What Game Is Putin Playing?
David Goldman, aka Spengler, has published a thoughtful piece about Putin, Ukraine, and the future of Russia. I say “published,” but “republished” is more accurate. It first appeared nearly six years ago, in August 2008. But “Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess” is as pertinent today as it was when it was first published.
Some scene setters:
1. On the night of November 22, 2004, Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine.
2. Demographics. Goldman reminds us of the dismal truth: “The United Nations publishes population projections for Russia up to 2050, and I have extended these to 2100. If the UN demographers are correct, Russia’s adult population will fall from about 90 million today to only 20 million by the end of the century. Russia is the only country where abortions are more numerous than live births, a devastating gauge of national despair.”
Sure, extrapolation from present trends to future realties is always hazardous. But those present trends are also present realities, and in the case of Russia’s population they pose an existential threat. Putin has tried mightily to increase natality, and has had some modest success. But Goldman provides the demographic backdrop: “demographers observe that the number of Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number of Russians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.”
Yikes. And what does this mean? It means that “Russia has passed the point of no return in terms of fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.”
3. And this brings us to the Ukraine. Goldman, remember, was writing in 2008, but he might have been writing yesterday.
The place to avert tragedy is in Ukraine. Russia will not permit Ukraine to drift to the West. Whether a country that never had an independent national existence prior to the collapse of communism should become the poster-child for national self-determination is a different question. The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important.
My proposal is simple: Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.
Is Goldman right?