Contestable Claims

Far too often we see a significant gap between Russia-related claims, even by top officials and respected authors, and the reality on the ground. We also often encounter a wide divergence in expert views on crucial policy questions related to Russia. This section has two basic aims: (1) to dispel misconceptions that could adversely affect the quality of U.S. policy toward Russia, particularly when vital U.S. interests are involved, through rigorous fact-checking where possible and (2) to identify and debate key dilemmas for decision-makers per the adage that “truth is born in argument.”

We invite you to explore the section and send us more claims to fact-check or debate using the rectangular red button below. (For most fact-checks, we’ve adopted the "traffic light" rating system: red for incorrect; yellow for partially correct; green for correct.)

Russia and China—Alliance or Dalliance? And What Will This Mean for the West?

Russia and China—Alliance or Dalliance? And What Will This Mean for the West?

February 04, 2019RM Staff

Vladimir Putin awarded the Chinese Order of Friendship.Few watchful observers of international affairs would deny that Russia and China have grown closer over the past 20 years—the U.S. intelligence community even highlighted the tandem as a top threat in 2019, noting that the two countries “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s." But there is still considerable debate about the depth of this rapprochement and what exactly it will mean for the U.S. and its allies. Below, we present three facets of this discussion. In one, Harvard’s Graham Allison argues that, although China and Russia are geopolitical rivals whose long-term prospects for an alliance are “grim,” they are nonetheless entering into a “grand alignment of the aggrieved … drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the ‘American threat.’” He emphasizes the role successive U.S. administrations have played in nurturing “the formation of this grievance coalition” and warns that continued missteps by the West could turn the alignment into a dangerous “grand coalition.” Another two authors, Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council and the RAND Corporation, focus more on the growing disparities between Russia and China, especially in terms of their economies and demographics. While these authors describe significant convergence in the two states’ national interests and detail continuously increasing military cooperation between the two countries, they also see plenty of divergence, ultimately arguing that a formal military-political alliance does not seem imminent in the absence of two specific conditions—both of them unlikely. Finally, Wheaton College professor Jeanne Wilson highlights two additional features of the relationship: the importance of respect and “status granting” and the shared political norms and values that help to shape Russia’s and China’s political identities and national interests.

An earlier version of this debate was published Dec. 20 under the headline “Debate: Russia and China—How Close Are They?” before the addition of Prof. Wilson’s contribution.

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.


China-Russia Relations: Same Bed, Different Dreams? Why Converging Interests Are Unlikely to Lead to a Full-Fledged Alliance

China-Russia Relations: Same Bed, Different Dreams? Why Converging Interests Are Unlikely to Lead to a Full-Fledged Alliance

June 07, 2018Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne

Well before the crisis in Ukraine reinforced Russia’s pursuit of closer ties with China, Moscow had been forging an increasingly cooperative relationship with Beijing. This is hardly surprising considering that China in recent decades has become arguably the world’s foremost rising power. But what are the chances that the ongoing rapprochement could blossom into a full-fledged military-political alliance? This paper tries to answer that question by comparing trends in the two countries’ development and by considering the convergence and divergence of their vital national interests.

Today we see many shared interests between the two in the areas of economy, security and geopolitics. China has an impact on most of Russia’s vital interests, making constructive relations with Beijing a priority for Moscow. Russia’s effect on China’s interests may be smaller, but is far from negligible. Some Western policies are also nudging the two deeper into each other’s arms—notably, sanctions against Russia and Washington’s new policy of lumping China and Russia into a collective adversary.

But, as this paper will demonstrate, the convergence of Russian and Chinese interests is far from absolute. Moreover, growing disparities between the two countries—in their economies and demographics in particular—will probably make a strong, formal alliance unlikely, unless two conditions emerge. The first is that Russia would agree to settle for an unequivocally junior role in the partnership with China—something it is not currently willing to do. Yet Moscow may have to accept such a position if it grows too weak to act as an independent pole of power in the emerging multi-polar world and estrangement from the West continues to preclude any rap­prochement with the U.S. and Europe. The second condition is that China would have to change its current position that such alliances should not be entered into. For Washington, this means the best course would be to find an acceptable way to prevent further deterioration of relations with Russia in the short term, while maintaining its working relationship with China.

Download PDF of full paper by clicking here.

The opinions expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors. The paper is an updated and revised version of a chapter they published in Donette Murray and David Brown (eds.), "Power Relations in the Twenty-First Century: Mapping a Multipolar World?" (London: Routledge, 2018).


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


Ali Wyne

Ali Wyne is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Photo shared by the Kremlin press service.

The opinions expressed in this research paper are solely those of the authors.

China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making

China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making

December 14, 2018Graham T. Allison

The year before he died in 2017, one of America’s leading twentieth-century strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, “the most dangerous scenario,” he warned, would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” This coalition “would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”

Few observers heard his admonition then. Even fewer today recognize how rapidly this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon become a geostrategic fact. Defying the long-held convictions of Western analysts, and against huge structural differences, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.”

For two proud nations with long memories, their convergence also serves as a kind of cosmic revenge on the diplomatic maneuver Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger orchestrated a half century ago.

When Nixon became president (in 1969), he and his National Security Advisor Kissinger sought to establish a relationship with Communist China to widen the divide between it and the Soviet Union, which they rightly regarded as the preeminent—indeed, existential—threat.

Even as they watched communists pursue “wars of national liberation” around the globe, Nixon and Kissinger embraced George F. Kennan’s strategic insight about containment: that nationalism would prove a sturdier pillar than communism. They also recognized that the crack in the Eastern Bloc between the Soviet Union and its junior Chinese partner could be widened by deft U.S. diplomacy at the expense of the Soviets.

We know how the story turned out—so it is difficult to appreciate how radical this thought was in 1969, though Nixon had noted a year earlier in an essay in Foreign Affairs , “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Had Nixon asked his government’s interagency process to consider the possibility of the United States establishing a relationship with Mao’s Communist China, this option would doubtless have been rejected as not just unrealistic, but unsound. So instead, in a cloak of invisibility worthy of Harry Potter, Nixon sent Kissinger to Beijing for a series of meetings so secret that even his secretaries of state and defense were unaware of them. Ultimately, this led to Nixon’s historic visit in 1972 to China, recognition of Beijing (rather than Taipei) as its capital, and the creation of an uneasy but selectively cooperative relationship that contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Evil Empire.

The Nixon-Kissinger gambit is now known as “playing the China card.” Today we should be asking: is Xi Jinping’s China “playing the Russia card?”

That thought seems to strike many Washington strategists as outlandish. Secretary of Defense James Mattis repeatedly emphasizes Moscow and Beijing’s “natural non-convergence of interest.” And the differences in national interests, values and culture are stark. As Russian strategists think about the longer run, they must view China’s rise with consternation. Today’s map draws a line between Russia and China that leaves a large swath of what was in earlier centuries Chinese on the Russian side of the divide. That border has repeatedly seen violent clashes, the last in 1969.

Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. But political leaders live in the here and now. Denied opportunities in the West, what alternative do Russians have but to turn East? Moreover, while history deals the hands, human beings play the cards, even sometimes practicing a quaint art known in earlier eras as diplomacy. The confluence of China’s strategic foresight and exquisite diplomacy, on the one hand, and U.S. and Western European clumsiness, on the other, has produced an increasingly thick and consequential alignment between two geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.

In international relations, an elementary proposition states: “the enemy of my enemy is a friend.” The balance of power—military, economic, intelligence, diplomatic—between rivals is critical. To the extent that China persuades Russia to sit on its side of the see-saw, this adds to China’s heft, a nuclear superpower alongside an economic superpower.

American presidents since Bill Clinton have not only neglected the formation of this grievance coalition; unintentionally but undeniably, they have nurtured it. Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with a leader eager to “bury Communism,” as Boris Yeltsin put it, and join the West. The story of how we reached the depth of enmity today is a long one, strewn with mistakes by all parties. The Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to expand NATO toward Russia’s borders, Kennan observed, was the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” He predicted that the consequence would be a Russia that “would likely look elsewhere for guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.”

Vladimir Putin and Xi have watched the U.S.-led war in the Balkans (including the “accidental” bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999), Western-supported “color revolutions” topple governments in Georgia and then Ukraine, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encourage street protests in 2011 against Russia’s parliamentary elections. Putin would not have to suffer from paranoia to imagine that the United States was seeking to overthrow him.

As U.S. pressure on Russia grew with sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a diplomatic effort to “isolate” Russia, China opened its arms. At every point the United States and Western Europeans imposed pain, China has offered comfort. Particularly when the United States has attempted to “diss” Putin personally, Xi has found ways to demonstrate profound respect. Consider what has actually happened in Sino-Russian relations along seven dimensions: threat perceptions, relationship between leaders, official designation of the other, military and intelligence cooperation, economic entanglement, diplomatic coordination and elites’ orientation.

When Russian or Chinese national security leaders think about current threats, the specter they see is the United States of America. They believe the United States is not only challenging their interests in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea, but is actively seeking to undermine their authoritarian regimes. Indeed, Putin and Xi reportedly compare notes about the ways Washington is working to weaken each leader’s control within his own society and even topple him.

In contrast with Barack Obama’s disdain towards Putin and Donald Trump’s charge that China is “raping America,” Xi has persuaded Putin that they are “best buddies.” To which capital did Xi take his first trip after becoming president? Moscow. Which foreign leader gets to speak immediately after Xi at every international meeting China hosts? Putin. As Putin noted earlier this year, the only leader in the world with whom he had ever celebrated his birthday is Xi. In awarding Putin China’s “Medal of Friendship,” Xi called the Russian president his “best, most intimate friend.”

Official U.S. national security documents designate Russia and China America’s “strategic competitors,” “strategic adversaries” and even “enemies.” Increasingly, they are discussed in the same sentence, as if they were twins. According to the Trump National Security Strategy: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” Both are accused of conducting major “influence operations” against the United States and interfering in U.S. elections.

By contrast, Chinese and Russian national security documents call their relationship a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” According to Xi, this is “the world’s most important bilateral relationship, and is the best relationship between large countries.” China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, says “China and Russia are together now like lips and teeth.” The words used by Russia’s Foreign Ministry are “comprehensive, equal, and trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation.” Even alpha male Putin has found an artful way to recognize publicly Russia’s junior role in this partnership, saying “the main struggle, which is now underway, is that for global leadership and we are not going to contest China on this.”

Most American experts discount Sino-Russian military cooperation. Commenting on this year’s unprecedented military exercise in which 3,000 Chinese soldiers joined 300,000 Russians in practicing scenarios for conflict with NATOin Eastern Europe, Secretary of Defense Mattis said: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

He should look more carefully. What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.” Russian and Chinese generals’ staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. For decades, in selling arms to China, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies. No longer. In recent years it has not only sold China its most advanced air defense systems, the S-400s, but has actively engaged with China in joint r&d on rockets engines—and UAVs. Joint military exercises by their navies in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, the South China Sea in 2016 and the Baltic Sea in 2017 compare favorably with U.S.-Indian military exercises. As a Chinese colleague observed candidly, if the United States found itself in a conflict with China in the South China Sea, what should it expect Putin might do in the Baltics?

In their diplomacy, Russia and China mirror the relationship between the two leaders. On major international issues, they coordinate their positions. For example, when voting in the United Nations Security Council, they agree 98 percent of the time. Russia has backed every Chinese veto since 2007. The two have worked together to create and strengthen new organizations to rival traditional American-led international organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICs. For a Russian who wants to visit China, getting a visa takes one day; to visit the United States it takes them three hundred days to obtain a visa application interview.

Economically, Russia is slowly but surely pivoting east. China has displaced the United States and Germany as Moscow’s number one trading partner. Today, China is the top buyer of Russian crude oil. A decade ago, all gas pipelines in Russia flowed west. With the completion of the Power of Siberia pipeline in 2019, China will become the second largest market for Russian gas, just behind Germany.

When U.S.-led Western sanctions excluded Russia from American-dominated dollar-denominated markets, its relationship with China has allowed it to continue to buy and sell. In the current U.S. push to prevent Iran selling oil to the world, Russia is trading goods for Iranian oil and then selling it on to international markets, including China.

Meanwhile, Russian elites continue to look west. They are predominantly European in their culture, history, religion and dreams. Wealthy Russians buy second (and third) homes in London, New York and on the French Riviera. They speak English and travel to Paris, New York or London to shop. Many have children who live in the West.

Cultural change is hard, and slow. But oligarchs who now find themselves the targets of sanctions that prevent them doing business in the United States are exploring alternatives. And some of Russia’s leading thinkers are changing their tune. The Honorary Chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Sergey Karaganov maintains that “the ‘westernizer’ today is a thing of the past. Those looking forward to the future most show interest in the East.” Surveys this year show that 69 percent of Russians hold a negative view of the United States, while the same percentage of Russians hold a positive view of China. When asked “who their enemies are,” two-thirds of Russians point to the United States, ranking it as Russia’s greatest foe. Only two percent of Russians view China as their enemy.

Grievance is a powerful motivator; respect can have a powerful magnetic pull. In Putin’s mind, the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century was the break-up of the Soviet Union. Who was responsible for that break-up? In Xi’s mind, China’s “century of humiliation” only ended once the Communist Party defeated the Nationalist Party in a bloody civil war. Which country supported those nationalists, and continues to arm their island fortress of Taiwan? Against the backdrop of this history, as we reflect on what the United States is now doing, we should ask whether Brzezinski’s warning about the “most dangerous scenario” could soon become a fact.


Graham T. Allison

Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the principal investigator and member of the Russia Matters Editorial Board.

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Russia and China Beyond Realpolitik: The Bond of Respect and Values

Russia and China Beyond Realpolitik: The Bond of Respect and Values

February 04, 2019Jeanne L. Wilson

Exactly how close are Russia and China and what does this mean for the West? This has been a matter of concern among experts for some time. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment by the U.S. intelligence community groups Russia and China together as America’s No. 1 “regional threat,” competing with Washington worldwide for “technological and military superiority.” In outlining their concerns, the report’s authors explicitly point out that Moscow and Beijing are “more al­­­igned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year.” If this is the case, then how did it come to be and what are the prospects for the U.S. and its allies?

Four of us have grappled with these questions recently on these pages. In a debate published by Russia Matters on Dec. 20, Graham Allison, Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne parsed the likelihood that the increasingly close bilateral relationship will evolve into a formal military and political alliance. Allison argues that Russia and China have been motivated to draw steadily closer as a consequence of the “American threat.” Saradzhyan and Wyne do not dispute this assessment, but they present a broader and more nuanced analysis that points to the existence of diverging perspectives between the two states that render the formation of a formal alliance unlikely. My own view of Russian-Chinese relations does not differ significantly in most aspects from these authors’. I want, however, to introduce two interrelated observations. First is to emphasize to an even greater degree the importance of respect and the phenomenon of status granting as a factor in the relationship. Second is to stress the extent to which political norms and values shared by Russia and China come through in a shared political identity that, in turn, plays a major role in determining the countries’ interests.

Despite the contrasting conclusions described above, there is a considerable extent of overlap in the major points stressed by Allison, Saradzhyan and Wyne. They agree, as noted above, that Russia and China share a list of geopolitical grievances that identify the United States and its Western allies as an outright threat. Relevant actions pursued by the West include the longstanding issue of NATO enlargement, the development of missile defense systems, U.S. claims to hegemonic status in the Asian Pacific Region and efforts to foment “color revolutions” as a means of regime overthrow. And they also agree that there are significant obstacles to a deep alliance in the longer term.

Allison’s article stresses the extent to which successive American presidential administrations have (in large part inadvertently) contributed to the growing collusion between Russia and China. Saradzhyan and Wyne, in contrast, pay more attention to the tensions that underlie the relationship, which benefits from the façade of equality and the congenial personal ties between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. This atmosphere of bonhomie, however, is not sufficient to mask frictions. Despite the improvement of relations, there remains an absence of trust. Saradzhyan and Wyne note a deep-seated suspicion of China among elements of the Russian military, as well as a fear of the migration of Chinese to the Russian Far East, and the consequent fear that a resurgent China will seek to reclaim Russian lands. They further point to the complexities of the Russian-Chinese relationship in Central Asia, where Russia’s traditional hegemony is being challenged by Chinese economic penetration. They indicate that a full-blown alliance between Russia and China is unlikely unless two conditions emerge: 1) Russia proves amenable to accepting a junior role in an alliance with China; or 2) China changes its longstanding policy of rejecting membership in alliance relationships.

Allison’s is essentially a geopolitical argument rooted in the realist logic of the balance of power, and perhaps an attempt to nudge Washington to reconsider some of its policies; Saradzhyan and Wyne adopt an alternative approach that assesses the relative configuration of positive and negative features of the Russian-Chinese relationship.

Saradzhyan and Wyne  also acknowledge the important role that respect plays in the relationship, a situation that, bluntly stated, indicates that China, although the dominant partner, has elected to treat Russia as an equal rather than a subordinate. Similarly, Russia’s pivot to the East, most notably in the economic sphere, is viewed at least in part as an adverse consequence of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea. It is on this former point that I would like to expand.

Both Russia and China exhibit a highly sensitized awareness of status gradations in the international system.  According to Deng Xiaoping, the Sino-Soviet dispute reflected the situation that the “Soviet Union put China in the wrong position” and that the Soviet Union did not treat China as an equal partner.1 In contrast, the Chinese leadership has elected to treat Russia—even in the chaotic days of the 1990s—with a scrupulous respect that has gone a long way to assuage Russia’s wounded ego. There can be no doubt that Putin understands that China is now the ascendant partner in the relationship (he has said as much), but China has continued its solicitous behavior up until the present—seen in such decisions as to make Xi’s first trip abroad as China’s leader to Russia, and to place Putin as the keynote speaker immediately after Xi at international fora, etc. These sorts of events form one element—among others—in Putin’s constructed presentation of Russia as a great power. In effect, China’s actions serve to confer an enhanced status to Russia. It is by no means clear, as Saradzhyan and Wyne point out, that Russia would willingly accept a second-place status in a formal alliance. But this is to note that Putin has proved exceedingly proficient at developing a sort of virtual narrative that transcends a linkage with empirical reality.

Neither Allison nor Saradzhyan and Wyne ascribe a notable role in the relationship between Russia and China to ideology. However, it has alternatively been suggested, as Gilbert Rozman argues, that Russia and China increasingly share a convergent set of political norms and values, that are indicated in an increasingly shared political national identity.2 It is not clear to what extent this situation has been facilitated by a shared socialist legacy, but it is the case that both leaderships draw upon the ideological premises of the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism in the construction of a world view. Here the United States and the West more generally are seen to pose nothing less than an existential threat to the Russian and Chinese regimes. Russia and China both vehemently resist the concept of universal values, which they interpret as another attempt of the Western powers to impose their norms and values globally. This recasts Allison’s list of grievances as ideological precepts that reflect fundamental conceptions of political identity.  Saradzhyan and Wyne’s compilation of state interests, such as the importance of state sovereignty, non-interference and political stability can also be recast as normative values that attest to a Russian and Chinese shared identity. In this situation, it can be suggested that Russia and China’s perception of their national identity shapes their delineation of core interests.

Despite the realist logic of a trilateral balance-of-power system, the authors leave room for individual agency in their analyses. Allison’s identification of the United States as a major facilitator of Russia and China’s growing closeness indicates that U.S. leaders can also play a role in reversing this process. Similarly Saradzhyan and Wyne call for efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Russia. The implication is clear that decision makers are not the passive subjects of historical forces but possess the ability for positive change.

As the Worldwide Threat Assessment notes, cooperation between China and Russia is “expanding” both bilaterally and through international bodies “to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries.” The fact is, however, that current U.S. foreign policy has paid very limited attention to the increasing linkages between these two international outliers. In the short run, there seem to be few constraints on the intensification of the relationship. At the same time, the United States has exhibited few tendencies to ameliorate its relations with Russia or China, much less contemplate the multilateral geostrategic implications of their relationship. In this sense, I concur with Saradzhyan and Wyne that the United States should seek to normalize its relationship with Russia.  With regard to China, the Trump administration is betting big on Chinese concessions in its escalating trade war, but a more calculated approach would be to identify the issue areas that divide the two states, to acknowledge the possibility of compromise and to rely more on diplomacy than on threats


  1. “Russia: Ten Years After” at
  2. Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order,” Stanford University Press, 2014.

Jeanne L. Wilson

Jeanne Wilson teaches at Wheaton College where she is the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian studies, a professor of political science and coordinator of the school's international relations major. She is the author of "Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era." 

54 percent of Ukrainians now support joining NATO

54 percent of Ukrainians now support joining NATO

Claim in 2018: 54 percent of Ukrainians now support joining NATO.falseWhile one 2015 poll did show that 54 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO, more recent polls consistently show a lower level of support. (Fact-check done in September-December 2018.)

Russia's GDP equal to South Korea's

Russia's GDP equal to South Korea's

Claim in 2018: Russia’s 2017 GDP in current U.S. dollars “is barely more than that of South Korea.”trueWhen measured in current U.S. dollars, Russia’s 2017 GDP was only slightly larger than South Korea’s. (Fact-check done in July 2018.)

Debate: Is Russia in Decline?

Debate: Is Russia in Decline?

August 22, 2018RM Staff

Russian President Vladimir PutinIs Vladimir Putin’s Russia rising, declining or stagnating, and compared to whom?

The answer to this question is of fundamental importance for the U.S. and the global order. Changes in Russia’s standing shape America’s and other great powers’ policies toward Russia, as well as Russia’s own policies toward other countries. Measuring the dynamics of Russia’s power in the 21st century is also of vital importance to the U.S. because Russia will continue to impact America’s national interests and the global order in profound ways in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. The alternate positions that Russia can take on a number of issues central to U.S. national security affect the safety and security of America in substantial ways.

This debate, like others in our Contestable Claims section, takes on a crucial question impacting the U.S.-Russia relationship. In the opening argument, Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters project, and Nabi Abdullaev, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and associate director at Control Risks, argue that Russia’s national power has been rising under Putin compared to Russia’s Western competitors, but declining relative to China and India. This, the authors argue, explains Russia’s more aggressive posture toward the West as it “assert[s] its vital national interests in countries or regions that it has traditionally viewed among its so-called ‘privileged interests,’” while also adopting a more accommodating attitude toward China.

In his response to Saradzhyan and Abdullaev, Andrew Kuchins, Senior Fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University, argues that “Russia is rising and declining simultaneously.” Russia's military power has grown, but "Putin has not created the conditions crucial for sustained economic growth and the development of new commercial technologies." In fact, Kuchins argues, Putin's policies "have for the most part hurt rather than helped Russia’s technological competitiveness and prospects for long-term sustainable economic growth." While "key elements of Russian power grew during Putin’s first two terms as president," Kuchins writes that they have "relatively declined or stagnated at best for the past decade."


Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline?

Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline?

May 04, 2018Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev

Executive Summary

As Vladimir Putin embarks on another six-year term as Russia’s president, Western pundits and policymakers are left wondering whether his reelection means that Moscow’s muscular policies toward America and other Western powers will continue or even escalate. But what is the reality of Russian power in the Putin era? Is Russia a rising, declining or stagnating power? How does its standing in the global order compare to other nations, including the United States, China and European powers? This report by Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Nabi Abdullaev, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, seeks to systematically answer these questions, which have been the subject of considerable debate in recent years. While some scholars have expressed the view that 21st-century Russia is in decline, others have dubbed it the No. 2 nation in the post-Cold War world.

Gauging Russia’s performance is important because the country continues to have a profound effect on America’s vital national interests and on the global order in the 21st century. To begin with, Moscow’s possible positions on issues central to U.S. national interests powerfully impact America’s security. The size and reach of Russia’s nuclear arsenal make it the only country that can destroy the U.S. in half an hour. Without Russia’s cooperation, efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons—whether among countries or non-state actors—are bound to fail. Also, whether Russia enters a full-blown military-political alliance with China will have far reaching consequences for the future of the global order. And the list goes on: Moscow’s cooperation remains essential in preventing Afghanistan from relapsing into a failed state, where the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS could thrive again, plotting to attack the Western world. Russia has veto power on the U.N. Security Council, which allows Moscow to block any decision the U.S. may want adopted there. Russia’s potential as a spoiler, therefore, is difficult to exaggerate. Russia is also the largest country in the world, and transit through its territory—particularly as Arctic ice melts—can be important not only for the global economy, but also for American security, as the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan once showed. Finally, Russia has been the largest supplier to the world’s energy market for much of the past decade, and while the U.S. is increasingly self-sufficient in gas and oil, its European allies are not. Russia’s ability to impact all these issues of vital importance to the U.S. and its allies is to a large extent determined by its national capabilities—specifically, whether they are growing or shrinking. As important, America’s and other great powers’ policies toward Russia, and vice versa, are largely determined by how these countries’ leaders view Russia—as a rising power or a declining one.

To determine whether Russia is rising, declining or stagnating, the authors of this report have measured changes in Russia’s national power by analyzing a broad range of data, including economic output, energy consumption, population, life expectancy, military expenditures, government effectiveness, patents and even tourist visits. For a comparative perspective, Russia’s national power has been measured, first, in terms of the world as a whole and then alongside several categories of “comparands,” including key competitors and peers: five of the West’s leading powers, all four fellow members of the BRICS group, all former Soviet republics except the Baltic states and selected countries whose economies depend heavily on the production of hydrocarbons.1 To quantify their results the authors used variations of three existing models for measuring national power developed by Western and Asian scholars and devised a fourth experimental model. The research period, 1999-2015 or 2016 (depending on the most recent available data), was chosen because it begins after Russia’s economic free fall of the 1990s and corresponds with Putin’s time in office.

Key Findings

  • Contrary to claims of Russia’s imminent demise, two of the three models2 used to measure the country’s power vis-à-vis the world as a whole indicate that it has grown in the 21st century, while the third showed a decline of less than 1 percent. All four methods used to compare Russia to the above-listed comparands show that it has gained on its five Western competitors while remaining behind the U.S. in terms of absolute national power. (One of the methods also showed Russia’s national power to be less than Germany’s in absolute terms.) Russia’s gains, however, were not continuous over the research period and appear to be petering out as its economy struggles to regain the robust rates of growth it enjoyed in the first decade of the century and as Russia’s demographic improvements continue to lag behind the growth rate of the global population.
  • When comparing Russia to its peers—the post-Soviet republics, hydrocarbon-dependent countries and fellow members of the BRICS group—three of the four methods show the country to be neither the top nor bottom performer in terms of the growth of its national power. Significantly, according to most of these measures, Russia has lagged behind China and India both in the rate of growth of national power and in absolute power. The authors posit that Russia’s decline relative to China and its rise relative to its Western competitors could have been among the factors that made Moscow more accommodating toward Beijing, on one hand, and more assertive in its competition with the West in the post-Soviet neighborhood, on the other, emboldening the Russian leadership to stage military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. If that proposition holds true, then monitoring changes in national power can help to predict nations’ behavior toward their competitors and peers.
  • The authors’ research reaffirms the proposition that the post-Cold War period of global unipolarity is coming to an end and that the world is returning to an era of competition among great powers. Two of the four methods used show that China has overtaken the U.S. in terms of national power, while the other two show that the U.S. has so far retained the No. 1 ranking but that the gap between the two is narrowing. China, however, remains far from becoming the sole dominant global power in the mold of America in the early 21st century or the British Empire in the late 19th. It remains to be seen whether the emerging multi-polar global order will be a new edition of the Concert of Nations among great powers—in which, as Moscow hopes, Russia will play an indispensable role—or will be based on relentless competition among these powers. One thing is clear: Russia’s place in the emerging world order will depend on whether or not it continues to rise.

Results by Research Method

1. The only single-variable approach used by the authors was the Gross Domestic Product Index (GDPI), which measures the ratio of Russia’s GDP to that of the world as a whole and to the GDPs of individual countries (in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP, in constant 2011 international dollars). This method of measuring national power shows Russia to have gained on the world as a whole in 1999-2016 and on all five of its Western competitors, whose share of global GDP declined by double digits while Russia’s rose by 3 percent. Russia’s performance vis-à-vis its BRICS peers landed it right in the middle of the group in terms of rate of growth. Russia’s share of global GDP was the largest among the hydrocarbon-dependent countries in 2016, but four of the six outperformed Russia in terms of rate of growth, as did all the former Soviet republics except Ukraine. In absolute terms, Russia’s GDP on the index was behind China’s, the United States’, India’s and Germany’s, but ahead of the rest of the comparands.

2. The second model for measuring national power was devised by Chin-Lung Chang of Taiwan’s Fo-guang University and takes into account a nation’s “critical mass” (its population and land mass), GDP and military strength. According to this calculation Russia’s national power grew by 10.31 percent in 1999-2016, a faster rate than all of its Western competitors. A comparison within the BRICS group reveals that Russia lagged behind China and India in terms of rate of growth of power but surpassed South Africa and Brazil. Russia also lagged behind most of its post-Soviet and hydrocarbon peers in terms of rate of growth of power, but its absolute power was greater than that of its post-Soviet and hydrocarbon-producing peers.

3. The variables used in the third model, the Revised Geometric Index of Traditional National Capabilities (RGITNC), include countrywide population, urban population, energy consumption, military expenditures and value-added manufacturing. Under this method, Russia’s national power decreased by 0.98 percent from 1999 to 2016. In comparison, the power of Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the U.S. decreased, respectively, by 34.17 percent, 29.6 percent, 29.6 percent, 26.85 percent and 18.47 percent. The same period saw the power of China and India, Russia’s BRICS peers, grow by 106.53 percent and 29.84 percent, respectively, while the power of Brazil and South Africa declined by 14.42 percent and 4.39 percent, respectively. Most of Russia’s post-Soviet peers also saw their power increase in the research period, as did Russia’s hydrocarbon peers, with the exception of Venezuela, which declined by 38.68 percent. In terms of absolute power, Russia ranked the fourth-most powerful nation, behind the U.S., China and India. 

4. The fourth model for measuring national power is adapted from American intelligence analyst Ray S. Cline’s index of the perceived power of nations. This Experimental Index of National Power (EINP), as the authors have termed it, measures national resources, including territory, population, economic power, military power and technological prowess, along with a nation’s “capability to employ resources,” i.e., government effectiveness. Using this model, Russia’s national power grew by 118 percent between 1999 and 2016. In comparison, U.S. national power declined by 16 percent, while that of Italy, Germany, Great Britain and France—all of which cut their military budgets during this period—declined by 57 percent, 38 percent, 31 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Russia’s national power also expanded faster than any of the few BRICS, ex-Soviet and energy-producing peers for which data is available, including China and India. The dramatic growth in Russia’s national power was largely fueled by an increase in government effectiveness as defined by the World Bank (101 percent).

The authors also attempted to account for soft power, defined here as a nation’s attractiveness in the eyes of other nations. The method they came up with, dubbed the Experimental Index of National Power with Soft Power (EINPSP), was used to measure the national power of the U.S., China and Russia for 2007-2016—the only years for which comparable data was available. While Russia trailed the U.S. and China in the absolute value of its national power, its power grew by 15 percent; America’s, by contrast, declined by 13 percent, while China’s grew 41 percent. However, the results of the EINPSP have been excluded from this report’s final tally because it lacks a sufficient number of countries to make any meaningful comparisons.


While yielding differing results, nearly all the models used by the authors refute the notion that Russia’s national power has been in decline in the 21st century. Russia’s resources—as evidenced by the absolute value of its national power, no matter what method of measurement is applied—ensure that Moscow will remain a global player that affects the Western world and the global order in profound ways for years to come. Paradoxically, the impact on America’s national interests promises to be profound even under drastically different scenarios for Russia’s evolution: The U.S. and its allies would obviously find it difficult to benefit if Russia’s rise transforms it into the kind superpower that the U.S.S.R. once was; a failing Russia, however, would not be good news for the U.S. either, given that America’s adversaries might then be able to tap its resources and capabilities, including the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with or without the Kremlin’s consent. To be sure, Moscow still faces formidable challenges in maintaining or increasing its national power in the 21st century. Whichever way those trends shift, the rest of the world should be tracking them closely. Both competitors and partners of Russia would do well to shape their policies toward this country based on a realistic assessment of its national power rather than on some far-flung forecasts of its “inevitable collapse.”

The opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the authors.

Download PDF of full report here.


  1. For comparisons in this category the authors have selected six countries that rely on oil and gas for 40 percent or more of their budget revenues.
  2. One is a single-variable method and the other two are modifications of multi-variable methods. Only these three methods were used to measure Russian power vis-à-vis the world as a whole, while all four methods were used to compare Russia to individual countries.

Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project.


Nabi Abdullaev

Nabi Abdullaev is a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and associate director at Control Risks. 

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license. 

Russian Power Under Putin: Up and Down and Flatline

Russian Power Under Putin: Up and Down and Flatline

August 22, 2018Andrew Kuchins

Measuring Russian power in international relations has always been tricky: German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century wisely observed that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it looks. For those trying to gauge whether the power of the state in contemporary Russia is rising or declining, Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev have contributed one of the most methodologically rigorous analyses available in their recent report “Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline?” Overall, the authors conclude that, since Putin’s ascent to the country’s top office in 1999, Russia has been rising in power relative to the West while declining relative to China and India. The report has three weaknesses, however, that cast some doubt on the claims about Russia’s rise: It underestimates the significance of Russia’s decade-long economic stagnation; it gives too much weight to a single measure of government effectiveness; and it does not find an adequate way to assess the extent to which technological innovation is, or is not, boosting national power.

A few years ago, I argued that Russia is rising and declining simultaneously and I stand by that view. While Moscow’s military power has grown considerably, especially with the reforms begun in 2008 and increased military spending, Putin has not created the conditions crucial for sustained economic growth and the development of new commercial technologies. Moreover, the data behind Abdullaev and Saradzhyan’s report suggest that the two aspects of Russian power that the authors credit as the main drivers of its relative growth—GDP and government effectiveness—have gone through two distinct stages under Putin: a steady rise, followed by protracted flatlining. It is much easier, then, to make the case that key elements of Russian power grew during Putin’s first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, but have relatively declined or stagnated at best for the past decade. In addition, I believe the authors fail to accurately capture the reasons behind Russia’s economic growth and stagnation, as well as the increased significance of technological innovation, whose pace has increased exponentially in the past 20 years and whose role in national power will continue to rapidly increase.

A Few Words on Methodology

In their analysis, Abdullaev and Saradzhyan employ three existing frameworks for measuring national power and devise a new one of their own to look at Russia in comparison to four groups of “comparands”: leading Western powers (the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and France), rising powers (China, India, Brazil and South Africa), post-Soviet states (except the Baltics) and states highly dependent on hydrocarbon revenues. Overall, the frameworks are quite sophisticated in measuring various economic, demographic, geographic, social and political factors and they reach fairly consistent conclusions about Russian power since 1999.   

Russian Economic Growth

One of the two main factors identified by the authors as driving the rise in Russia’s national power, as mentioned above, is economic growth. Indeed, whether measuring in nominal dollar terms or according to purchasing power parity, Russian GDP more than doubled from 1999 to 2016. But, while the authors acknowledge that “the growth in-between [of Russian power more broadly] was not continuous and appeared to be petering out toward the end of the research period,” they play down the significantly divergent trend lines in economic growth: Essentially, there was a period of rapid growth from 1999 to 2008, averaging 7 percent a year, that outpaced all other countries in the analysis with the exception of China and, since then, there has been nearly a decade of prolonged stagnation in which Russian economic growth has averaged less than 1 percent a year and underperformed almost every other country in the report. Rather than “petering out,” this is more akin to “a tale of two cities.” It is not incorrect thus to conclude that Russia’s relative power increased during the period under analysis, but had the research period started in 2008 or 2009 the trajectory would likely look quite different. Moreover, while Abdullaev and Saradzhyan’s report is concerned with the past, ongoing stagnation of arguably the most important long-term factor for national power, economic growth, is more problematic than the authors seem to suggest. 

This brings us to the second key factor named by Saradzhyan and Abdullaev, similarly problematic—namely, more than 100-percent growth, according to World Bank measurements, in “government effectiveness.” Like economic growth, this indicator has stagnated for at least the last 10 years, along with the other five that make up the World Bank’s broader metric of “governance” (“voice and accountability,” “political stability/absence of violence,” “regulatory quality,” “rule of law” and “control of corruption”)[1], which the report does not take into account. Of the six governance factors, “government effectiveness” did see the largest increase for Russia, up to the 46th percentile. But most of this increase took place between 2000 and 2006. For the other five indicators—all of which, like government effectiveness have an impact on economic growth—Russia’s comparative ranking has declined or remained stagnant with the average at 22 percent (i.e., 78 percent of nations rank higher). Even including the government effectiveness ranking, Russia averages a dismal 25.5 percent. This is considerably lower than other large emerging market economies including China, India, Brazil, Mexico and others, not to speak of OECD countries. Abdullaev and Saradzhan are correct in noting the symbiotic relationship between economic growth and governance or government effectiveness, but the World Bank data only reinforces the two-stage trend line described above—up, then flat—and the fact that for a decade now Russia’s ranking on the most fundamental assessments of power has declined relative to its Western and non-Western competitors.

While not directly affecting the authors’ findings, their explanation for the reasons behind Russian economic growth under Putin also gave me pause. In their conclusion, the authors note the importance of the 1998 devaluation of the ruble in initially catalyzing the Russian economy, after which “growth was further facilitated by a period of continuously rising oil prices.” They go on to state that “the country’s economic growth in the research period could not have been sustained for more than 10 years straight were it not for the economic reforms pursued by the Russian government during Putin’s first presidential term.” Putin’s economic reforms in 2000-2002, including tax, labor and land reform, did play a role in promoting growth, but probably a secondary role at best by comparison with the reforms of the 1990s. In a forthcoming book, former deputy head of the Russian Central Bank Sergey Aleksashenko argues that the 1990 reforms to liberalize and privatize the Russian economy set the foundation for growth to come. [2] He notes, for example, that private companies accounted for 80 percent of the increase in oil production from 1999 to 2003, providing a big boost to the economy.

The aspect of oil money that is most concerning for Moscow’s power on the international stage is that high global prices for Russia’s main export commodity have not led to sustained economic growth. Economists agree that the dramatic rise of the oil price in 2003-2008 and the ensuing windfall revenue from oil and gas sales were far more powerful in driving Russian economic growth from 1999 to 2008 than other factors. (Aleksashenko likewise notes the burst of foreign investment in 2006-2008 until the global financial crisis.) However, although global oil prices since 2009, albeit through major drops and spikes, have averaged more than $70 a barrel—a historically high price—Russian growth has stagnated. This is precisely what economists Sergei Guriev and Aleh Tsyvinsky predicted in 2010. In their prescient study, they argued that weak institutional foundations and an absence of reforms would undermine growth despite a relatively high oil price.

A Caveat on the Military

Russian military strength has increased even more dramatically than economic output thanks mainly to an increase in spending by a factor of more than 10 since 1999, as well as reforms and other measures resulting in greater power projection.  Granted, Russia’s military power grew more quickly than before precisely at the time when the Russian economy began growing far more slowly. This is due to the lessons drawn from the five-day war with Georgia in August 2008 that revealed a number of the Russian military’s technological and logistical shortcomings, inspiring both major reform as well as increased spending. Already Russia’s ambitious military spending goals have been curtailed because of stagnant growth. As growth is likely to remain stagnant for a prolonged period, Putin’s fourth term will increasingly feel the strains in Russia’s guns vs. butter dilemma.

The Technology and Innovation Conundrum

Abdullaev and Saradzhyan are correct that it is difficult to quantify the impact of technological innovation on national power and to find a good proxy for any such measure. Ultimately, they settled on the number of “triadic” patents (filed at three specific patent offices in Europe, Japan and the U.S.), which rose for Russia from 84.6 in 2000 to 87 in 2015, according to the OECD. This measurement seems to have some obvious limitations. The first concerns the question of quality vs. quantity: One patent among thousands could be the spark for a multi-billion-dollar commercial enterprise or could catalyze production of new goods that revolutionize economies and/or military weapons. And in many cases it is virtually impossible to evaluate the potential impact of any innovation in its early development. A second problem especially applies to technological innovation in military weaponry: This can be government-sponsored research for which there will be no patent desired in order to maintain secrecy.

Aside from notable achievements in the Soviet period in space and military technology, historically Russia has lagged in the fields of technology and innovation from the tsarist era to the present time, especially in commercializing technology and innovation. Russian leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great to Stalin and now Putin have each called for Russia to catch up with its competitors in economic efficiency and technology or face falling from the realm of great powers. A renowned historian of science, Loren Graham, attributes this persistent weakness not to a lack of world-class scientists and engineers, but rather to deeply held societal attitudes and weak rule of law, especially property rights. Unfortunately, as Andrei Soldatov and Irene Borogan argue in their excellent book, “The Red Web,” Russian technology companies are today increasingly threatened by the predatory policies of their own government. Although there are a few areas where Russian companies have world-class information technologies, their barriers to growth are increasing rather than decreasing. Compare, for example the extraordinary growth of the leading five U.S. technology companies—Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Facebook, and Microsoft—which have become the five most valuable companies in the country, with Amazon and Apple being the two most highly valued companies in the world. That is not going to happen in Russia, where stock markets are likely to be dominated for a long time to come by energy and natural resource companies.

In most measurements of technological and innovation capacity, Russia ranks no higher than 30th in the world, and considerably lower in some of those rankings, including in investment into research and development. The state-dominated efforts begun about 10 years ago to jump start Russian technological development, like Skolkovo, RosNano and others, have not proven to be effective, and the poor investment climate and Western sanctions have kept investors away from promising private-sector companies.

In the early 1980s, some leading Russian military thinkers, such as then Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov, feared that the Soviet Union was falling too far behind the United States in the information revolution and that this would ultimately constrain Soviet military technological development. This is why he and some military leaders were supportive, in principle, of economic reform. Technological development is moving even faster today, and we should expect its impact on economic growth as well as military capabilities to be even greater.

While difficult to measure, technology and innovation will likely increasingly dominate other more traditional factors of power like geography, demography, the military and others. Vladimir Putin said last year that whichever country dominates artificial intelligence will rule the world. Maybe he is right, maybe not. What is clear, however, is that his policies for nearly 20 years now have for the most part hurt rather than helped Russia’s technological competitiveness and prospects for long-term sustainable economic growth. If Abdullaev and Saradzhyan had started their analysis in 2008, their conclusions would be different, and I fear that if we conduct another similar exercise in 2028 the conclusion will be a relative decline in power for the Russian Federation.


[1] For the World Bank data on governance, see

[2] Sergei Aleksashenko, “Putin’s Counterrevolution” (forthcoming October 2018, Brookings Institution Press).


Andrew Kuchins

Andrew Kuchins is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University.

Original photo by NVO shared under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Russia is heavily dependent on oil and gas - Kasich

Russia is heavily dependent on oil and gas - Kasich

Claim in 2018: “Russia relies heavily on energy exports for close to three-quarters of its export earnings and over half of its budget.”in-betweenEnergy has accounted for less than 70 percent of Russia’s export earnings since 2014, hovering between 62 and 64 percent in 2015-2018; oil and gas—Russia’s most lucrative energy exports—provided under 50 percent of its federal budget revenue in 2015-2017 and for most of this year, although they did account for just over 50 percent in January-February 2018. (Fact-check done in July 2018.)

Claim in 2018: "Russian military spending fell by one-fifth in 2017 compared with a year earlier, the first cut in real terms since 1998"

Claim in 2018: "Russian military spending fell by one-fifth in 2017 compared with a year earlier, the first cut in real terms since 1998"

May 22, 2018RM Staff

Russian military planes Moscow Victory Day parade 2018In May 2018 numerous respected media outlets, including CNN, the Financial Times and Reuters, reported that Russia had slashed defense spending by 20 percent between 2016 and 2017, calling the decline the first in nearly 20 years and largely blaming it on the country’s economic woes. But is this true? Defense analyst Michael Kofman shows that the claim is erroneous: In 2016 the Russian government paid down billions of rubles in accumulated defense-sector debt, thus creating the illusion of a steep drop in military spending the following year. This same miscalculation, he adds, made its way into headlines in 2017 after Russia announced its planned defense spending for the year. The group of analysts who initially drew that conclusion acknowledged the mistake and rescinded their claim, but that did not prevent it from resurfacing in 2018. As Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote last year, calculating defense spending is not a straightforward enterprise and it’s useful for anyone attempting cross-country comparisons to be aware of major complicating factors.


The Collapsing Russian Defense Budget and Other Fairy Tales

The Collapsing Russian Defense Budget and Other Fairy Tales

May 22, 2018Michael Kofman

One can only observe with bemusement the growth in size, readiness and modernization of Russia’s armed forces when juxtaposed against recent news stories reporting a 20-percent decline in Russian defense spending from 2016 to 2017, described as the first notable cut since 1998. It is seemingly impossible for both trends to be real. Indeed, Russian defense spending is alive and well, with cuts limited to single digits. The announcement about its steep decline by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, was erroneous. Changes in Russia’s handling of defense funding have led SIPRI and, before it, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly to misreport the reduction. Now, for the second time in as many years, the miscalculation is proliferating across major media outlets.

The main source of the error is readily identifiable, arcane though it may be: In 2016 the Russian government started paying off defense-sector debt that had piled up over the years, which created the illusion of much higher spending on national defense and, accordingly, a subsequent decline the following year. Before this, the Defense Ministry (MoD) had managed to rack up close to a trillion rubles in debt to defense contractors, who had been producing equipment on credit borrowed from various banks. The MoD was paying the interest on these loans and the Russian leadership was none too happy about it. After the government decided to pay down the debt, the Finance Ministry provided 792 billion rubles for this purpose, a figure that seemed to boost 2016 defense spending from its actual 3.09 trillion rubles to 3.8 trillion. (Subsequently another 186 billion rubles was spent in 2017 on paying down debt, making the spending appear higher for that year as well.) According to the MoD, this measure saved 130 billion rubles in interest alone.

Another change disrupting the continuity of Russian defense-spending data, adopted by the government in 2017, was to tighten up controls on funding left over in the hands of the defense sector when it was unable to deliver weapons on time. Prior to this, the defense industry was allowed to build up stockpiles of money advanced for armaments that had not been produced as scheduled. Furthermore, some defense enterprises were clever enough to collect interest on these large advances, which sat in their accounts. At the end of the year, about 250-300 billion rubles ended up trapped in this manner, and the MoD had a hard choice to make: either further finance incomplete orders, and therefore reward delinquency, or return the money to the government budget and potentially lose it. To solve the matter, the MoD will now pull unspent funding back to the government budget under the condition that it will be reissued, and roll over payments into the following year. This means that some portion of each year's budget (perhaps 5 percent or so) will flow into the next year.

In making its calculations SIPRI also converted the outsized budget figures from 2016 into U.S. dollars, which exacerbated the impression of a dramatic decline in defense spending in 2017. Measuring Russia’s defense budget in dollars is analytically unhelpful, since Russia’s defense sector doesn’t buy much of anything in dollars. Thus, the resulting figures are distorted by changes in currency exchange rates, and they are not adjusted for purchasing power parity. Ultimately, several percentage points in SIPRI’s alleged decline were likely due to currency devaluation, which is almost completely irrelevant to the matter in question.

While we are in fact witnessing a steady decline of Russian defense spending as a percentage of GDP, defense cuts in absolute terms have been modest at best. Official spending on defense dropped by about 8 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 3.09 trillion rubles to 2.84 trillion, and the defense budget was only scheduled for cuts averaging 5-6 percent over the three-year period of 2017-2019. (The numbers in this article reflect official defense spending, not total military expenditure, which might include funding for other militarized services like the border guards and Interior Ministry troops, or military pensions, which could add another trillion rubles to the bottom line.) Actual reductions in military spending began in 2015, by about 5 percent. Economic factors certainly played a role—primarily Russia’s recession and the drop in oil prices—but perhaps more important were the geopolitical factors: loss of access to certain defense articles imported from the West and the messy divorce from Ukraine’s defense sector. Due to the war with Ukraine, Russia’s defense industry could not buy components from its long-time partner across the border; this, in turn, delayed production and left the Russian Defense Ministry with less materiel to buy, while the funds to pay for it sat in government coffers instead of getting spent.

Russia’s defense expenditures are not a coherent data set and have become easy to get lost in given the changes that have taken place. Nonetheless, it is especially frustrating to see the narrative of “slashed military spending due to economic woes” resurface now, since the same miscalculation was made last year by Jane’s, which reported a 25-percent reduction in Russian defense spending from 2016 to 2017 based on Moscow’s advance announcement of planned expenditures. Jane’s later acknowledged the mistake and took down its original story, but by that time the sensational figure had already been reported widely in the news media.

Although it is impossible to know in advance how much will be spent in 2018, it is already looking like this year’s anticipated 5 percent reduction is unlikely to materialize. Instead of the planned 2.768 trillion rubles, the Russian budget’s defense chapter has already been amended to 2.953, a 6.7-percent increase; this higher 2018 figure likely includes carryover payments for armament procurement in 2017. Hence defense spending in 2018 is unlikely to decline, but the Russian leadership still intends to see military expenditure reduced as a share of GDP. Planned spending on national defense was envisioned at 2.815 trillion for 2019 and 2.807 trillion for 2020—also hardly a steep cut, and current performance suggests actual numbers will prove higher.

Moreover, despite a reduction in Russia’s purchasing power, the new state armament program for 2018-2027 is quite substantial for the defense sector, especially considering the amount of modernization and procurement of new equipment already accomplished under the previous one. The latest program allocates considerable resources for additional procurement. It is configured in a 19+1+3 formula, with 19 trillion rubles for the armed forces, 1 trillion in infrastructure spending and another 3 trillion for other security services, such as the National Guard. The previous program of 2011-2020 was valued at close to 19 trillion rubles (plus infrastructure investment), about half of which was spent by 2017, at a rate that might average 1.35 trillion per year.

Thus, Russian defense spending and procurement is in for a sustained trim, but the reductions are fairly minor in comparison to the sensational headlines. Moscow has long declared its intentions to halt the growth in defense spending and reduce military expenditure as a share of GDP over time. Given the complexity of Russia’s defense budget, and a data set that lacks continuity, the best thing one can do is tread with care when it comes to pronouncements.


Michael Kofman

Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute.

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Debate: Can Russia Be a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States?

Debate: Can Russia Be a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States?

February 08, 2018RM Staff
Aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, April 15, 2013.
Aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, April 15, 2013.

The upcoming fifth anniversary of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing serves as a reminder that U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation was not easy even when the general relationship between the two countries was better than today. While no one disputes that Russia’s Federal Security Service sent information to the FBI about one of the perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, back in 2011, U.S. officials have complained that Russia did not provide sufficient follow-up information and Moscow has responded that it gave all it had. In the decade before the bombing, the United States had been more interested in Russian intelligence sharing on al-Qaida, while Russia wanted information on émigré or exiled Chechens whom they suspected of supporting violent separatism—a disparity that complicated counterterrorism discussions.

We at Russia Matters have long believed that some of the most crucial questions related to U.S policies toward Russia have no easy answers and deserve to be debated by knowledgeable experts. Whether the U.S. should treat Russia as a viable counterterrorism partner is one such question. The two articles below attempt to answer it.

RAND analyst Colin Clarke argues that “Russia is Not a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States.” He cites practical difficulties in sharing classified intelligence, especially in the current atmosphere of mistrust between the two countries, and considers the argument that Moscow and Washington are fighting a common enemy—namely, militant Islamists—to be a specious one for cooperation: “A close look at the battles each is waging,” he writes, “reveals that Russia and the U.S. are fighting either different groups or the same groups but for different reasons and using very different approaches.” Clarke believes there is little Moscow can offer to the U.S. in the way of valuable intelligence or military support and, more importantly, that “Russia is America’s adversary and its actions, particularly attempts to fracture NATO, do not align with larger U.S. security goals.” In this context, calling Moscow a partner in the fight against terrorism, he writes, would hand it an undeserved public-relations victory.

Former CIA officer George Beebe disagrees. In his response, “Cooperate to Deescalate: Working With Russia Against Terrorism Will Make America Safer,” he cites evidence of fruitful U.S.-Russian security cooperation at times when relations were no warmer than now—beginning with World War II, on to the Cold War, and in the post-9/11 period. He writes that the U.S. has plenty of experience “protecting sensitive sources and methods in exchanges with foreign intelligence services” and can benefit from Russia’s strong capabilities, particularly in the regions from which many global terrorist threats now emanate. Finally, he believes that “pursuing a partnership with Russia against terrorism” would not “hand the Kremlin a tactical victory in its larger strategic war against us.” Geopolitically, Beebe writes, the U.S. “cannot prevent Russia’s rise” and “our vain efforts to punish and isolate Russia” have repeatedly hurt U.S. interests. Careful engagement, he concludes, “can help … incentivize an alternative Russian course that is more in alignment with U.S. interests.”


Russia is Not a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States

Russia is Not a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States

February 08, 2018Colin P. Clarke

Late last year, Russia’s president called his American counterpart to thank him for information provided by the CIA that allegedly helped thwart a terrorist attack in Russia’s second-largest city, also Vladimir Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg. The exchange fit with President Donald Trump’s long-held position that Washington should forge closer ties with Russia to fight international terrorism, particularly of the Islamist variety. (His predecessor had made some efforts in that direction as well.) One media report called news of the two leaders’ conversation “an unusual public airing of details about counterterrorism cooperation,” while former director of national intelligence James Clapper called it a “rather theatric gesture” for “something that goes on below the radar” on a regular basis.

Foolish as it would be to argue that U.S. and Russian interests never align, the United States in its broader battle with terrorism cannot cooperate meaningfully with Moscow. On a practical level, there are difficulties in sharing intelligence even with trusted allies, much less in a relationship rife with mistrust, as U.S.-Russia ties now are. More importantly, the argument that Moscow and Washington are fighting a common enemy because both face threats from militant Islamists is misleading: A close look at the battles each is waging reveals that Russia and the U.S. are fighting either different groups or the same groups but for different reasons and using very different approaches. Today Russia is America’s adversary and its actions, particularly attempts to fracture NATO, do not align with larger U.S. security goals. Calling Moscow a “partner” in the counterterror fight would hand it a huge PR victory—note that the Putin-Trump call was made public by the Kremlin—and a giant fig leaf to cover up its efforts to undermine the U.S. on the global stage.

Obstacles to Cooperation

Sharing intelligence with foreign countries is easier said than done. Practical difficulties include concerns about revealing sources and methods, as well as strict regulations involving access to information with varying levels of classification. Clearing these hurdles is even more difficult in a political climate where U.S.-Russian military-to-military contacts are all but frozen and the U.S. intelligence community believes Russia to have waged “an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” with several official investigations underway.

Syria ostensibly would be the place to start on counterterrorism cooperation, but Russia has proven to be an unreliable partner on matters less sensitive than intelligence sharing. Earlier this year, the U.S.-led coalition said Russian military officials had rejected a coalition request for permission to strike Islamic State targets near a strategically important garrison at al-Tanf, which is used by U.S. troops. The Pentagon has repeatedly complained of dangerous maneuvers by Russian fighter jets, most recently in December. And U.N. investigators say there is strong evidence suggesting that the Russian-brokered 2013 deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons did not work, while Moscow has blocked related investigations from continuing. There are also reports that “the Kremlin’s diplomatic coordination with the United States is much less intense” under the Trump administration than under Barack Obama’s.

It also remains unclear exactly what Russia could provide to the United States of value in terms of intelligence or military capabilities. The U.S. is doing a better job battling Islamic State than Russia is. In areas where Russian-backed forces operate, IS fighters regularly manage to move freely, especially around the middle Euphrates River valley, according to U.S. officials. Moreover, despite Putin’s declaration of “victory” in December, Russia’s main military facilities in Syria were attacked in January—first with mortars killing two servicemen and then with a dozen armed drones, possibly from territory covered by a Moscow-brokered cease-fire—demonstrating the Russian forces’ vulnerability. Overall, despite Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East, the region is still not one where Russia has more knowledge or sway than Washington.

The ‘Common Enemy’ Fallacy

The primary reason U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation is even under discussion is because of the idea that the two countries are fighting a common enemy—jihadist groups in general, and Islamic State in particular. In reality, Moscow’s and Washington’s respective wars on terror differ significantly in motives, aims, targets, tactics and strategies, and even who the enemy is, which further dims any prospects for cooperation.  

In Syria, for example, the U.S. wants to defeat the Islamic State because it is an engine of international terrorism, while Russia fights the group mainly because it is an enemy of President Bashar al-Assad—whose regime Moscow has saved from collapse. Meanwhile, Russian special forces and warplanes serve as a force multiplier for Hezbollah, a recognized terror group. Differences like these explain in large part why U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria has been limited to “deconfliction” and avoiding accidents, while the two sides’ definitions of the terrorist threat continue to diverge.

Another key difference in the two countries’ threat perceptions is that Moscow has long had to fight Islamist terrorism in its backyard, while the U.S. has been doing battle in distant lands. In the mid- to late-1990s, myriad anti-Russian rebel groups, primarily from the traditionally Muslim North Caucasus region, adopted religious ideologies instead of secular separatist aspirations—a shift attributed by many scholars to the growing influence of foreign fighters from the Middle East and Central Asia. Since then, Islamic militants have launched many high-profile attacks on Russian soil far beyond the battlefields of the Caucasus. These have included targeted destruction of transportation infrastructure and meticulously planned operations specifically designed to kill civilians and spread terror throughout the population, such as the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004. The U.S. has suffered far fewer attacks by jihadists on its home turf and has been fighting largely to keep them away from its shores and to help protect allies in Europe. This difference, too, calls for different approaches to counterterrorism: Expeditionary counterterrorism requires a significant deployment of military force, while domestic counterterrorism can rely more on local and federal police and an array of intelligence agencies.

The U.S. and Russia also differ markedly in their approaches to fighting terrorism and it is hard to imagine how these could be made compatible. Roughly put, the U.S. aims to espouse a comprehensive approach that tries to win hearts and minds by finding out about communities’ grievances and factoring in socioeconomic development; Russia does not explicitly try to do this, relying instead on heavy-handed methods, many of which the U.S. military could not easily get away with and in fact condemns.

These have included indiscriminate bombing; forced disappearances whose victims got no legal representation, were held incommunicado and were sometimes never heard from again; and collective punishment, including the targeting of suspected insurgents’ families, friends and neighbors. Russia’s focus has been largely kinetic, as the military has relied on a decapitation strategy to eliminate successive high-ranking insurgent military commanders over the years. This approach has been quite effective in the short term, but also may be myopic, trading longer-term stability for short-lived security: Insurgents’ social, political and economic grievances have largely been ignored, practically ensuring that future generations of militants will pick up the mantle of jihad. In Chechnya, for example, anti-Moscow militants have been all but wiped out under a ruthless, Moscow-backed strongman, but the insurgency has shifted to neighboring Dagestan. Indeed, thousands of Russian fighters have gone to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq and experts are just beginning to assess the threats they will pose in years to come.

In an ideal world Russia and the U.S. would be able to cooperate against jihadist organizations, jointly developing counterterrorist best practices, but for all the reasons listed above this is not realistic at present.

Big Picture: We Are Adversaries

Any successful attempt at cooperation needs to unfold in a broader, more comprehensive context—meaning U.S. foreign and security policy that extends beyond terrorism and includes the building and maintenance of alliances, stability operations and American grand strategy. Here the U.S. faces two major obstacles to working with Moscow: At least at this moment, Russia is an adversary and U.S. policy is somewhat inchoate. On the first point, one of Russia’s chief objectives is to drive a wedge into NATO—via disinformation, support for anti-status quo parties and other means—thus making the alliance less effective in responding to threats. This clearly runs counter to U.S. interests. At times Russia seems to pursue policies with the primary aim of hurting the U.S. A prime example is its reported support for the Taliban in Afghanistan: How could that benefit Russia other than to bog down the U.S. and derail its efforts? At the same time, the U.S. has to get its own strategic objectives in order, both on counterterrorism and more broadly. In Syria, for instance, Washington has repeatedly said it wants Assad out, but has not offered an alternative.

In light of this adversarial relationship and the absence of a clear strategy for countering it, why would the U.S. want to hand Russia an enormous public-relations victory by calling it a partner in the fight against Islamic extremism?

What Might the Future Hold?

Eventually, the civil war in Syria should wind down and everyone involved will seek to craft a negotiated political settlement. The United States will need to cooperate with Russia (and several other key nation-states) to forge a path ahead in Syria. But that is hardly the same as viewing Russia as a viable counterterrorism partner. Again, cooperating with Moscow on counterterrorism would be technically difficult from the perspective of intelligence sharing, especially considering the United States and Russia are at odds on key policy issues, including some counterterrorism issues.

Even where there are areas in which the two countries could work together to mutual benefit, any cooperation should be judicious, measured and treated with the requisite degree of skepticism.


Colin P. Clarke

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)-The Hague.

Cooperate to Deescalate: Working With Russia Against Terrorism Will Make America Safer

Cooperate to Deescalate: Working With Russia Against Terrorism Will Make America Safer

February 08, 2018George Beebe

Colin Clarke’s essay against U.S. counterterrorist cooperation with Russia asserts both that such cooperation is not attainable and that it is not desirable. Intelligence sharing about terrorist threats, it argues, requires a certain baseline of trust that is noticeably lacking in U.S.-Russian relations, and the threats that Russia is targeting differ significantly from those that the U.S. is combatting, making genuine cooperation impossible. Even if obstacles to cooperation could be overcome in principle, the argument continues, they should not be, because Russia can do little of significance to help the U.S., employs a level of brutality in counterterrorist operations that would both taint and endanger us by association andmost importantis an adversary intent on undermining the U.S., its allies and the liberal international order. None of these assertions is compelling. In fact, counterterrorist cooperation with Russia is both possible and desirable.

History itself refutes the argument that the United States is unable to cooperate with Moscow. The most notable example of this, of course, was the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, a time when few would have argued that the level of trust between Washington and Moscow was high or that broader American and Soviet goals were compatible. After that alliance dissolved, and relations descended bitterly into the Cold War, the CIA and KGB eventually decided that exchanges about terrorism and other shared concerns were so important that they established a secret “Gavrilov channel,” known to only a handful of senior officials on both sides, in the early 1980s. According to Leonid Shebarshin, erstwhile chief of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate, “occasionally, information was exchanged at the highest levels, especially on possible terrorist threats, and this channel was quite effective." 

More recently, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Russia provided significant intelligence, diplomatic and logistical assistance that greatly facilitated U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  Intelligence sharing has continued, albeit at lower levels, throughout the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship over the past decade and a half. In December, President Putin thanked President Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo for sharing threat intelligence with Moscow that enabled the successful arrests of terrorists planning an attack against civilians in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-most populous city. Even more recently, during a time when the U.S.-Russian relationship is arguably in its worst state since the height of the Cold War, the directors of Russia’s foreign and domestic intelligence services (the SVR and FSB, respectively) visited Washington to meet with Pompeo to discuss counterterrorist cooperation.

It is true that Russians and Americans view terrorism through different cultural and political prisms, and that the groups we are battling do not completely coincide, but they do overlapthat includes Islamic State, which is as threatening to Russia as it is to the U.S. These differences complicate cooperation, but do not preclude it. The U.S. intelligence community has long experience in protecting sensitive sources and methods in exchanges with foreign intelligence services. Trust is certainly lacking in the U.S.-Russian relationship, but it need not be strong to allow a basic level of counterterrorist intelligence exchanges that can benefit the security of both countries while still safeguarding intelligence equities. The record shows that obstacles to cooperation can be overcome if approached wisely and pragmatically. 

But should we try to overcome them? That is a more interesting question, on which reasonable people can disagree. The most obvious reason that we should is Russia’s ability to provide significant assistance. Good intelligence is the most important line of defense in counterterrorism, and Russia’s intelligence services are very capable in general and particularly well informed in the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus and Central and South Asia, the so-called “arc of crisis” from which many of the world’s greatest terrorist threats emanate. Many Americans recall that Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone President Bush with condolences following the Sept. 11 attacks; few know that on Sept. 9, Putin called Bush to warn urgently that Russian intelligence believed that the assassination that day of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, portended the start of a broader terrorist campaign and that an operation “long in preparation” was imminent. Gaining access to more of Russia’s valuable intelligence in this region could be a significant advantage for U.S. security.   

The second reason to cooperate is geopolitical. The anti-cooperation essay contends that Moscow does not want to help the U.S.: Instead, it seeks to undermine American interests around the world, and pursuing a partnership with Russia against terrorism in such a context would be to hand the Kremlin a tactical victory in its larger strategic war against us. But this is largely a misperception. In the early 2000s Putin made bids for partnership with Washington and the West more broadly. It is indeed true that since then Moscow has come to view the U.S. as a malevolent force in the world, recklessly wielding its immense military and economic might and opposing Russian efforts to regain status as a great power. Putin had hoped that counterterrorist cooperation with the U.S. would be a key element in a larger strategic partnership that would facilitate Russia’s renaissance following its economic, military, political and spiritual collapse during the 1990s. He no longer has such hope.

But that speaks to Russia’s determination to play a key role in the international system alongside the U.S. and other great powers, not to an intention to destroy or displace us. When Russians began to believe that the U.S. had different goals for Russia in mindencirclement by a hostile military alliance, economic subordination and second-class status internationallytheir views of partnership with Washington changed significantly. Putin shifted course to pursue Russia’s renewal without American help, using both military force and information warfare to thwart NATO’s encroachment, forging a robust partnership with China, projecting military power in Syria and courting U.S. friends and enemies in the Greater Middle East. None of these actions serves American interests. But Russian officials claim that they have not yet given up altogether on the potential for a more cooperative relationship with Washington, even if a larger strategic partnership is no longer realistic. From the Kremlin’s perspective, having the world’s foremost power accept Russia’s rise is clearly preferable to the more dangerous alternative of having to overcome Washington’s efforts to thwart it. 

The U.S. should not facilitate Russia’s ascension to great-power status or accept its agenda uncritically. But the record of the past decade shows that we cannot prevent Russia’s rise, and efforts to oppose it have come at a high cost to broader U.S. interests. The greatest threats to U.S. security include China’s growing power, international terrorism, North Korea, Iran and nuclear war by miscalculation. In all these areas, Moscow can be an important part of the solution or part of the problem. Our vain efforts to punish and isolate Russia have contributed to making Moscow part of the problem, and the growing frictions in our bilateral relationship threaten to spiral uncontrolled into direct military clashes. Carefully calibrated engagement, including through counterterrorist cooperation, can help to manage the risks that attend Russia’s increasing power and incentivize an alternative Russian course that is more in alignment with U.S. interests.


George Beebe

George Beebe is director of the Intelligence and National Security Program at the Center for the National Interest. He was formerly director of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and special advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney on Russia and the former Soviet Union. 

Photo by U.S. military in the public domain. 

Russia has doubled its fighting power on its Western border - Kahl

Russia has doubled its fighting power on its Western border - Kahl

Claim in 2017: "Russia has doubled its fighting power on its Western border.”in-betweenWhile Russia has fielded additional units in the military districts flanking its western border since 2014, the forces have not doubled; they’ve grown by a smaller degree, ranging from 13 to 50 percent depending on the military unit counted. (Fact-check done in February 2018.)

Russia's per capita income 73rd in world - Stiglitz

Russia's per capita income 73rd in world - Stiglitz

Claim in 2017: “In terms of per capita income, Russia ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity)…”in-betweenWhile the CIA ranks Russia 73rd, the country's lowest ranking from either the World Bank or IMF in their most recent data is 52nd. (Fact-check done in April 2017.)

life expectancy at birth

life expectancy at birth

Claim in 2017: Russians’ “life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.”trueThat is the most recent ranking, given by the CIA. Slightly older World Bank and U.N. rankings came close. (Fact-check done in April 2017.)
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