The Heritage Foundation hosted a book presentation of "Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America," by Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. Berman, son of refusenik parents, stated in his introduction that the book talks about "where Russia is headed, not only ideologically, but also geopolitically and demographically."
Berman said he has been struck by the persistence of Americans in viewing Russia as a large actor on the world stage with the power to strong arm the United States into a deal on Syria. He called this agreement "very useful to the Russians, because it enshrines the [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad regime's retention of chemical weapons," and it also provides ancillary benefits to Russia's Mediterranean flotilla, so he called it "a huge coup for the Russians."
After Russian President Vladimir Putin scored this achievement, according to Berman, he jetted off to Tehran and talked with the Iranian regime about cooperation regarding the nuclear program and the sale of S300 missiles, a deal Putin had earlier discussed and tabled.
Berman noted that it is a favorite tactic of Putin to put issues up for discussion, take them down and then revive them when it suits him. He added that another reason why Russia appears to be on the march in the Middle East is that U.S. policy is "not very assertive."
The theme of the presentation was that Russia is undergoing "an internal transformation as earth shattering as the collapse of the Soviet Union."
Three trends, in Berman's view, are responsible for these changes, which are likely to take place in the coming years and decades.
First, Russia is dying demographically. Whereas a woman would need to bear 2.1 children to replace the population, the long-term average in Russia is 1.6. Berman dismissed a report that the current number is at replacement level as not significant over the long term. Russia's population is declining at 500,000 per year and at the current pace would shrink by a quarter by 2050.
An additional contributing factor is the failure of Russia to realize a peace dividend that it could invest in social services, education and infrastructure, with the result that life expectancy in Russia has not caught up with that of the most developed countries, so that the average male life expectancy is 60, equivalent to Madagascar, and for women, 73, equivalent to Saudi Arabia.
Also, the Russian family has collapsed, with a 50 percent divorce rate, a "rampant culture of abortion" and a high incidence of heroin use and HIV. Finally under this subject, the Russian population is fleeing at rates reminiscent of the period immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, as people have lost hope and trust in the government, with 40 percent of people aged 18 to 35 contemplating emigration.
Second, Russia is undergoing a transformation due to a rapidly growing Muslim population as compared with the shrinking population of the country as a whole, so that Muslims, now 16 percent of the population, will be 20 percent by 2020 and will reach parity by 2050. This is problematic because Muslims are not well-integrated into Russian society, which is experiencing reaction in the form of a growing anti-immigrant movement, xenophobia and protectionism. These problems are likely to come to the fore at the Winter Olympics, which have also been marked by graft and corruption.
The third factor is, the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming, making up one third of the population in Siberia and putting pressure on the Russian commercial center of Vladivostok.
Berman noted with foreboding that the settlement of the border dispute with China in 2001 was agreed to by the Chinese to extend only until 2021. China is expanding in other parts of the world as well and pressuring Russia from the other directions, for instance, by buying 5 percent of the agricultural land in the Ukraine.
Berman warned that the Russians might try to make up for losses in Asia by trying to expand toward the West by bringing the breakaway former satellites back into orbit.
In summary, Berman sees the cumulative effect of all of these trends as "catastrophic" for Russia, and he added that the Putin regime has not established a foundation for long-term development but rather is based on a "cult of personality" marked by massive corruption, graft and sweetheart contracts, and Putin's popularity among people who voted for him is 34 percent.
This gives Putin an incentive to seek to boost his standing through foreign adventures and anti-American posturing. Berman remarked that the true circumstance could be worse, because statistics in Russia are suspect. Thus, while Americans tend to take Russia at face value, the reality is different, and it is deteriorating.
While the program was enlightening, I would have asked whether the author realizes that some of the same points he made about the pressures developing in Russian society and could be made, and are made, by Russians regarding the United States. Certainly the divorce rate is about half, there is an epidemic of drug use, trust in government has declined dramatically and for the first time, Americans are emigrating, with the balance between the United States and Mexico about even.
The Salt Lake City Olympics were also marked by scandal, and the wholesale bailouts of the "too big to fail" banks were and remain one of the biggest sweetheart deals in the history of the world. The institution of the presidency in the United States has developed signs of personality cult and dysfunction, and like the Russians, the United States wasted its peace dividend.
Americans take comfort in the fact that the economic and demographic outlooks in the United States are still better than in most of the industrialized world, but as the world's financial leaders visited this past weekend to find the U.S. government partially shut down, they could hardly avoid thinking that the leadership role the United States assumed during the 20th century is very much at risk.
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