Don’t Trust Russia’s Numbers

Moscow has made economic statistics a central part of its information war.

An illustrated portrait of Agathe Demarais
An illustrated portrait of Agathe Demarais
Agathe Demarais
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior policy fellow on geoeconomics at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 20, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 20, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 20, 2022. MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Why do so many people in the West—who should probably know better by now—trust the data of authoritarian governments conducting an information war?

Why do so many people in the West—who should probably know better by now—trust the data of authoritarian governments conducting an information war?

The latest controversy surrounds the state of the Russian economy and what Western media and others have been reporting to their audiences. Read anything about the war in Ukraine these days, and you’ll probably find a mention that the Russian economy contracted by about 2 percent in 2022—a low decline that suggests little more than a mild recession. That number has entered the policy debate: For some, the low figure is proof that the Russian economy is resilient and sanctions do not work. Others use the same figure to argue that sanctions are starting to bite and Western countries should double down. These opposing arguments have one thing in common: They rely on a largely meaningless number.

Even if Russia’s reported GDP decline were truthful, it is clear that three factors artificially boosted the Russian growth number in 2022. First, the economic growth figure has been fueled by Russia’s turbocharged production of military gear. Producing tanks and missiles does not improve living standards, however, and this part of Russian GDP will quickly be destroyed on the battlefield. Second, Russia’s export earnings jumped in 2022 because of the war-induced spike in energy prices. And third, Western embargos on technology and other goods as well as sinking Russian consumer demand led to a plunge in imports, which dropped by almost 10 percent during 2022, according to Russia’s official data.

Even more important than what Russia’s “growth” really means, however, is the fact that the Kremlin’s figures cannot be trusted. That’s because Russia has made statistics a central part of its information war. Moscow’s goal is clear: to argue that sanctions do not work, thereby undercutting those who think they are a key tool to stop or contain Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (as I have argued in Foreign Policy). This strategy rests on three pillars. The Kremlin communicates heavily using cherry-picked forecasts, presenting them as facts and forgetting to mention that they are massively outside expert consensus. Moscow also delays the release of statistics that don’t fit its narrative. Finally, the figures it does release are of dubious quality—and frequently revised later.

Recent weeks provide a good illustration of how this strategy looks in practice. In January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released an estimate of Russia’s 2022 recession as part of its World Economic Outlook. The fund estimated that the Russian economy contracted by only 2.2 percent in 2022. This number surprised many economists, not least because the IMF used to be far more pessimistic about Russia’s economic situation—at the start of the war, it had forecast a recession of 8.5 percent. Among experts, the consensus estimate was that the Russian economy contracted by 3.2 percent—about half again as deep as what the IMF reported. The IMF’s estimate of minus 2.2 percent was thus an outlier, but Russian propagandists presented it as a hard fact. Mainstream Western media picked it up. Seeing the figure everywhere, most people assumed it was true.

The second pillar of Russia’s disinformation involves delaying the publication of poor data. This is precisely what happened a few days after the IMF released its optimistic number, when the Russian Federal State Statistics Service suddenly postponed the release of actual GDP data for December 2022 and the full year. With no Russian number for actual GDP to go by, most Russia watchers mistakenly assumed that the IMF estimate was the official recession number. Since the IMF was far more bullish on the Russian economy than expert consensus, this confusion served the Kremlin’s interests well.

Moscow finally released a single growth number with a two-week delay: a 2.1 GDP decline over all of 2022, just about the same as the optimistic IMF estimate. Yet it is unclear how Russian statisticians even came up with their figure; verification is impossible because they have still not released GDP data for the fourth quarter of 2022. Assembling the pieces of this statistical puzzle paints an intriguing picture: If the full-year recession figure is 2.1 percent, as Russia claims, then doing the math using already reported data for the first three quarters of 2022 results in a GDP drop of around 4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022 compared to the fourth quarter of 2021.

This is theoretically possible, but available figures on Russia’s economy in the fourth quarter suggest a steeper contraction. In December 2022, Russia’s own official statistics showed that industrial production and retail sales recorded their steepest annual drops in almost three years, suggesting a deep slowdown in activity. The prices for oil massively receded in late 2022, which weighed on exports. Finally, Russia’s imports bounced back in the fourth quarter from the lows reached earlier in the year, further weighing on GDP.

The likeliest scenario is that Russia’s GDP figures for 2022 will be quietly revised to a figure closer to 3 percent or even 4 percent—closer to expert consensus and much higher than last month’s IMF and Kremlin figures. To be sure, data revisions are not uncommon around the world, including in developed economies; GDP figures are sometimes corrected several times before they can be seen as accurate. Yet Russia has made such revisions the norm since the start of the war, with corrections far bigger than other countries typically make.

Even after the data are eventually revised, this saga will remain a win for Russia. Who will care to check whether the initial figure has been revised—and write a new report or media article? Who, beyond a tiny group of experts, has seriously considered whether these figures even mean anything? The problem is systemic and goes beyond Russia’s dubious economic figures; China is another skilled player in the statistical disinformation game. (The official GDP numbers are so distorted that China watchers use proxy data, such as electricity consumption, rail cargo, and bank lending, to gauge economic growth.) For the Kremlin, quietly changing the recession number would have another benefit: If Russia eventually amends its figures to reflect a bigger drop in GDP in 2022, then this will artificially boost the growth number in 2023. GDP growth after a recession is like bungee jumping: The lower you drop, the higher you rebound.

Assessing the effectiveness of sanctions has always been tricky. The Kremlin has classified entire data sets since the start of the war, including those on external trade—which would provide information about the state of the Russian energy sector. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes that turning Russia into a black box will help support his claims that sanctions do not work, confusing Western policymakers, journalists, and citizens. Given Putin’s belief that he is waging an existential war against the West, this is fair game. The real problem is in Western countries: Experts and media quoting Russia’s recession figure should probably take the time to question their data instead of amplifying the Kremlin’s talking points.

Agathe Demarais is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior policy fellow on geoeconomics at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests. Twitter: @AgatheDemarais

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