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.)

Claim in 2021: Putin is “sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else.”

Incorrect: While hydrocarbons play an outsized role in Moscow’s federal budget and its nuclear weapons may figure in GDP, Russia’s economy is more diverse than that, with oil and gas making up just over 15% of last year’s GDP by one Rosstat estimate. Russia provides other countries with more civilian nuclear reactors and related services than any other nation and is the world’s second largest exporter of conventional arms. It earns hundreds of millions of dollars by providing services in the space sector and sells billions of dollars’ worth of metals. Russia is also the world’s top producer and exporter of wheat, a major coal exporter and home to a domestic services sector that plays a major role in its economy. (Fact-check completed in November 2021.)
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Claim in 2021: Russia’s GDP per capita is 30% lower than in 2013.

Partially Correct: If calculated without adjusting for inflation or purchasing power, Russia’s nominal GDP per capita (in current U.S. dollars) declined by 37.4% in 2013-2020 according to IMF data, so a 30% decline by March 2021 is conceivable; however, the decline in 2013-2020 is much smaller—less than 2%—when calculated using the IMF’s inflation-adjusted formulas, which are considered a more reliable measure of economic change over time; World Bank data show similar trends. (Fact-check completed in Fall 2021.)
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Debate: How Should the US Respond to the SolarWinds Breach?

April 07, 2021
RM Staff

cyber attacksIn December 2020, Reuters first reported that hackers suspected to be working for Russia had been monitoring emails at U.S. federal agencies. While there are still few details as to the scope, scale and impact of the hack, what is known is that multiple U.S. federal agencies and dozens of private-sector companies were compromised through malware attached to a software update received by nearly 18,000 customers of Texas-based company SolarWinds. The massive, months-long cyber operation has garnered widespread calls for retribution, with some U.S. politicians going so far as to call it an act of war. As of publication of this debate, Russia continues to deny responsibility for the breach. So how should the U.S. respond to this extensive hack? We've asked three experts to weigh in on the issue.  

In the opening entry, the Belfer Center's Paul Kolbe writes that while a natural inclination is to strike back at Russia, such responses have been tried in the past with little to show for it. A carefully calibrated shot across the bow is appropriate in response to SolarWinds, according to Kolbe, but such responses will not stop cyber espionage or assaults. Russia is but one wolf in a growing pack of cyber predators, he writes, and the U.S. is simply too fat and easy a target.

Erica D. Borghard, a senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a senior director on the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, argues that while Kolbe is right in saying that retaliatory measures aiming to impose costs against Russia are unlikely to shift the Russian government’s risk-benefit assessment, he’s right for the wrong reasons. The pursuit of deterrence strategies to address other types of malicious behavior in cyberspace, beyond espionage, is not a fool’s errand, Borghard writes, and deterrence is not a one-size-fits-all concept in cyberspace—or in any other domain.

Finally, Anatol Lieven, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington D.C., writes that Kolbe and Borghard are both correct in warning of the need for distinguishing between cyber espionage and cyber sabotage or terrorism. Lieven adds, however, that to be effective in constraining behavior, limiting disputes and maintaining peace, shared international conventions are necessary. Few things have been more damaging to U.S. and European hopes of a “rules-based global order,” according to Lieven, than the perception that the U.S. both makes the rules and breaks them whenever it sees fit, including in cyberspace.

Photo by Christiaan Colen shared under a Creative Commons license. 

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Claim in 2019: Russia became stronger in 2019.

Partially Correct: We have employed three methods of calculating national power to ascertain Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s claim. Only one of those formulas confirms Peskov’s claim that Russia became stronger in 2019. The other two disprove it. (Fact check done in Fall 2020.)
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Claim in 2020: “Nobody wants to invest [in Russia].”

Partially Correct: Although foreign direct investment in Russia has generally been trending down since the onset of sanctions in 2014, foreigners still have an active presence in Russian financial markets as of 2020. Other indicators of investor confidence have also decreased, although the trends for these indicators are less clear: Purchases of Russian companies by foreign entities have decreased, but numbers are volatile, and while “greenfield” investment in Russia shows some growth since 2014, numbers remain well below their apex a decade ago. While some negative trends in investment can be observed in Russia, claiming that “nobody wants to invest in Russia” is an oversimplification, as many indicators show more nuanced results. (Fact check done in September 2020.)
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Debate: Is Ukraine a Hub for International White Supremacist Fighters?

November 12, 2020
RM Staff

azovHas the conflict in eastern Ukraine become a training hub for violent white supremacists? Researchers generally agree that, beginning in the spring of 2014, some of Ukraine’s so-called volunteer battalions served as magnets for adherents of far-right ideologies, drawing foreign fighters from all over the world to the war in Donbas. Huseyn Aliyev, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, argues, however, that when Ukraine began disbanding paramilitary groups and integrating them into official forces, taking part in the conflict became significantly more difficult for foreigners and resulted in an outflow of foreign fighters. Two other analysts, the Soufan Center’s Mollie Saltskog and Colin P. Clarke, argue that Aliyev’s depiction downplays the ways in which behavior by parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine facilitates the rise of a serious global threat: Foreigners, they write, “are still networking, training and fighting on both sides of the conflict … cultivating skills and connections” that strengthen transnational white-supremacy extremist networks. Policymakers, they say, must work to mitigate both “the immediate dangers posed by radicals with battlefield experience and the threat that comes from Ukraine's new significance as … a hub for far-right groups to network and exchange expertise.”

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Claim (in 2004, 2015 and 2017): The U.S. government supported Chechen separatism.

Partially Correct: There is no publicly available evidence that the U.S. ever provided direct material support to armed Chechen separatist groups, much less North Caucasus-based militants who have engaged in terrorist attacks. However, U.S. officials did openly meet with Ilyas Akhmadov, who represented the Chechen separatist movement and whom the Russian government described as a terrorist. In addition, former and serving U.S. government officials publicly expressed sympathy for “moderate” Chechen separatists and the separatist cause.
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Who ‘Defeated’ ISIS? An Analysis of US and Russian Contributions

May 06, 2020
RM Staff

soldier in syriaBoth Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump have suggested that ISIS has been defeated and that their respective militaries are most responsible, writes Domitilla Sagramoso, a lecturer in security and development at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. There can be little doubt that the U.S. and its allies played a much bigger role in subduing ISIS than Russia, according to Sagramoso, but the terror group has plenty of life in it yet and any alleged victory is fragile, 

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Debate: ‘Spheres of Influence’—a Reality to Be Faced or an Atavism to Be Rejected?

March 05, 2020
RM Staff

globeThe term “‘sphere of influence’ … entered the vocabulary of diplomacy in the early 19th century,” according to Harvard’s Graham Allison, “but the concept is as old as international relations itself.” By way of illustration, Allison invokes the image of a “shadow” cast by a state that has become predominant after “the equilibrium of forces” between it and another state has shifted greatly enough. “Traditionally,” he goes on, “great powers have demanded a degree of deference from lesser powers on their borders and in adjacent seas, and they have expected other great powers to respect that fact.” While this definition does not seem to be contested by experts, the right of countries to claim spheres of influence certainly is.

In the opening argument of the debate below, Paul Saunders, a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, takes what might be called a “realist” approach: While he does not believe that the U.S. should publicly endorse Russian or other spheres of influence, he does call on U.S. policy elites to stop denying, in America’s internal policy debates, that “Russia and other states have national interests and that, while we may not agree with how those states define their interests,” they must be included “among other considerations in formulating U.S. policy.” With America’s relative power on the global stage diminishing over the past 20 years as China and, to a lesser extent, Russia have risen, Saunders concludes that “the United States will have to work much harder to have its way [in the world] and will not be able to expend such effort everywhere. Understanding this, and undertaking the tough job of setting priorities, is the best way to maximize America’s future power.” Responding to this argument is Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who believes that the U.S. should not “accept the legitimacy” of Moscow’s efforts “to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood.” While acknowledging that “Russia has interests and will pursue those interests,” Pifer does not always see Moscow’s interests in the same way other analysts do; he rejects the view, for example, that Russian military intervention in Ukraine, where Pifer served as U.S. ambassador in 1998-2000, had anything to do with the prospect that NATO—which Moscow views as a hostile military bloc—would be coming closer to Russian borders. More generally, Pifer wants to see a world in which small nations have the means for self-determination without being in a great power’s shadow: “[A]ccepting Moscow’s assertion of a sphere of influence means denying that countries such as Ukraine have interests of their own or a right to determine their own domestic and foreign policy courses,” he writes, adding: “Do we really want to accept a world in which the views and desires of little or smaller countries are sacrificed to the preferences, however legitimate or illegitimate, of their larger, more powerful neighbors?” In his rebuttal, Saunders argues that his original argument rejects the idea of publicly acknowledging spheres of influence, and calls instead for "a greater effort within America’s government and from its foreign policy elites to develop effective policies toward countries in regions where rival great powers—China and Russia—have greater capabilities and/or greater resolve to advance their goals than Washington does."

As competition among great powers intensifies, so, too, could debates about spheres of influence. Some U.S. policymakers—including, most recently, John Bolton (when he was national security advisor), Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Lyndsey Graham—have implied or said outright that the United States has its own sphere of influence that should be respected. Political analyst Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute has gone as far as to argue that, in order to avoid “needless conflict,” Washington should seek “a sensible agreement” with Moscow, in which it “would be willing to respect a Russian sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe and, in exchange, “should insist that Russia respect the Monroe Doctrine,” which claims U.S. predominance in the western hemisphere. Even if that were to happen, however, Allison suggests that the past two decades’ shifts in global power have created “facts on the ground” that cannot be undone and for many “nations and individuals around the world who have found shelter under the American security umbrella … the consequences will be tragic.” The only option available to Washington, he argues, is to “focus above all on its alliances and partnerships.”

Photo by Amber_Avalona shared under a Pixabay license.

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Claim in 2019: “Real incomes [in Russia] have fallen for five of the past six years.”

Partially Correct: Of the two types of real income officially calculated in Russia for individuals, both real monetary incomes and real disposable incomes contracted in 2014-2018, according to Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. However, according to data available from Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) at the time of the claim, only real disposable incomes had fallen every year from 2014 through 2018. Rosstat data published by Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development show that real monetary incomes rose in 2018, contradicting the above claim. (Fact-check done in November 2019.)
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