In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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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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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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