In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Originally posted on March 26. Last updated on May 28, 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.

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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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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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russians have come to think that President Vladimir Putin represents the interests of oligarchs above everyone else, according to the latest Levada Center poll. Thirty-eight percent of respondents in the March 2020 national survey said Putin is a champion of the oligarchs, a perception that has been rising since 2001. This is the first time oligarchs have overtaken “siloviki"—members of Russia’s so-called power agencies—as the top group whose interests Putin represents, which 37 percent of respondents chose in the 2020 poll (see Table 1).  The shift is remarkable, given the previously popular view that Putin, a former KGB agent, upon becoming president, was observed soon putting the interests of security, intelligence and defense agencies first. (In fact, a smiling Putin told a meeting of the Federal Security Service top brass less than a fortnight after becoming acting president of Russia: “A group of FSB colleagues dispatched to work undercover in the government has successfully completed its first mission.”)

Third on the list in Levada’s most recent poll are government officials and bureaucrats, with 28 percent of respondents saying Putin represents their interests. The middle class, heads of large enterprises and ordinary people have hovered in the middle of the pack since 2000, with 18 percent, 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in the most recent poll. Directors/CEOs of large enterprises rank fourth on the list of groups Putin represents, according to the March 2020 poll. The share of Russians who hold that view has declined from 25 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2020, but it is still higher than the share of Russians who believe Putin is representing the interests of all Russians. The view that Putin is a champion of all Russians “without exception” has waned over the past three years. That view peaked at 17 percent in 2016- 2017, but then shrank by more than half to a mere 9 percent in 2020. While Putin is now seen more as a champion of the oligarchs than the siloviki, most Russians still believe Putin relies most upon the latter in his rule. Forty-six percent of respondents in 2020 hold that view (see Table 2). Oligarchs and government officials trailed behind with 37 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
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The share of Russians who are in a state of permanent fear of a world war has declined somewhat since 2018, but it continues to exceed the share of those who have no such fear at all by almost 100 percent, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s respected independent pollster, which has been polling Russians about their fears since the mid-1990s. As of March 2020, 40 percent of Russians polled responded that they live in “constant fear” of a world war, compared to 42 percent in 2019, 46 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2012 (see table 2). Levada’s polls also show that in March 2020, fear of a world war was the second-largest concern of Russians surveyed (see table 1).
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The U.S. State Department on April 1 released new figures on compliance with the New START Treaty as reported by the U.S. and Russia. The numbers show that in March 2020, Russia declared 1326 deployed warheads (1426 in the previous update in September 2019), 485 deployed delivery systems (513 in September) and 754 total delivery systems (757 in September).

The U.S. in March 2020 declared 1373 deployed warheads (1376 in September), 655 deployed delivery systems (668 in September) and 800 total delivery systems (also 800 in September). The reduction in Russian numbers was probably caused by the decommissioning of single-warhead Topol (SS-25 Sickle) ICBMs, according to Pavel Podvig.
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