In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Originally posted on March 26. Last updated on Nov. 23, 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.

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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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 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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globe
The share of Russians with a good or very good attitude toward the U.S. remained steady at 42 percent from January to August 2020, as did the share of Russians who have a bad or very bad attitude toward the U.S. (46 percent), according to the Levada Center’s latest report on the results of its recent opinion polls asking Russians about their attitudes toward other countries. At the same time, the share of Russians who view the U.S. as the most hostile country to Russia declined from 67 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2020. Interestingly, the share of Russians who view Belarus as the friendliest country to Russia also declined in that period from 62 percent to 58 percent, according to the polls conducted by Russia’s leading independent pollster.
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worry
Russians continue to worry most about price increases and unemployment growth, according to the results of the latest in the series of polls by sociologists of the Moscow-based Levada Center on the top concerns of their countrymen. According to the August 2020 poll, which allows multiple answers, including those offered by the pollsters and those the respondents themselves came up with, 61 percent of Russians worried about increasing prices, 44 percent worried about unemployment, while 39 percent were concerned about poverty. In comparison, poverty ranked second in the August 2019 poll, unemployment ranked fourth, corruption ranked third and price growth was Russians’ top concern. This represent a stark contrast to 1998, when the first such poll was conducted. At the time, wage arrears (67 percent), rising unemployment (65 percent) and economic crisis (57 percent) were the top three concerns. Interestingly, terrorism has never been a top concern, with the share of individuals worried about it ranging from 16 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2020.
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LDPR
With one year left before the parliamentary elections in Russia, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has emerged as the second-most popular political party in Russia behind the ruling United Russia Party, according to the Levada Center.

The Russian independent polling organization’s Aug. 20-26 poll shows that the LDPR has extended the lead it gained in February over the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Poll results show that if an election were to be held on the coming Sunday, 16 percent of people who indicated that they would vote said they would choose the LDPR, compared to 45 percent for United Russia and 9 percent for the KPRF.
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