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.)

Claim in 2018: Russia’s 2017 GDP in current U.S. dollars “is barely more than that of South Korea.”

Correct: When measured in current U.S. dollars, Russia’s 2017 GDP was only slightly larger than South Korea’s. (Fact-check done in July 2018.)
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Debate: Is Russia in Decline?

August 22, 2018
RM 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.

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Claim in 2018: “Russia relies heavily on energy exports for close to three-quarters of its export earnings and over half of its budget.”

Partially Correct: Energy 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.)
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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, 2018
RM 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.

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

February 08, 2018
RM Staff
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.

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Claim in 2017: "Russia has doubled its fighting power on its Western border.”

Partially Correct: While 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.)
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Claim in 2017: “In terms of per capita income, Russia ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity)…”

Partially Correct: While 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.)
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Claim in 2017: Russians’ “life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.”

Correct: That 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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Claim in 2017: "Because we [the U.S.] have stood firm, Russia is now—despite the boasts of its leaders—plagued by dwindling financial reserves, a historically weak ruble and poor international relations."

Partially Correct: At the time of this statement the Russian ruble was stronger versus the U.S. dollar than at any time since Fall 2015. (Fact-check done in January 2017.)
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Claim in 2016: Russia’s “economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”

Partially Correct: Russia also successfully sells goods and services in the space and nuclear-power industries. (Fact-check done in December 2016.)
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What else should we fact-check or debate?

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