful senator have derided Russia’s role in the global economy as second-rate, with the late John McCain calling Russia “a gas station … masquerading as a country.” Russia’s share in world economic output is indeed in the low single digits. But that macro-level view obscures the key role that Russia, and to a lesser extent Ukraine, plays in some critical sectors of the global economy—all of which have been hard hit by the ongoing war between the two neighboring countries and its fallout. Below is a snapshot explainer of the damage done so far not just to the global energy sector, but to food supplies for millions of people worldwide, high-tech goods and services, metals and aerospace/aviation.

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