In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Originally posted on March 26. Last updated on Aug. 3, 2020.

As cases of COVID-19 rise around the globe, upending daily life and forcing much of the world into pandemic-related lockdowns or other restrictions, many are wondering when the outbreak may peak in their countries and some sort of return to normal may begin. One person who correctly predicted the peak of the virus in China is Nobel prize winner Michael Levitt.

At the end of February, Levitt correctly forecast that China’s cases would total around 80,000 with approximately 3,250 deaths. As of March 16, with its outbreak considered largely under control, China had reported 80,298 cases total and 3,245 deaths. In making his prediction, Levitt focused not on the total number of diagnosed cases, but on the rate at which the number of daily confirmed cases changed.

We have tried to follow Levitt’s approach to measure and compare the rate of daily confirmed cases in the U.S. and Russia using data from Johns Hopkins University. Please see our results below.

Putin and Medvedev
Russians’ trust and approval for President Vladimir Putin has slightly increased from low points in May and April, although it is still significantly lower than in previous years, according to a poll conducted June 27-28 by independent polling organization, the Levada Center. The percentage of respondents who approve of Putin’s actions as president has fallen from 79 percent in 2018 to 60 percent in June of this year. Previously, Putin’s approval dropped precipitously from 69 percent in February 2020 to an all-time low of 59 percent in April 2020, coinciding with the spread of the novel coronavirus in Russia. It has since regained a percentage point.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping
Both American and Russian participants at a recent Center for the National Interest event expect U.S. dual containment of China and Russia to continue, even though all believe such a policy is flawed, and some believe it is unsustainable. Russian participants, meanwhile, think that Russia will remain an independent pole, even as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the transition to a bipolar world order dominated by the U.S. and China, by engaging countries that do not wish to firmly align with either China or the U.S.

The participating experts generally agreed that the United States’ policy of dual containment against both Russia and China is flawed. According to J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to China, dual containment is “unnecessary and detrimental.” Paul Heer from the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI) added that even before the pandemic, the U.S. simply did not have the capacity to continue its policy of dual containment. However, there was also a consensus among participants that regardless of the advisability of such a policy, dual containment is probably here to stay, no matter who ends up in the White House after America’s November elections.
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loaded gun
In a Foreign Affairs essay published online in December 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of weaponizing corruption, among other things. “Russia has invaded neighboring countries… More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy and corruption,” he wrote together with his co-author, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. Biden’s observation made us wonder what else Russia has been accused of weaponizing in recent years. Here’s the list we have come up with...
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A poll with a happy face, neutral face and a sad face where someone is checking off the box next to the neutral face.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already pushed Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings to historically low levels, and it may be that the ratings of the Russian leader, his government and his party are not done falling just yet.

Lower Approval, Trust in Putin
A poll conducted in April and released in May by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the Levada Center, shows that 59 percent of Russians approve of Putin’s actions as president. While leaders of some other countries would take such a low point on any day, this figure actually represents Putin’s lowest approval rating in his 20 year tenure as Russia’s leader. Levada’s poll also shows that Putin’s approval ratings have decreased over the last few months: in February, his approval ratings were reported at 69 percent; in March, 63 percent.

Other Russian polling organizations’ reports support the Levada Center’s findings. While the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) reports slightly higher numbers, approval ratings nonetheless seem to have slipped according to this organization as well. VTsIOM poll numbers from the beginning of February show that 66.1 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s work as president, and by the organization’s May 10 poll, this number had dropped to 61 percent. Another organization, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which is formally independent but has allegedly partially relied on doing work for the Kremlin, confirms this trend as well, showing that 62 percent of Russians believed that Putin was doing good work as of May 24, compared to 65 percent at the beginning of February.
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Almost half of Russians expect layoffs within their household in the coming months and almost one-third have already had someone in their household recently fired, according to an April 26-28 poll by Russia’s most respected independent polling organization, Levada Center. Moreover,  more than a third of the poll’s respondents said they or their family members have already experienced pay cuts (see table 1). In contrast, when surveyed by Levada in October 2019, only 14 percent of Russians reported recent layoffs in their household, and 27 percent were expecting to lose their jobs in the near future (see table 1). Since October, the shares of respondents suffering from pay cuts and wage arrears have all increased dramatically. Respondents experiencing wage delays increased from 13 percent in October to 25 percent in April, while the share of those who saw their wages cut went from 14 percent to 32 percent in the same period of time.
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A majority of young Russians distrust NATO more than any other organization and disagree that Russia is a European country, according to a recent poll conducted by Russia’s independent Levada Center and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

These organizations’ research on the opinions of Russia’s “Generation Z” (aged 14 to 29) revealed that 80 percent expressed a strong to moderate degree of distrust toward NATO (Graph 1). While the organizations’ report does not speculate on the reasons for young Russia’s distrust of NATO, they note that institutional trust “requires recognition of an institution’s status and its significance as a symbol in maintaining social integrity and exerting influence on various areas of public life and its rank in the system of collective values.” This suggests that Russia’s youth does not recognize the status or symbolic significance of NATO or the other international organizations that enjoy the least amount of trust according to the survey. The Levada Center/Friedrich Ebert Foundation poll also revealed that 58 percent of young respondents rather or strongly disagree with the notion that Russia is a European country (Graph 2). This distrust of the West is mirrored in the general Russian population, but to a lesser degree. A January 2020 Levada poll found that just over half of respondents, 52 percent, agreed that Russia has cause to be wary of NATO, and 37 percent have a negative view of the EU.
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Elbe meeting
This month 75 years ago, U.S. and Soviet forces linked up on the Elbe River in Germany at the end of the European phase of World War II. The anniversary prompted current leaders of the U.S. and Russia to transcend the frosty relations between their countries and issue a rare joint declaration that cited the meeting as “an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.” What the declaration did not say, however, is that the April 25, 1945 link-up featured some deliberate flouting of military orders that led to friendly fire. On that day, U.S. Army and Red Army servicemen took turns violating orders issued by their commanders to ensure a safe and orderly meeting at the Elbe River, including instructions to fire green (U.S. Army) and red (Red Army) flares and a ban on straying outside zones designated for patrol (U.S. Army), according to an account based on first-hand recollections of that meeting’s participants published in Russia’s Kommersant daily. 
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More than half of Russian men and women believe the problem of sexual harassment is either exaggerated or is not a problem at all, according to the Levada Center’s March 2020 poll. As many as 51 percent of women believe this problem is exaggerated, and 8 percent don’t see it as a problem. 

As for men, 60 percent believe the problem is exaggerated and 11 percent don’t see it as problem at all. Additionally, older respondents were less likely to see sexual harassment an issue, according to the poll (see charts below). 
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rainbow flag
Russians’ tolerance of gays, lesbians and other individuals the Levada Center refers to as people “whose behavior differs from commonly accepted norms” has increased over the years, but the latest survey by this independent pollster still shows that almost every fifth Russian supports the “liquidation” of same-sex couples. In 1994, 22 percent of respondents said that gays and lesbians should be “liquidated,” while 29 percent said they should be left to themselves. In 2020, fewer respondents, 18 percent, supported harsh measures against homosexuals, and more respondents, 32 percent, were in favor of leaving them to themselves (see Table 2).

Other “deviant” groups are also not looked on kindly by some Russians. For instance, 15 percent of Russians polled by Levada in March said they think drug addicts should be “liquidated” and 9 percent said the same of feminists (see Table 1). However, in 1989, more than double the number of respondents, 31 percent, said they were in favor of eliminating drug addicts (see Table 3). Also in 1989, 30 percent of those polled supported the “liquidation” of prostitutes, a number that has decreased by more than two-thirds to 9 percent in 2020 (see Table 4).
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