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2 Yale researchers on watch list after pessimistic forecasts

Angle-down symbol An icon in the shape of an angle pointing downward. Jeffery Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian have been placed on a list of sanctioned individuals because of their work shedding light on the economic situation in Russia. Mikhail Klimentiev/Sputnik AFP

  • Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, ​​​​two Yale researchers, have made dire predictions for the Russian economy.
  • Because of their work, they ended up on a list of sanctioned persons in Russia.
  • In their view, the country’s economy is in a desolate state and Putin could ultimately lose the support of the population.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, ​​​​two researchers at the Yale School of Management, have been targeted for their views on the Russian economy since the war in Ukraine began.

In recent years, they have been placed on Vladimir Putin’s watch list for stating what they see as a simple truth: the Russian economy is in trouble, and this fact can only be concealed to a certain extent by cherry-picking the data.

Moscow vehemently defends its vision of a prosperous economy, but the facts speak for themselves, say Sonnenfeld and Tian. Rising prices and weak consumer sentiment have hit key sectors of the Russian economy, and Moscow is paying a high price to keep its war machine running.

The situation in the country is so bad that citizens could turn against Putin this year, they predicted – provided the West continues to provide Ukraine with military and financial aid.

“We can list for you what Putin has – suddenly – been hiding for the last three years. If his economy was running at the level he claims, he would provide the data and not hide these facts,” Sonnenfeld said in an interview with Business Insider. “Putin only survives by cannibalizing Russian companies – by throwing the living room furniture into the stove to keep the fire burning.”

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld Courtesy of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

The researchers, who met as a professor-student couple at Yale, were heavily criticized for their work on Russia, especially in the form of hate mail and threatening phone calls.

“I’ve received a lot of threats on the phone and my house has been vandalized,” Sonnenfeld told BI last summer. “Now we have so many security cameras that I can’t even leave my shirt hanging out of my pants, let alone walk around the house in shorts.”

Both are banned from entering Russia and were placed on the US citizens sanctions list in 2022.

Nevertheless, neither of them regrets their work.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” they said of their research. “Every threat just motivates us to work even harder.”

Putin’s biggest critics

Sonnenfeld, 70, and Tian, ​​25, did not expect to be placed on a list of Putin critics.

Although neither of them are economists, they began studying the Russian economy when they compiled a list of companies that withdrew from or reduced their business in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

The list spread like wildfire on the Internet and was instrumental in causing more than 1,000 companies to scale back their operations in the country, according to the Yale School of Management website.

Steven Tian Courtesy of Steven Tian

At the time, Tian and Sonnenfeld noticed cracks forming in the Russian economy. Putin claimed Russia was becoming the world’s new “growth center,” and the IMF says the Russian economy is expected to grow by over 3% this year, more than any other OECD economy, including the United States. But that doesn’t fit with the data Sonnenfeld and Tian have, because some parts of the Russian economy are in dire shape.

Sonnenfeld and Tian estimate that activity in Russia’s auto industry has fallen by 95 to 99 percent. In most industries, activity has fallen by at least 60 percent, they said, although Putin often downplays the impact of the sanctions.

The country, meanwhile, is still reeling from the huge capital losses it has suffered since the first invasion of Ukraine. Russia lost one million citizens, 15 percent of its millionaires and $19 billion in foreign direct investment in 2022 alone, making the country’s future growth prospects bleak, the researchers say.

Among their biggest predictions is that the situation in Russia is so bad that the country could eventually turn against Putin, and that a change in mood at home could occur as soon as the US presidential election in November of this year.

If Biden is re-elected, the US will likely continue to provide aid to Ukraine, forcing Russia to continue sacrificing money and human lives to continue the war against Ukraine.

“Putin has no grand strategy other than hoping Trump wins and negotiates a favorable deal with Russia,” Tian said. “Russia still has a world of economic problems ahead of it for a long time.”

Positive forecasts for the Russian economy are based on a lack of transparency, say Sonnenfeld and Tian.

The two began working together when Tian was a student at Yale and Sonnenfeld was chasing him around the classroom. Eventually, Sonnenfeld became Tian’s advisor and has mentored Tian for over eight years.

The two researchers are still working on ways to toughen up the West and enforce sanctions against Russia, and they continue to update their list of companies that have left the country in the hope that this will encourage other companies to do the same.

Colleagues describe Sonnenfeld as stubborn but generous and charismatic. Tian, ​​on the other hand, has an almost photographic memory and is a very analytical thinker, colleagues said.

“Steven does a lot of the analytical heavy lifting and I take care of the eye-catching colors,” Sonnenfeld said of their collaboration.

People who have worked with them also say that the couple is very passionate about their work and that both are often answering emails at all hours of the night and early in the morning.

“We don’t believe in regular sleep patterns,” Sonnenfeld added. “Actually, we know it’s very important, but sometimes, when it’s urgent, we throw ourselves into the crisis of the day in earnest. We just don’t like tyrants, whether it’s Putin or some other daredevil.”

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