Four Things President Obama Got Wrong About Russia in His Conversation with “The Economist”

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This past Friday, August 1st, President Barack Obama sat down with the Editor-in-Chief and Foreign Editor of The Economist for a conversation aboard Air Force One. The discussion touched upon a wide variety of topics, ranging from economic development in Africa to the President’s opinion of the magazine’s characterization of his attitude toward’s business (hint: he’s not a huge fan). Audio of the entire conversation and a transcript are available via the Economist’s website

At one point, about twenty-seven minutes into the audio clip linked above, the editors asked the President about his approach to dealing with countries, such as Russia, that are “just outright difficult.” 

The Economist: What about the people who are just outright difficult? Russia being the obvious example at the moment. You tried to “reset” with Russia. Angela Merkel spent the whole time telephoning Vladimir Putin. To what extent do you feel let down almost personally by what’s happened?

Mr Obama: I don’t feel let down. We had a very productive relationship with President Medvedev. We got a lot of things done that we needed to get done. Russia I think has always had a Janus-like quality, both looking east and west, and I think President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful to Russia over the long term, but in the short term can be politically popular at home and very troublesome abroad.

Nothing very surprising there, except perhaps that someone of consequence remembers who Dmitri Medvedev is. But then Obama continued: 

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.

Here’s where things got interesting. Rather than a long, meandering answer that considers all sides of the issue at hand — the President’s tack for most of the interview and, arguably, for most interviews — this was a succinct list of ostensible hard facts. In Obama’s telling, these facts pointed to an inevitable conclusion: Russia is in deep, deep trouble. 

I think it’s worth briefly interrogating these four points, as much for what they reveal about this administration’s understanding of Russia as for what they actually prove about that country’s demographic and economic prospects. Let’s go through them one at a time: 

 

1. “Russia doesn’t make anything.”

This was obviously intended as hyperbole, and it would be meaningless to point out that Russia does, of course, make things. The President’s broader point here is about the Russian economy’s well-documented dependence on oil and gas exports to Europe, China, and the former Soviet Union. When the major importers of Russian oil and gas finally begin to transition in earnest towards renewables, the argument goes, both energy prices and the Russian economy will simultaneously go into the tank. 

And indeed, the problem is a serious one: according to data released a month ago by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil and natural gas sales accounted for 68% of the country’s total exports last year. Any major drop in demand would indeed be a hard pill to swallow. The Russian economy did, however get a small bit of good news in July. For the first time since October 2013, according to the HSBC Manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI), the country’s manufacturing sector grew

A country with a (however slightly) growing manufacturing sector can hardly be said to make nothing. Of course, in the face of already weak export demand and new Western sanctions, such growth hardly appears sustainable. If President Obama was clearly underestimating Russia’s manufacturing capabilities, therefore, he was not clearly overstating the gravity of the country’s reliance on natural resource extraction. 

2. “Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity.”

In fact, after the United States, Russia is the second most popular destination for immigrants in the entire world

Moscow, meanwhile, is home to several million undocumented migrant workers, most of whom come from Central Asia seeking better pay with which to support their families and better living conditions than are available at home: in short, opportunity.

Frankly, this is pretty inexcusable. Anyone who’s been to Moscow even once or twice could tell you that its is a veritable city of immigrants. 

3. “The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, the average life expectancy of the Russian male is actually 64.37 years; the average Russian female, on the other hand, has a life expectancy of 76.3 years. The average for the entire population is 70.16 years.

Why the President singled out Russian males is unclear; it seems likely he just picked the lower figure (and then understated it by over four years) in order to emphasize how much trouble Russia and its economy are in going forward. But surely the country’s females, over 53% of the population, are germane to the country’s economic prospects as well?

Moreover, this statement also glosses over the fact that life expectancy in Russia has been steadily increasing over the past decade or so after taking a precipitous dip during the volatile nineties. This year’s life expectancy figure for females, for example, was a new record high for any period in the country’s history, Soviet or otherwise. 

4. “The population is shrinking.” 

This one seems to be a hobbyhorse for a particular set of American politicians and Russophobic talking heads. And actually, I’ve heard more than a few Russians remark about how much of a problem the country’s supposedly shrinking birth rate and population is. The problem is that it’s simply not born out by the data. 

As Mark Adomanis clearly demonstrates, not only is the Russian population is no longer shrinking, it actually grew in 2013. And it shows signs of continued growth in the future. The fact of the matter is that the Russian population is not shrinking and hasn’t been for at least a year. And it’s not as if this a well-kept secret — I’m pretty sure they can read the Forbes website in the White House.

 

The takeaway from all this is not so much that the President made several factual errors, some more egregious than others. That happens to all politicians from time to time. What is more troubling is the way that these “facts” were presented. These were not off-the-cuff remarks; rather, Obama rattled off the four points above in quick succession and formulated as a list. His remarks were suggestive of someone who has been drilled on these talking points, presumably by advisors who are supposed to be experts on this stuff. Its not a comforting thought that the President’s Russia advisors are this misinformed.

These mistakes may seem inconsequential, and on their own they probably are; however, it’s mistakes like these that get spun into the cynical narrative of “lies the Big Bad West tells about Russia.” I highly doubt this interview will get any serious play in the Russian media, but if I were working for a pro-Kremlin news agency, this is exactly the sort of thing I’d latch onto and use to further muddy the waters. Easy factual errors of this nature only reinforce the idea so prevalent here that the United States is either (a) ignorant about Russia or (b) methodically misleading its citizenry and the world in an effort to destabilize the Russian state. If President Obama truly believes that “history” is on his side of this dispute, he would do well to ensure the Russia he’s talking about (and talking to) is a real country, and not a historical construct of his or his advisors’ manufacture.