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Putin's Russia: Claims vs Reality

Several baseless myths about contemporary Russia are given widespread currency by the mainstream Western press

Originally appeared at Huffington Post

When Barack Obama attends the G20 summit in Turkey on November 15-16, he will meet a man who, in the U.S. president's own words, leads "a regional power" that has become "isolated", and "doesn't make anything" with its "economy in tatters" and immigrants shunning it. Some of America's leading policy-shapers share their president's view of Vladimir Putin and Russia. Stephen Kinzer of Brown University believes Russia is "on the brink of economic collapse" while Rajan Menon of the City College of New York maintains that "Russia has been reduced to a regional power." Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Brett Stephens even sees "the beginning of Mr. Putin's undoing" while former deputy U.S. Treasury secretary Roger Altman asserts that "Russia is on the edge." "Its population is small and declining, life expectancy is falling," according to Altman. Jeffrey Gedmin of Georgetown University too sees negative demographic trends in Russia, arguing that "in Mr. Putin's Russia, infant mortality is up and life expectancy is down." But how much do these claims correspond with reality? Let us examine them one by one:

Russia is isolated: While some Western governments do shun the Kremlin over the crisis in Ukraine, others eagerly visit Russia to profess their friendship. India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told her host and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in October that "Russia is India's tried and tested partner and a real friend" while China's ambassador to Russia Li Hui has rowed that "China and Russia are together now like lips and teeth." Both India and China are Russia's partners in the BRICS organization as well as in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). When Vladimir Putin decided to organize back-to-back summits of BRICS, SCO and the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth in Ufa earlier this year, not only all of the participating countries were represented by their leaders at these events, but leaders of India and Pakistan sought and received membership in SCO for their countries. All in all 14 heads of states attended the events in Ufa. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is probably exaggerating, but his estimate that 40 countries and unions would like to be partners of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union does cast doubt on claims of Russia's isolation. These July 2015 summits were then followed by visits of Jordanian, Egyptian and Abu Dhabi leaders who came to see what Russian-made warplanes and air weapons would be exhibited at MAKS-2015 outside Moscow in August 2015.  

Russia is a regional power: If Russia were a regional power, then what exactly were Russian diplomats doing, helping their American counterparts to secure an agreement to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons in the fall of 2013 and to look for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria in the fall of 2015? And how come America's new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his deputy refer to Russia an "existential threat" while NATO's secretary general is calling Russia is a "global actor?" Can the country with the largest number of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet many times over be described as a regional power?

Russia doesn't make anything: If this claim were true, then whose cruise missiles have recently traversed the Caspian Sea and two countries 1,500 km to hit targets in Syria? Russian companies make and sell enough weapons for Russia to remain the second largest exporter of arms in the world with the portfolio of outstanding orders for Russian-made arms exceeding $40 billion. In the meantime, Russia's nuclear corporation Rosatom reports that its order book consists of overseas projects worth more than $100 million. Not all common Americans might be aware of the Russian weapons and nuclear power plants, but surely at least some of the U.S. policy makers must know that the only way U.S. astronauts can get to and from the International Space Station is ask the Russian space agency to give them a ride in Russian-made Soyuz-TMA crew craft launched by a Russian-made Soyuz rocket. It can also be noted that the Russian RD-180 engines have been powering U.S. Atlas rockets - that the American government relies upon to launch military cargos into orbit - for years while Russian-made nuclear fuel has been used to power U.S. inter-planetary missions. Russia has also held a record for the sharpest satellite imaging of the Earth with a resolution of 121 megapixels.

Russia's economy is in tatters and on the brink of collapse with immigrants are shunning the country: The World Bank's baseline scenario for Russia as of September 2015 does anticipate contractions of Russian GDP by 3.8 percent in 2015 and 0.6 percent in 2016 before the economy recovers to post a growth rate of 1.5 percent in 2017. That's obviously bad news for the Russian economy, which has been battered by decline in oil prices and, to a less extent, by Western sanctions, but not exactly catastrophic, especially if compared to neighboring Ukraine, whose GDP is forecast to shrink by 12% this year. As ex-first deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank Sergey Aleksashenko, who has no love lost for Putin's ways of managing the Russian economy, notes, the collapse of the Russian economy is not in the cards and it's "more stable than many believe." It is true that the current economic contraction in Russia has prompted many foreign citizens to leave this country, but it would still be wrong to claim that "immigrants aren't rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity" as Mr. Obama has done. Some 2 million foreign citizens are officially registered as residing in Moscow as of 2015, accounting for more than 16% of the Russian capital's population, according to the city police force's estimate. And Russia was second only to US in the number of immigrants living in it as of 2013. U.S. hosted 45.8 million immigrants while Russia hosted 11 million and Germany hosted 9 million that year, according to the United Nations' population division.

Russia's population is declining: While Mr. Altman and others claim that Russia's population is declining and life expectancy is falling, the opposite is actually true. Russia's population grew from 2008 to 2014, which is the latest year that the World Bank' databases offer information on population of Russia as of November 2015. Moreover, Russia also registered the so-called natural population increase in with the number of births exceeding the number of deaths in June - October 2014, if Russia's state statistical service were to be believed. Though this positive trend discontinued in November 2014, but Russia's population nevertheless grew in the first seven months of 2015 thanks to the inbound immigration, according to Russia's statistical service. Neither do Mr. Gedmin's claims -- that infant mortality is up and life expectancy is down in Russia -- hold water. Life expectancy has been growing in Russia since 2004 while infant mortality has been declining since the 1990s. Finally, would you call the population of a country which is in the Top 10 of the world's most populous countries and which is home to 140 million people, "small" as Mr. Gedmin does?

Putin's political end is near: If that was the case, then how come polls conducted by Russia's most respected independent pollster Levada Cente show that the share of Russians who approve of the activities of Vladimir Putin has grown from 61% in late 2013 to 88 percent in late 2015? While the Russian economy is in recession, the World Bank expects it to start growing again in 2017 and Putin's government has accumulated enough hard currency reserves to ride out 2-3 years to pay public servants and pensioners until the economy improves.

Russia's leaders and population are facing a number of long-term adverse trends, including inefficiency of the economy, insufficient quality of governance, pervasive corruption, fragility of demographic improvements, home-grown and transnational terrorism, instability in neighboring countries and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction But the existence of these long-term trends, confluence of some of which, if unaddressed, could eventually come to pose very serious challenges to the Russian statehood, is no excuse for misunderstanding or distorting the current realities in Russia. A sound policy toward any country begins with clear understanding of key facts that characterize it. When crafting policies toward Russia, U.S. and other Western leaders would do well by keeping that in mind.

PS See some of the graphs I have drawn using data from the World Bank to illustrate how wrong could be some of the claims on Russia here.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. Follow him on Twitter:

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