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.)

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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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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Debate: Can Counterterror Cooperation Serve as a Basis for Improved US-Russia Ties?

October 29, 2021
RM Staff

counterterrorismThis week, the United States’ deputy national security adviser for cyber indicated that Washington had passed Moscow intelligence about criminal hackers operating on Russian territory and was “really looking for continued, real action”—a clear euphemism for arrests or other measures to curtail such groups’ activities against U.S. victims. For the Biden administration, what happens next could serve as a litmus test of Russia’s willingness to engage in substantive cooperation on cyber crime.

In the past, analysts have linked U.S.-Russian cooperation on cybersecurity with cooperation on counterterrorism—in part, because both rely heavily on intelligence sharing. This year we have been fortunate enough to have two Russia-focused former CIA officers write about prospects for the latter, and their views diverge considerably.

Paul Kolbe of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs argues that Russia’s only genuinely significant input into U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the past 20+ years was its “political support for U.S. bases and overflight in Central Asia” after 9/11. Other than that, due to “fundamentally divergent interests and worldviews,” as well as incompatible intelligence practices, neither of the two countries “found the other’s [shared] information compelling or of truly strategic value.”

George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest, on the contrary, believes that, although combatting terrorism is unlikely to transform the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship, “Russia has demonstrated a strong ability to help the United States prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.” He points out that “counterterrorism cooperation is not binary but exists in varying degrees”; successful elements of such cooperation, such as exchanging threat warnings, should continue, he writes, and roads to more sharing of “both intelligence and expertise” should not be closed off.

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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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Debate: The Future of Russia

March 01, 2021
RM Staff

MoscowThe following is a four-part debate between Thomas Graham, George Beebe, Steven Pifer and Michael McFaul about the future of Russia. The exchange was hosted by Pairagraph—a new platform that brings together distinguished individuals for conversations about great events and great ideas. For the exchange in its original form, click here.

Photo by Evgeny shared under a Pixabay 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 the accuracy of 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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