Contestable Claims

Sometimes we see a huge gap between Russia-related claims, even by top officials and respected authors, and the reality on the ground. Some of these misconceptions may, in turn, lead to ill-informed policies. Here is RM’s attempt to fact-check contestable claims of recent years. We've adopted the "traffic light" rating system: red for false; yellow for partially correct; green for true. This list will grow with time and we welcome your suggestions for new claims to check.

What else should we check?
Claim in 2016: Voter turnout in Russia’s State Duma election was significantly higher than in most European countries.
No, it was significantly lower than in most European countries.
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Source of the claim: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (Sept. 2016).

Official turnout at Russia’s nationwide parliamentary election of Sept. 18, 2016, was 47.9% of registered voters. “It cannot be called low,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists the following day. “In a majority of European states, turnout is much lower and that reflects the reality—the proportion of politically active [people in the] population.” He then reiterated [RU] that Russia's “numbers are higher than the average in Europe, significantly higher.”

That does not seem to be the case based on the available numbers. This official Eurostat table gives voter turnout for national elections in 34 European countries from 1990 to 2014; of the 139 elections between 2000 and 2014, only six—or 4%—had turnout lower than 47.9%. The EU 28-country average for those years ranged from 68% in 2012-2014 to 71.4% in 2000 and 2002.

Since late 2014, there have been more than two dozen nationwide elections in Europe. As the table below shows, voter turnout was lower than Russia’s in only two instances, the first round of Croatia’s presidential election in 2014 and Romania’s 2016 legislative election. (Just for comparison, turnout in the 2016 U.S. presidential election reportedly dipped to its lowest point in 20 years: 55%.)

Country, Election Type, Date

Voter Turnout

Croatia, presidential (1st round), Dec. 2014

47.12%

Croatia, presidential (2nd round), Jan. 2015

59.05%

Greece, legislative, Jan. 2015

63.6%

Andorra, parliamentary, March 2015

65.6%

Poland, presidential (1st round), May 2015

48.96%

Poland, presidential (2nd round), May 2015

55.34%

Denmark, parliamentary, June 2015

85.8%

Turkey, general, June 2015

83.92%

Turkey, general, Nov. 2015

85.18%

Faroe Islands, general, 2015

88.8%

Estonia, parliamentary, 2015

64.2%

Finland, parliamentary, 2015

70.1%

Greece, legislative, Sept. 2015

56.6%

Poland, parliamentary, 2015

50.92%

Portugal, legislative, 2015

55.8%

Spain, general, 2015

69.7%

Switzerland, federal, 2015

48.5%

United Kingdom, general, 2015

66.4%

Portugal, presidential, Jan. 2016

48.66%

Ireland, parliamentary, Feb. 2016

65.1%

Slovakia, parliamentary, March 2016

59.82%

Austria, presidential (1st round), April 2016

68.5%

Serbia, parliamentary, April 2016

56.07%

Scotland, parliamentary, May 2016

55.6%

Northern Ireland, parliamentary, May 2016

54.9%

Iceland, presidential, June 2016

75.7%

Spain, general, June 2016

66.48%

Iceland, parliamentary, Oct. 2016

79.19%

Lithuania, parliamentary, Oct. 2016

50.6%

Croatia, legislative, Nov. 2016

54.35%

Macedonia, parliamentary, Dec. 2016

66.79%

Montenegro, parliamentary, 2016

73.33%

Romania, legislative, 2016

39.5%

Hover over or click on percentages to see sources. Unfortunately, due to our lack of language proficiency, we were able to get official figures only from those countries that give voter-turnout data in English; the other numbers come from Wikipedia. If you catch any mistakes, or can confirm the data, please let us know!

Claim in 2017: "Because we [the U.S.] have stood firm, Russia is now—despite the boasts of its leaders—plagued by dwindling financial reserves, a historically weak ruble and poor international relations."
The Russian ruble is now stronger versus the U.S. dollar than at any time since Fall 2015.
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Source of the claim: outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Jan. 2017)

The Russian currency traded at more than 59 rubles to the dollar in the first three weeks of January 2017, according to XE.com's data on historical exchange rates of major currencies, as well as to Russia's Central Bank. According to XE, the ruble's historical low came in January 2016 when a dollar could buy more than 80 rubles. The ruble has been appreciating against the dollar since then, becoming the world's best performing national currency in 2016, according to Bloomberg. It's also worth noting that the predominant view among experts on the Russian economy is that the single largest factor behind changes in the exchange rate of the Russian ruble is the price of oil, not Western sanctions. See, for instance, a recent study of the causal relationship between the price of oil and the rate of the Russian ruble by Tomas Urbanovsky.

Russian ruble's performance vs. U.S. dollar.
Claim in 2016: Russia’s “economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”
Russia also successfully sells goods and services in the space and nuclear-power industries.
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Source of the claim: U.S. President Barack Obama (Dec. 2016).

Russia also successfully sells space launch services, rocket engines, nuclear fuel and nuclear power stations to other countries, including the U.S. and EU members.

  • U.S. and European astronauts would have no way of getting to the International Space Station and back if they weren’t buying rides on Russian-made spacecraft.
  • The American government and American companies have also been purchasing Russian fuel to power inter-planetary missions and even engines to power rockets that launch satellites to … spy on Russia. The U.S. alone has spent billions of dollars on launch services and space equipment from post-Soviet Russia.
  • Other countries also buy nuclear power plants from Russia, whose Rosatom company has repeatedly beaten Western competitors to win NPP tenders around the globe, amassing billions of dollars’ worth of orders. Rosatom is currently working on 26 reactor projects in 13 countries, including Hungary and Finland, according to Reuters. By comparison, Westinghouse is working on eight of its AP1000 plants, according to the news agency.
  • While energy did account for 59% of Russia’s $227 billion worth of exports in January-October 2016, machinery, equipment and transport vehicles accounted for another 7%, while metal and metal products accounted for 10%. Not all of these products were arms, given that Russian arms exports are projected to total $15 billion this year.

In short, it is an exaggeration to claim that Russia doesn’t export anything “that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”

Claim in 2016: Russia’s GDP contracted by 40% between 2013 and 2015. Its economy is now half the size of Great Britain’s.
Correct only when measured in current USD without adjusting for inflation or other variations.
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Source of the claims: the Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens (Nov. 2016).

Both claims are correct only when gross domestic product is measured in "current U.S. dollars," meaning it is calculated at market exchange rates for national currencies without adjusting either for inflation or for variations in the cost of living. Other ways to measure GDP include using "constant prices," which have been adjusted for inflation, and/or purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, which are adjusted for differences in the cost of goods and services in each country. According to the CIA's World Factbook, “market exchange rates are frequently established by a relatively small set of goods and services (the ones the country trades) and may not capture the value of the larger set of goods the country produces… The data derived from the PPP method probably provide the best available starting point for comparisons of economic strength and well-being between countries.”

In short, when tested by any of the World Bank's measures of GDP other than current U.S. dollars, the claims do not hold up and Russia's economic picture looks much rosier:

Claim 1: Russia’s GDP contracted by 40% between 2013 and 2015.

Different measures of GDP

Year 2013

Year 2014

Year 2015

% change

RUS GDP (constant rubles), bn

62589

63031

60682

-3%

RUS GDP (current rubles), bn

71017

77945

80804

14%

RUS GDP (current US dollars), bn

2231

2031

1326

-41%

RUS GDP at market prices (constant 2010 dollars), bn

1667

1679

1616

-3%

RUS GDP, PPP (constant 2011 international dollars), bn

3608

3634

3498

-3%

RUS GDP, PPP (current international dollars), bn

3468

3666

3580

3%

Source: World Bank

Claim 2: Russia's economy is now half the size of Great Britain’s.

Again, the numbers depend on the way of calculating GDP. If measured in terms of PPP and adjusted for inflation, Russia's economy in 2015 was actually larger than Britain's. Final data for 2016 were not available as of this writing, but given estimates that Russia's economy will shrink by 0.6%, while Britain's will grow by 2%, the numbers should not be wildly different from 2015's.

Different measures of GDP

RUS GDP as % of GBR GDP in 2015

RUS GDP as % of GBR GDP in current US dollars

47%

RUS GDP as % of GBR GDP in constant 2010 dollars

61%

RUS GDP as % of GBR GDP in PPP constant 2011 international dollars

139%

RUS GDP as % of GBR GDP in PPP current  international dollars

133%

Source: World Bank

Claims in 2014-2015: Russia’s population is shrinking.
It’s been growing since 2009.
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Sources of the claim: former Secretary of Defense William Perry (Dec. 2015); former deputy Treasury secretary Roger Altman (Feb. 2015); Harvard professor Stephen Walt (Feb. 2015); President Barack Obama (Aug. 2014).

  • Though Russia’s population declined precipitously after the Soviet collapse, it has been growing steadily from 2009 to 2015, the last year for which World Bank data are available. Net population loss between 1992 and 2015 was 3%—clearly a negative trend, though far less than in smaller ex-Soviet republics like the Baltics, Georgia, Armenia and even Ukraine. This is not to say that Russia’s demographic challenges are over: Vast swaths of the country are very sparsely populated and some researchers have projected that the steep drop in fertility rates in the 1990s will result in a significant decline in the number of women of childbearing age in the coming years, which, combined with high mortality rates, will lead to renewed population decline that will be hard to make up for even with high levels of immigration. That said, as of 2015, these forecasts had not yet materialized and population continued to inch upward.
Claims in 2015-2016: Russia is internationally isolated.
This is debatable.
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Sources of the claim: former Kremlin consultant Gleb Pavlovsky in Foreign Affairs (April 2016); Defense Secretary Ash Carter (October 2015); President Barack Obama (Jan. 2015).

  • Indeed, Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis, since early 2014, has resulted in painful sanctions and plenty of international censure.
  • However, 69 UN member states, including some U.S. allies, did not support a U.S.-backed UN resolution declaring that Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula was illegal (March 2014).
  • Even while the G7 countries canceled their planned meeting in Sochi (March 2014) and then met without Russia (June 2014), Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcomed by fellow heads of state at the BRICS summit in Brazil (July 2014).
  • China has repeatedly vowed friendship with Russia and its Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said early on that “China categorically opposes the [Western] sanctions” (Sept. 2014).
  • Despite high tensions and a chilly reception, Putin attended the G20 summit in Australia (Nov. 2014).
  • At the time of the claims, Russia hosted a slew of heads of state—including Brazil’s, China’s, Germany’s, Egypt’s, India’s, Israel’s and South Africa’s—at a WWII commemoration, bilateral meetings, three summits and an aviation/military expo also attended by the King of Jordan (May-Sept. 2015).
  • By mid-2016, the intention to isolate Russia seemed to grow markedly softer, even among U.S. allies and international organizations, not to mention American businesses. “A-listers” once again attended Putin’s St. Petersburg economic forum, among them European leaders, the UN secretary general and powerful CEOs including Exxon Mobil’s (June 2016). Japan actively pursued better relations with Russia, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting twice despite U.S. requests not to (May, Sept. 2016).
  • Even Washington has had to partner with Moscow to broker a ceasefire, however fragile, in Syria’s raging war (Sept. 2016).

If this trend continues, people will certainly say that Russia is coming out of its international isolation. And that will be partly true—just as it was only partly true that Russia was internationally isolated to begin with.

Written in September 2016.

Claim in 2014: Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity.
Russia’s international migrant population is the world’s third largest.
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Source of the claim: U.S. President Barack Obama (Aug. 2014).

While the U.S. was estimated to host nearly one-fifth, or about 46.6 million, of the world’s total international migrants in 2015, U.N. data for that year shows Russia in third place among host countries, with over 11.6 million international migrants, a large portion of them in Moscow. Germany, with 12 million, claimed second place.

As early as 2000 and as recently as 2013, Russia ranked as the #2 destination in the world for international migrants, outnumbering then-third-place Germany by 2-3 million.