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.)

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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Trump and Russia: ‘Quid Pro Quo’ or Quid Pro Talk?

April 19, 2019
RM Staff

Many of President Donald Trump’s critics have accused him of diluting Russia sanctions and/or appeasing his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Others, though not necessarily Trump supporters, have argued that this view is more smoke than fire. We did some research to test the claim, taking as our touchstone a recent New York Times op-ed by the newspaper’s former executive editor Max Frankel. The full list of evidence for and against Frankel’s claim can be read here.

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Russia and China—Alliance or Dalliance? And What Will This Mean for the West?

February 04, 2019
RM Staff

Vladimir Putin awarded the Chinese Order of Friendship.Few watchful observers of international affairs would deny that Russia and China have grown closer over the past 20 years—the U.S. intelligence community even highlighted the tandem as a top threat in 2019, noting that the two countries “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s." But there is still considerable debate about the depth of this rapprochement and what exactly it will mean for the U.S. and its allies. Below, we present three facets of this discussion. In one, Harvard’s Graham Allison argues that, although China and Russia are geopolitical rivals whose long-term prospects for an alliance are “grim,” they are nonetheless entering into a “grand alignment of the aggrieved … drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the ‘American threat.’” He emphasizes the role successive U.S. administrations have played in nurturing “the formation of this grievance coalition” and warns that continued missteps by the West could turn the alignment into a dangerous “grand coalition.” Another two authors, Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council and the RAND Corporation, focus more on the growing disparities between Russia and China, especially in terms of their economies and demographics. While these authors describe significant convergence in the two states’ national interests and detail continuously increasing military cooperation between the two countries, they also see plenty of divergence, ultimately arguing that a formal military-political alliance does not seem imminent in the absence of two specific conditions—both of them unlikely. Finally, Wheaton College professor Jeanne Wilson highlights two additional features of the relationship: the importance of respect and “status granting” and the shared political norms and values that help to shape Russia’s and China’s political identities and national interests.

An earlier version of this debate was published Dec. 20 under the headline “Debate: Russia and China—How Close Are They?” before the addition of Prof. Wilson’s contribution.

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

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Claim in 2018: 54 percent of Ukrainians now support joining NATO.

Incorrect: While one 2015 poll did show that 54 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO, more recent polls consistently show a lower level of support. (Fact-check done in September-December 2018.)
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Claim in 2018: Russia’s 2017 GDP in current U.S. dollars “is barely more than that of South Korea.”

Correct: When measured in current U.S. dollars, Russia’s 2017 GDP was only slightly larger than South Korea’s. (Fact-check done in July 2018.)
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Debate: Is Russia in Decline?

August 22, 2018
RM Staff

Russian President Vladimir PutinIs Vladimir Putin’s Russia rising, declining or stagnating, and compared to whom?

The answer to this question is of fundamental importance for the U.S. and the global order. Changes in Russia’s standing shape America’s and other great powers’ policies toward Russia, as well as Russia’s own policies toward other countries. Measuring the dynamics of Russia’s power in the 21st century is also of vital importance to the U.S. because Russia will continue to impact America’s national interests and the global order in profound ways in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. The alternate positions that Russia can take on a number of issues central to U.S. national security affect the safety and security of America in substantial ways.

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