Tensions are high between the U.S. and Russia, and President Barack Obama didn't do anything to ease that this weekend by belittling Russia with some questionable claims.
In an interview with The Economist this weekend, Obama shirked any blame for crumbling U.S.-Russian relations and segued into downplaying the other nation's global significance. To back this up he said:
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.
Not one of these sentences is true. Writing for Forbes, Mark Adomanis, an evenhanded American expert on Russian affairs, points out the "pretty startling amount of factual inaccuracy." He debunks them in turn:
One of the first things that anyone notices when they are in Moscow is the enormous number of immigrants from Central Asia. Probably the single most noteworthy and inescapable feature of modern Russian life is the prevalence of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have already rushed to Moscow "in search of opportunity." It's impossible to miss them.
This is corroborated by both official Russian government statistics and the work of its domestic political opponents.
With a dollop of snark, Adomanis explains that "life expectancy… isn't a subject of conjuncture or obscure philosophical inquiry, it is a number that is very easily found on the public-facing website of the Russian state statistics service." And again, Obama is wrong:
In 2013, the average male life expectancy in Russia was a little bit above 65 (technically it was 65.14). When Obama says that life expectancy is "around 60? he's off by about 8 percent. With a similar margin of error we could say that Barack Obama is the 41st president of the United States, that he won 47 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, and that he was born in 1957. Eight percent is a margin of error that people rarely feel confident using, because it very quickly makes you sound rather ill-informed and ignorant.
Regarding the population, Adomanis suggests that "US political elite almost always make huge mistakes when talking about it," as "Russia's population is not shrinking, it is growing." And it has been every year since 2009.
It's bizarre that Obama criticized Russia on these fronts when there's plenty of legitimate issues – like Moscow's crackdown on civil rights, the pro-Western political opposition, and independent media – that he could have addressed instead.
These, of course, don't have much bearing on the war Russia is waging against Ukrainian sovereignty or the mass killing of civilians on a Malaysian plane, but whether it's due to a lazy team of fact-checkers or deliberate rah-rah nationalism to boost the U.S. by comparison, dubious talking points don't help the Obama administration resolve the current crises. Hearing the president say "Russia doesn't make anything" will only inflame anti-American sentiment among Russian civilians, thereby reinforcing Putin's own ballooning cushion of popular support. And, there's need for healthy debate about the U.S.'s actions against the Kremlin throughout this war, but by spouting some easily-debunked information, Obama effectively invites skepticism of the accuracy of other White House claims about Russia.