In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Originally posted on March 26, 2020. Last updated on April 20, 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.

handshake
Nearly half of Russians and Americans believe that relations between the two countries will not change over the next 10 years, though more than 60 percent of Americans and Russians see areas for cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and responding to epidemics, according to recent polling from the Levada Center and Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Only 10 percent of Americans and 19 percent of Russians believe relations will improve within the next 10 years. Forty-three percent of Americans and 29 percent of Russians believe relations will get worse, while the plurality of Russians and Americans believe relations will not change within the next decade, according to the Levada poll conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 2.
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dolphins
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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rubles
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, as well as U.S. President George H.W. Bush, are well known to have worked effectively with their Soviet counterparts to advance bilateral arms control. What is less known is that Reagan, Bush and successive presidents also sought to convince the Kremlin to give the market economy a chance, as they believed that a transition by the Soviet Union to a market economy would have been in America’s interest. The 1992 Freedom Support Act submitted by the Bush Administration to Congress, for example, stated that “recent developments in Russia and other independent states of the former Soviet Union present an historic opportunity for a transition of the independent states of the former Soviet Union into the community of democratic nations…the entire international community has a vital interest in the success of this transition.”

Today, Russia’s transition to a market economy is at least partially completed, though estimates point to the state holding between 33 and 46 percent of the economy, with this control concentrated in “strategic” sectors such as energy and banking. Nevertheless, this transition did not succeed in embedding Russia into the Western camp. Nor did a similar effort to encourage China’s transition to a market economy yield the results the West had hoped for, such as democratization of the Middle Kingdom and its alignment with the U.S. and its allies.

Despite this, promoting worldwide economic reform has remained popular among U.S. leaders; most recently, Donald Trump sought to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of the benefits of a market economy during their 2018 summit in Singapore. Below, we have compiled a selection of calls for economic reform in Russia, in chronological order, made by U.S. presidents and their administrations beginning with Ronald Reagan.
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The share of Russians relying on television as a main source of news continues to decline, while the number of those who depend on social media or internet publications for news is on the rise. Although Russian social media sites remain popular, Russian usage figures of non-Russian sites with video capabilities such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are growing at significantly faster rates. These factors present worrying trends for the Kremlin, which depends heavily on television and a controlled information space to broadcast its message to the Russian public.

Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center, surveyed 1,600 individuals in 137 settlements across 50 regions of Russia on Jan. 29-Feb. 2, 2021, and found that 64 percent of Russians cited television as a source from which they most often learn about news. This figure, while the highest of all listed media, has been in steady retreat since Levada began asking the question in August 2009. Meanwhile, over the same time period, Levada found that both social networks and internet publications greatly increased in popularity as news sources. Throughout much of 2020, percentages for reliance on both of these forms of media had remained stagnant; these latest figures thus represent a jump upward beginning in 2021.
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stock market
A year after the coronavirus pandemic plunged the global economy into turmoil and sent stock markets tumbling, Russia has emerged as one of the world’s best performers.

Russia’s economy shrank by just 3.1% in 2020 — far less than advanced economies — and could reach its pre-pandemic size within the next 12 months. The most recent praise for Russia’s handling of the crisis came from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which said Moscow had surpassed expectations in dealing with the crisis and upgraded its forecasts for the year ahead.

That Russia’s strong performance came after five years of stagnation is no coincidence, economists say, and has triggered fresh debate over whether Russia has managed to conquer the pernicious boom-and-bust cycle, and what other countries can learn from its example.

“Russia has definitely made huge progress in terms of beating boom and bust,” said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance (IIF). 
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Russian state duma
Despite a raging pandemic, declining real incomes, rising poverty and the so-called non-systemic opposition’s discontent with the prosecution of Alexei Navalny, the share of Russians who view their country as headed in the right direction and who had a positive view of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s performance continued to exceed the share of those who held the opposite view on these issues so far this year, according to the Levada Center’s latest batch of polling results. At the same time, the Russian president, whom 41 percent of respondents do not want to see stay on in his current role beyond 2024, had to contend with a decline in the approval of his cabinet’s work and the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, which is dominated by his loyalists, ahead of parliamentary elections this fall.

The share of Russians who think their country is headed in the right direction has held steady at 49 percent this year, while the share of those who hold the opposite view has increased from 40 percent in January 2021 to 43 percent in February, according to Russia’s most prominent independent pollster. The largest share of Russians who believed that Russia was headed in the wrong direction, 82 percent, occurred in August 1999 as separatist violence flared again in the North Caucasus. The share of Russians who thought their country was headed in the right direction was highest in December 2007, August 2014 and June 2015 (64 percent), according to Levada.
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sanctions
As President Joe Biden settles into the Oval Office, he has filled the upper echelons of his new administration with officials who have vocally supported sanctions against Russia. While it is difficult to predict specific changes to the existing sanctions regime, now targeting more than 700 Russian individuals and organizations, it is reasonable to assume that Washington will continue using these economic tools to pressure Moscow, even while conducting a review of the measures currently in place. Some high-level pro-sanctions officials in Washington have expressed openness to seeking common ground with Russia in areas where the two countries’ interests converge, so there is room to hope that the new administration may try to assess the sanctions’ effectiveness in advancing U.S. interests. Nonetheless, for now, near-term changes to the U.S. sanctions policy toward Russia seem more likely to be tweaks than overhauls, and they will be shaped by a mix of foreign-policy considerations, domestic political pressures and lessons learned.
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Protests for Navalny Jan. 23, 2021
Nearly half of young Russians expressed dissatisfaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent poll by the Levada Center, marking a significant decrease in approval from previous years and a generational divide.

Only 51 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 expressed approval for Putin, while 57 percent of those 25 to 39 years old, 60 percent of 40- to 54-year-olds and 73 percent of those 55 years and over expressed approval for the president’s decisions.

A similar generational divide is evident in responses to the question “is the country moving in the right direction?”. Forty-three percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 and 44 percent of 25 to 39-year-olds responded that Russia was moving in the right direction. Those numbers again rose among older demographics, as 47 percent of respondents aged 40 to 54 and 57 percent of those 55 and older said they believed the country was going in the right direction.
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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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