In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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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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1980s Moscow
How much do Russians miss the USSR and how many of them would like Russia to emulate Soviet ways?

The Levada Center has been tracking answers to these questions for 28 years and its latest poll shows 65 percent of Russians regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Although this number has decreased by 1 percent from the previous year’s data, this response still represents a significant increase from a low of 49 percent in 2012 (See Table 1). Three-quarters of Russian respondents agreed to some extent that “the Soviet epoch was the best time in the history of our country, with a high level of welfare and opportunities for common citizens.” Such a strong fondness for the Soviet epoch is especially remarkable given that the percentage of Russia’s adult population with concrete memories of the Soviet Union keeps decreasing—about 35 percent of Russia’s current population was born since 1991 according to U.N. estimates.
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A popular talking point for many watchers of U.S.-Russian relations is to warn that reduced communication between the two countries, caused by the enduring animosities between Moscow and Washington, are increasing risks of a misunderstanding that could cause the world’s two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war. The experts, such as Sam Nunn and Ernest Moniz, certainly have a point. The less Washington and Moscow communicate, the greater the risk of misinterpreting each other’s actions in a way that could lead to a conflict, which could ultimately escalate into a nuclear war. You would be surprised, however, how much the U.S. and Russia still communicate both on government and non-government levels in spite of the animosities. At least that’s the impression I got when I looked into it, compiling a list of such communications. From checking on each other’s strategic nukes to co-managing polar bear populations, the U.S. and Russia are still talking to each other, even though they might be talking past each other.
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Moscow crowd
Several polls just released by the Levada Center on Russians’ attitudes toward foreign countries, show that Russians’ animosities toward the West, which increased notably after the color revolution in Kyiv that Brussels supported, are declining. As many as 67 percent of Russians believe their country should treat the West as a partner, according to the poll, which the Levada Center conducted in January and released in February. The previous such poll was conducted in June 2018, at which time 61 percent of Russians believed the West should be treated as Russia’s partner. In contrast, the share of Russians who think their country should treat the West as an enemy or competitor declined from 21 percent in June 2018 to 19 percent in January 2020.
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Yeltsin's nuclear briefcase
Twenty-five years ago this week, a U.S.-Norwegian team of scientists launched a rocket with equipment to study the northern lights from the coast of Norway. Due to the rocket’s size, speed and trajectory—as well as some possible lapses in communication—Russian systems mistook it for a missile attack and went on high alert. One former CIA official called the Jan. 25, 1995, incident “the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age.” But was it?

Indeed, Russia’s early-warning system was activated “up to the top, including [then President Boris] Yeltsin's ‘nuclear briefcase,’” according to one former Russian diplomat. However, based on multiple sources (including the ex-diplomat), officials in Moscow quickly realized the mistake and stood down. Moreover, according to Pavel Podvig, a leading expert on Russia’s strategic forces, there is even some evidence suggesting that the alarm didn’t reach Yeltsin’s emergency satchel on the day of the launch but, rather, the briefcase sequence was staged for him the next day. In fact, the Kremlin may have deliberately publicized how the alert about the launch went all the way up the chain of command in Russia’s early warning system (SPRN) to

to remind the West that Russia was still a nuclear powerhouse whose interests and opinions should be factored into decision-making on the world stage. Russia’s domestic power struggles also may have played a role: Playing up the threat allowed the country’s then Space Forces and Air Defense Force to prove their “usefulness” and to temporarily delay a bid by the Strategic Missile Forces to wrest away control of SPRN components (which eventually did occur in 1997-1999, though that re-subordination did not last).

Given all of what Russians calls podoplyoka (background), it should come as no surprise that renowned experts on Russia’s nuclear forces, such as Podvig, believe the danger of the incident has been seriously exaggerated. Some U.S. accounts of the incident also note that the Russians saw “within minutes” that the rocket posed no threat. Others, however, were far more alarmist, with one U.S. expert writing as recently as 2013 that “we came much closer to Armageddon after the Cold War ended than many realize. In January 1995, a global nuclear war almost started by mistake.”

The Russian-Western strategic relationship has seen its fair share of  close calls that genuinely brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. You can decide whether the Norwegian rocket incident belongs in this category by familiarizing yourself with a selection of Western and Russian accounts of the 1995 incident.
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