Book Review: Reports of Russia's death are exaggerated

Reports of Russia’s death are exaggerated
Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for Americaby Ilan Berman
By Spengler (crossposted from Asia Times Online)


Since the fall of communism in 1991, Washington consistently underestimated Russia. American policy in consequence has crashed and burned repeatedly: in the Ukraine, where the American-backed “Orange Revolution” of 2004 collapsed in favor of an administration friendly to Moscow; in 2008, when America backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to incorporate Russian-majority provinces on Georgia’s borders; and in 2013, when Russia trumped American in the Middle East and took the diplomatic lead in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis.

American diplomats have had their heads handed to them by Moscow yet again. If they are so poor, how come they ain’t dumb? Americans play Monopoly; Russians play chess. Russia has found the fault lines in American policy and compensated for its light footprint with superior leverage. In particular, Russia has exploited the timidity of the last two US administrations towards Iran, presenting itself as the purveyor of a solution to problems it helped to create. In terms of technique, Moscow’s performance is praiseworthy, even if its intent is malicious.

Russia, to be sure, is in crisis. But Russia has been in crisis since Peter the Great build modern Russia with one foot in Siberia and the other in Eastern Europe. It is not a nation-state but an empire, badly constituted from the beginning. Russia always taxed its European provinces to support uneconomic expansion in its Far East, a policy that collapsed between the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914-1918 war with Germany. Russia regained its eastern influence in 1945 and lost it in 1989.

Its population has declined from a peak of 149 million in 1992 to 143 million in 2012 and threatens to decline even faster. Russia’s demographics are weak, although it is worth asking whether they are much weaker than in 1945, after Russia had lost 15% of its total population in war, not to mention a great deal of its productive capacity and infrastructure. That didn’t stop the Soviet Union from building thermonuclear bombs and ICBMs and beating America into space. The Soviet economy suffered from the equivalent of arteriosclerosis, but it nearly won the Cold War. Putin’s economy has suffered a string of self-inflicted failures, but that doesn’t remove Russia from the field.

Russia was down but not altogether out after the Soviet Union broke up, and the self-consoling triumphalism that has characterized American accounts of the country has proven a poor guide to policy-making. Ilan Berman’s new volume – really an essay stretched to book length by long appendices – weighs Russia’s recent return to world power status against a projected long-term disaster which, in my view, will not occur within the policy horizon.


“For the moment, the unraveling of Russia is still far from the minds of most observers,” writes Berman, who works for the American Foreign Policy Council. “In fact, Russia’s future looks comparatively bright. While the decade that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 saw a Russia that was humbled and diminished, over the past dozen years it has roared back onto the international stage under the guidance of its current president, Vladimir Putin.” Berman published before Russia grabbed the initiative in the Middle East with a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which underscores his point.

Russia, though, faces what he calls a demographic implosion:

Russia is dying. Russia is undergoing a catastrophic post-Soviet societal decline due to abysmal health standards, runaway drug addiction, and an AIDS crisis that officials have termed an “epidemic.” The population of the Russian Federation is declining by close to half a million souls every year due to death and emigration. At this rate, the once-mighty Russian state could lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century. And according to some projections, if Russia’s demographic trajectory does not change, its population could plummet to as little as fifty-two million people by 2080.It’s a phenomenon demographers have described as “the emptying of Russia” – a wholesale implosion of Russia’s human capital and a collapse of its prospects as a viable modern state.

The news, though is that Russia’s trajectory has shifted, although it is hard to tell by how much. As Mark Adomanis noted on the Forbes website July 25, Russia’s crude birthrate in 2012 momentarily exceeded America’s. Russia’s demographic outlook remains poor, because the number of women of child-bearing age will decline due to the extremely low birth rates of the 1990s.

Russia’s bith rate collapsed during the 1990s

… So the total number of women of child-beraring age will decline: 

Source: United Nations Meduim Variant

Russia’s total fertility rate now stands at around 1.7 births per female, against a European average of 1.5, up from a 1999 nadir of less than 1.8. That portends a decline, albeit a far slower decline that most analysts expected. It is not Hungary, where Magyar fertility stands at barely over 0.8 births per female, or half the Russian level. The fertility rate would have to rise to about 2.5 to compensate for the demographic air pocket of the 1990s, and that goal is nearly impossible to achieve.


Berman adds, “Today, Russia’s estimated twenty-one million Muslims are still a distinct minority. But Muslims are on track to account for a fifth of the country’s population by the end of this decade, and a majority by mid-century.”

The recovery of Russian fertility, though, appears equally distributed among its regions, and implies that a Muslim majority is a more distant prospect that demographers earlier expected. Muslim birth rates, moreover, have shown the steepest decline of any segment of the world population, as I documented in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). The American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt brought additional documentation to bear in a 2012 study.

Russian demographics are a moving target. As Berman notes, “In 2012, for the first time since the fall of the USSR, live births outnumbered deaths in Russia. They did so modestly (the country’s population grew by just over two hundred thousand between January and September 2012), but it was enough for Kremlin officials to proclaim that their country’s demographic fortunes had been reversed.” That is surely not the case, but the strategic impact will be felt a generation hence at earliest.

Part of the bounce in Russia’s birth rate during the past several years is due to the government’s offer of the equivalent of a US$9,500 cash award to families upon the birth of a second or third child. But the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church almost certainly played an important role. There is a deep and consistent link between faith and fertility throughout the industrial world, and the restoration of religion in Russia is a new and critical factor in the country’s demographics.

The Orthodox Church’s website argues that moral imperatives are more important than financial incentives: “Putin has given Russian families a tangible incentive, the baby bonus, to have children. He and his administration are now attempting to shift cultural norms in favor of the three-child family. But whether or not he succeeds will depend upon pro-life and pro-family advocates…and their efforts to turn Putin’s exhortations and financial support into a nationwide movement. On their success hinges the fate of the Russian people.”

The Orthodox Church claims that it nearly tripled its count of parishes since 1991. How extensive its impact will be remains to be seen. That is a crucial question. Berman, though, dismisses the revived alliance of the Russian Church and state as the beginning of an “Orthodox Iran”:


In the early 1990s, Russia formally recognized 31 religious denominations. But most were largely legislated out of existence in the years that followed. Today, in a throwback to Soviet practice, only four religions – Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism – are formally recognized by the Russian government. And with the Kremlin’s help, the Orthodox Church is rising in power and prominence. Not surprisingly, this has exacerbated already-tense relations between the Russian state and its growing Muslim minority…the Russian Church – imbued with Kremlin’s support – is beginning to crowd out other forms of religious identification in Russia. And it is doing so at precisely the time when the bonds holding the country’s various ethnicities together have become more tenuous than ever.

The Orthodox Church always has been exclusionary and jealous of its position with respect to other Christian denominations, and the Orthodox resurgence has occurred at the expense of American evangelical and Mormon missionaries. It has also stamped Russian policy with a distinctly conservative bent, including the much-abhorred law against “gay propaganda”. That many aspects of life in Russia are repulsive to Westerners, though, is hardly news. The issue, rather, is whether the Orthodox revival will help reverse the country’s demographic and moral decline and strengthen Russian power. I do not know the answer to that question. Berman does not trouble to ask it.

The direst shortage in today’s Russia is Russians. As I reported in a 2008 essay in this space, Russia’s official population count does not include nearly 7 million Russians stranded in the “near abroad” after the Soviet Union’s collapse now working in Russia as undocumented aliens. An additional 15 million ethnic Russians live in Belarus, the Western Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. The fastest way to get more Russians is to take them, and on this point, Berman notes, there is a consensus across the Russian political spectrum:

Policymakers in Moscow recognize that the addition of Belarus’s ten million citizens to the Russian Federation would increase Russia’s overall population by some 7%. The addition of Ukraine would do even more; ethnic Russians make up nearly 20% of Ukraine’s forty-five-million-person population, and if even part of the country were to formally vote in favor of annexation, the number of Russian citizens would swell significantly. If additional territories that are currently coveted by Moscow – including parts of neighboring Georgia and Kazakhstan – were added, that number would be higher still, significantly bolstering the Russian Federation’s flagging demographics in the process.


As I wrote in 2008, “Russia has an existential interest in absorbing Belarus and the Western Ukraine. No one cares about Byelorus. It has never had an independent national existence or a national culture; the first grammar in the Belorussian language was not printed until 1918, and little over a third of the population of Belarus speaks the language at home. Never has a territory with 10 million people had a sillier case for independence. Given that summary, it seems natural to ask why anyone should care about Ukraine.” Washington should have allowed Russia to reabsorb its orphan provinces but at a price: you get the ethnic Russians, and we get your acquiescence on issues that matter to us: strategic defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, help with Iran, and so forth.

Whether the US might have struck such a deal with Putin in the early 2000s is a moot question, because America’s sponsorship of the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine persuaded Putin that he could not do business with the United States. The Bush administration riled Moscow, but without the muscle to make its influence in Ukraine or Georgia stick. The Obama administration simply gave away the store, first by abandoning anti-missile installations in Eastern Europe, and then by embracing Russia’s chemical weapons scheme for Syria (and possibly its plans for Iran’s nuclear program). Both approaches failed.

What should America do now? Berman implies that the US should lean into Russia’s domestic fault lines, anticipating an internal collapse:

Russia’s leaders have engaged in a hard-power campaign against Islamic radicalism, hoping that overwhelming force will pacify the country’s restive republics. The failure of that approach is evident in rising Islamist violence in places like Tatarstan and in the proliferation of extreme Islam throughout the Eurasian heartland. This phenomenon will pose a growing challenge to the stability and legitimacy of the Russian state in the years ahead …The groundwork for a future civil war in Russia, a violent contest for the soul of the Russian state that will be fought along religious and ethnic lines, is thus being laid.

Since the United States (quite rightly in my view) armed Afghani jihadists to harry the Soviet Union in the 1980s, parts of the American foreign policy community have looked wistfully at Russia’s Muslim underbelly as a potential source of pressure on America’s old Cold War enemy. It was a good idea at the peak of the Cold War, but a dreadful idea now, for several reasons. First, radical Islam is a worse threat to Western interests than Orthodox Russia, as we should have observed after the Boston Marathon bombings. Second, it won’t succeed. Russia is more ruthless than Washington in suppressing domestic threats (note that reports from Russia always speak of terrorists killed rather than captured). Third, and most important, American attempts to exploit Russia’s internal problems simply will cement a Sino-Russian alliance. That is the most likely Russian response to a range of problems. America exploited the Sino-Soviet divide to win the Cold War. Moscow well might decide that it is better to accommodate China’s growing power than to contest it.


Russia, to be sure, is distraught over Chinese encroachment on former areas of its dominion, including its Far East and Central Asia. China’s emerging economic influence in the Russian near abroad, including its oil concession in Kazakhstan, is supported by a commitment to infrastructure investment in transportation and telecommunications as well as energy, in what China now calls a “new Silk Road“.

China’s ascendance in Russia’s east and south is a disappointment to Moscow but not, as Berman suggests, a “flashpoint”. The likelihood of military conflict between China and Russia during the next 20 years are somewhere between negligible and nonexistent. China takes a long view; it will not fight for territory that likely will fall into its lap a century or two from now. Russia is likely to conclude that it will get a better deal from China than from the United States. Russia and China have a common interest in containing potential Muslim problems in Central Asia and their collaboration is a natural outcome of common need.

Washington should worry about Russian and Chinese efforts to catch up with American aerospace technology that hasn’t changed much in a generation. Whether the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA or China’s J-20 can compete with America’s F-22 at the moment is doubtful. Five or 10 years from now the answer might be different. America’s technological dominance in military aviation is at risk, and its navy is shrinking to less-than-superpower proportions.

Berman’s least felicitous chapter title has Russia “Misunderstanding the Muslim World”. In fact, Russia understands the Muslim world with great clarity. It has allied with Saudi Arabia in supporting Egypt’s military government against American pressure, and allied with Iran in protecting the Syrian regime against the motley band of jihadists directed against it. Russia well may replace American armaments affected by the reduction in military aid to Egypt; if so, Saudi Arabia will pay for them. It has played both sides in Iran, building Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and alternately proffering and withdrawing sophisticated air defense systems.

It is impossible to discern Russia’s tactical objectives; its objective, I surmise, is to keep the initiative, elicit blunders from its adversaries, and exploit them as opportunity permits. Once America lost the nerve to use force against Iran’s nuclear program, other problems in the region, notably Syria, became intractable, giving Russia the chance to insert itself as regional mediator.


It is dangerous for the United States to make plans on the premise of Russia’s internal collapse. That outcome is not to be excluded, but neither is it likely. Russia will be around for quite a while; it never will regain the position that the Soviet Union held in 1980, but it will remain a force for the foreseeable future. Washington never quite grasped that the Russians are chess players, and chess is a game in which one cannot bluff. One deals with Russia only through strength, and America’s strength is bleeding away from a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America by Ilan Berman. Regnery Publishing (September 16, 2013). ISBN-10: 1621571572. Hardcover: 256 pages. Price $19.32.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. He is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You, also appeared that fall, from Van Praag Press. 


Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member