In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Originally posted on March 26, 2020. Last updated on Jan. 26, 2021.

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.

2021
The Levada Center has just released the results of its latest annual poll on the most significant events of the past year, and, predictably, the global coronavirus outbreak tops the list. As many as 39 percent of Russians believe the pandemic was the most significant event of 2020, while another 11 percent see the most significant event of 2020 as the amendments to the Russian Constitution, which have been designed to firm Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power and reset the number of presidential term limits this veteran leader can serve, according to the poll (see Table 1). Rising prices came in third, according to Levada. In contrast, the share of Russians who view the 2020 presidential elections in the U.S. as the most important event of the past year was below the poll’s margin of error of 2.4 percent, totaling just 1 percent.
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books
From the U.S. and Russia's contributions to subduing ISIS and the agreements that keep the two nuclear superpowers from stumbling into war, to the reverberations of conflicts in Russia's near abroad and why U.S. policy toward Moscow should not create incentives for closer Russia-China ties, Russia Matters' most popular reads of 2020 address a variety of challenging geopolitical questions. Check them out below. 

Top 10 of 2020
1. Who ‘Defeated’ ISIS? An Analysis of US and Russian Contributions
by Domitilla Sagramoso
There can be little doubt that the U.S. and its allies played a much bigger role in subduing the terror group than Russia. But ISIS has plenty of life in it yet and any alleged victory is fragile.

2. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Russia
by RM Staff
What have the president-elect and vice president-elect said on the U.S. policies they advocate on key Russia-related issues, as well as their views on Russia itself?

3. Armenia-Azerbaijan War: Military Dimensions of the Conflict
by Michael Kofman
This large scale conventional war between the two countries is likely to upend the status quo of territorial control in the region.
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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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survey
The share of Russians who expect their country’s relations with America to improve under the newly-elected U.S. president declined threefold from 46 percent in 2016 after Donald Trump’s election to 12 percent in 2020 after Joe Biden’s election, according to Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center. At the same time, while only 10 percent of Russians expected in 2016 that U.S.-Russian relations would deteriorate under Trump, 30 percent of Russians now expect such deterioration during Biden’s presidency. The share of Russians who expected the bilateral relationship to remain the same increased from 29 percent in 2016 to 45 percent in 2020 (table 1).

As for Russians’ current views of the U.S., these views have also become less optimistic since last year. Almost half of Russians had either a very good or mostly good view of America in November 2019 (47 percent). In contrast, about one-third of Russians held such views in November 2020 (35 percent). The same period also saw the share of Russians with a mostly bad or very bad view of the U.S. increase from 41 percent to 51 percent (table 2).
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voter
Despite Russians showing less interest in the 2020 U.S. presidential election than they did in the 2016 election, Russian media and government officials are still closely following the race between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. While pro-Kremlin media and Russian government officials have highlighted the possibility of civil unrest as a result of the close, contested race, others see democracy at work, like opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who called the still undecided vote “a real election.” A couple common threads, however, seem to be a belief that neither Trump nor Biden is necessarily “better” for Russia, and that the only clear outcome of the 2020 election so far is the deeply divided nature of American society. Check out our compilation of takes on the U.S. election from Russian media and officials.
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Trump and Biden at last presidential debate
Fewer Russians believe U.S. President Donald Trump will be better for Russia than they did in 2016, though the president is still more popular among Russians than Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Only 16 percent of Russians polled said that Trump would be better for Russia than Biden, a substantial decrease from 2016 when 60 percent of those polled considered Trump the best candidate for Russia, according to new polling from the Levada Center. The majority, some 65 percent, responded that, for Russia, it was irrelevant who won the U.S. presidential election (see Table 1).

At the same time, fewer Russians are paying attention to the presidential election than in 2016. Only 11 percent of those polled said they were attentively following the election, compared to 15 percent in 2016. Fifty-one percent said they had heard something about the election, compared to 76 percent in October 2016.
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Putin and Mishustin
Despite experiencing a decline in public opinion numbers for much of this tumultuous year, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has begun to rise again, returning to early 2020 levels, and the approval ratings of most major government institutions have maintained stability as well. New Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, however, has become more of a polarizing figure in Russian society over the past few months, according to the Levada Center.
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television
Russians continue to reduce their dependency on television as a news source, and they also trust TV less and less in what may be bad news for the Kremlin, which has relied on its control of this electronic medium to massage public opinion.

Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center, surveyed 1,600 individuals in 137 settlements across 50 regions of Russia on Aug. 20-26, 2020, finding that 48 percent of Russians named television as their most trusted news source. That makes Russia’s national and regional television channels, the majority of which the state and its loyalists have come to control during Vladimir Putin’s more than 20-year rule, more trusted than any other news source in Russia as of August 2020.
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Russian nationalist rally in Moscow, Nov. 4, 2014
Slightly more than half (51%) of Russians either support implementing the idea of “Russia for [ethnic] Russians” or think it would be good to implement “within reasonable limits,” according to a Levada Center poll of 1,600 people in 137 localities across 50 of Russia’s 80-plus regions conducted Aug. 20-26, 2020. This represents a decline of 4 percentage points compared to August 2019 when 55% of Russians held this view. In the 19 years that the independent pollster has been asking Russians for their opinions about the idea of “Россия для русских,” or “Russia for [ethnic] Russians,” (2002-2020), the share of respondents who supported its implementation—with or without “reasonable limits”—peaked in October 2013 (66%) and was lowest in July 2017 (45%). With the exception of 2017-2018 the share of Russians who supported implementing this idea never fell below 50% (see table below).
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