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 2017: Russians’ “life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.”
That is the most recent ranking, given by the CIA. Slightly older World Bank and U.N. rankings came close.
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Source of the claim: Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University professor and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics (April 2017)

Prof. Stiglitz cites the CIA’s World Factbook for his claim and that resource does indeed rank Russia 153rd out of 224 countries and territories for life expectancy at birth in 2016. As of this writing that seemed to be the most recent estimate available. The United Nations and the World Bank rank the life expectancy of Russians at birth as 150th in 2010-2015 and 151st in 2014, respectively. The World Health Organization, however, ranks Russia as 110th out of 183 countries for 2015.

Claim in 2017: “In terms of per capita income, Russia ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity)…”
While the CIA ranks Russia 73rd, the country's lowest ranking from either the World Bank or IMF in their most recent data is 52nd.
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Source of the claim: Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University professor and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics (April 2017)

Professor Stiglitz did not cite a source for his estimate. However, it is probable that the "73rd" rank comes from the CIA's World Factbook, which estimates GDP (PPP) per capita for 230 countries and territories in 2016. In addition to this likely source of Stiglitz's claim, we turned to the databases of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to check his number against their latest estimates of Russia’s per capita income in terms of purchasing power parity for the most recent years available vis-à-vis other countries. The results are below. 

Source Metric Year Russia's rank out of how many countries
CIA GDP (PPP) per capita 2016 73rd out of 230
IMF GDP (PPP) per capita in current international $ 2016 50th out of 188
World Bank GDP (PPP) per capita in constant 2011 international $ 2015 49th out of 183
World Bank GDP (PPP) per capita in current international $ 2015 52nd out of 182
World Bank GNI (PPP) per capita in constant 2011 international $ 2015 44th out of 135
World Bank GNI (PPP) per capita in current international $ 2015 51st out of 178

NB: Absolute figures for GDP can be viewed in our Facts section.

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."
At the time of this statement the Russian ruble was 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 and 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 in the year 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.