Russia, rotting from within, faces bleak future

In his high-profile effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, President Obama has sought not only to assuage Moscow’s concerns on issues like missile defense to win its cooperation on other U.S. priorities. He has gone out of his way to ratify Russia’s role as a great power, even letting Moscow reassert itself in the Middle East in more consequential ways than we’ve seen in decades.

Four years later, the question is not whether Obama has succeeded; he clearly has not. The more consequential question is whether his assumption that Moscow deserves great power status makes sense to begin with.

At first glance, you might think so.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described the Soviet crack-up as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century, has boldly reasserted Moscow’s global role. While enabling Iran’s nuclear program and protecting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he has halted NATO’s eastern expansion, enhanced Russian influence within its region, and nourished warmer ties with Beijing in an effort to counter America’s global preeminence.

But, look beyond the recent geopolitical advances and beneath the surface of Russian posturing, and you will find something very different – a state that’s rotting from within, one facing ominous trends that will leave it, at best, with a much diminished global role in the coming decades.

“Today,” Russian expert Ilan Berman writes in his timely new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, “the once-mighty Russian state is crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions.”

“A rising tide of Islamic radicalism is only one sign of this disorder,” adds Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council (where – full disclosure – I’m a Senior Fellow). “Others include population decline on a catastrophic scale, as well as growing strategic competition with neighboring China.”

The problem, as suggested in the quote above from Berman’s opening pages, is essentially three-fold.

First, shrinking population:

Russia is Europe’s new “sick man,” comparable to the Ottoman Empire of a century ago. Its fertility rate is among the world’s lowest. At existing rates, Russia’s population will shrink from today’s 143 million to just 107 million by 2050.

Contributing, with low fertility, to population shrinkage, are a fall in life expectancy to a mere 70 years, just ahead of North Korea and Mongolia; one of the world’s highest abortion rates, which robs the country of about 1 percent of its potential population each year; an AIDS epidemic that’s fuelled by widespread drug abuse, with heroine as the drug of choice; and a mass exodus of Russians, particularly skilled workers, that reflects a broad crisis of confidence in Russia’s future.

Second, rising Islamic radicalism:

As ethnic Russians shrink in numbers, the Muslim population is surging, with the current 21 million on track to grow to a fifth of Russia’s population by the end of this decade and a majority by mid-century.

Growth in the Muslim population, which is driven by more marriage, less divorce, fewer abortions, and more children among Muslims than non-Muslim Russians, has triggered a dangerous backlash, with a surge in race-based violence and right-wing nationalism. Meanwhile, Russia’s harsh crackdown in Chechnya, combined with its support for Iran and Syria (as opposed to Sunni Muslim states), has radicalized Russia’s Muslim population, generating more religiously motivated violence.

Third, rising Chinese competition:

Chinese migration to Russia’s eastern region, coupled with the flight of Russians from it, has increased China’s influence over the resource-rich area, setting the stage for China to potentially reclaim land that it lost centuries ago.

When it comes to depopulation, Muslim radicalization, and Chinese encroachment, Berman explains, Putin has no long-term answers. Instead, he’s papering over the problems by pursuing visions of restored national greatness that he shares with many Russians.

The strongman has tightened his grip on power, linked arms with the increasingly accommodating Russian Orthodox Church, cracked down on potential rivals, allowed a criminal culture to thrive, and invested in the nation’s military at the expense of needed investments in both physical and human capital.

Looking ahead, Berman says, the United States may face something far more troubling than a Russian state with outsized dreams of glory and a difficult autocrat who treats the United States with open contempt.

It may face, instead, an increasingly unstable country of rising ethnic and political violence at home, bolder efforts to extend its influence in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to offset its retreat in the east, and the world’s first majority-Muslim nation with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

That’s something to ponder.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”