It takes a certain chutzpah to write a book that announces something will—or won’t—happen, and that if it does or does not happen the world will look considerably different than it does today—or not. This is not like predicting snow for Thursday. But Ilan Berman’s Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America is up to the challenge. Berman reads economic, demographic and military trends to determine whether Russia will undergo its second major transformation in less than 100 years. Or not.
Either way, the trends provide a blueprint for policy makers who want to maximize American national interests in Russia, Eurasia and the Pacific. Part of the blueprint is translated directly from the Russian. The last 75 pages of this slim volume consist of “The Foundations of Russian Federation Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond,” and the “National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020.” Both are windows into current Russian thinking, particularly regarding the Arctic, which is covered in some detail in the body of the book.
A bit of history: The collapse of communism and the demise of the USSR was a surprise to a lot of people who saw the Soviet Union as an unstoppable juggernaut. Economist and demographer Murray Feshbach was not among them. Chief of the jaw-breakingly named USSR Population, Employment and Research and Development Branch of the Foreign Demographic Analysis Division of the Census Bureau for more than 20 years, Feshbach, who might have served as Berman’s muse, toiled largely in obscurity. He noted rampant alcoholism, diseases (such as diphtheria) that had been eradicated in the West, abortion trends, and life expectancy in Russia. He took his findings to the Pentagon, where only a handful of people were interested in a back story to Soviet domination—but those who paid attention saw cracks in the mighty edifice.
Then, seemingly in an instant —but not really—the USSR was gone.
The trends remain, and Berman starts with three potentially transformative threats:
- Demographic trajectory
- Changing religious and ethnic composition, and
- The arrival of large numbers of Chinese into Russia’s Far East
He is blunt about the first: “Russia is dying.” Death and emigration are reducing the Russian population by close to half a million people annually, and could reduce Russia’s total population to as little as 52 million by 2080. Runaway drug addiction, abysmal health standards and an AIDS epidemic account for the death statistics. Emigration began with the massive Jewish exodus that started in the late 1980s, taking more than 1,000,000 educated and entrepreneurial people out of Russia in less than a decade. But with the collapse of the Soviet State, anyone can decide to leave, and many have. Equally important, people can move from less to more desirable places within Russia, accounting for some of the depopulation of Russia’s Far East. Be honest, would you live in Siberia if you didn’t have to?
Exacerbating the migratory trends is the rise in the percentage of Russians who are Muslim, and the rise in Muslims who are oriented toward jihadist strains of religion (financed to some extent by Saudi Arabia), rather than the officially sanctioned mosques that operated during the communist era. The Muslim population is rising in some measure because it is less susceptible to those pathologies ravaging the Slavic Russian population—alcohol, AIDS, and abortion—and more attuned to marriage.
The rise, says Berman:
With its policy of Slavic supremacy, strict residency permits, ethnic “republics” and enforced separation of communities, the USSR effectively prevented a “melting pot” or “chopped salad” or whatever serves to provide common ground among different groups. The resentment that bred turns out to be a two way street. It bubbled over in October as Slavic Russians rioted in a Biryulyovo, a working-class suburb of Moscow. The precipitating factor was the stabbing death of a Russian by an Azerbaijani migrant worker, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past decade, Slavic Russians have rioted against both Russian Muslims and migrant workers from the surrounding countries.
A note on America: Those who foresee a “minority majority” country in which “whites” are less than 50% of the population postulate a radically different America. But many “whites” were not considered “white” when they got here. Mid-19th through early 20th century migration brought 5 million Germans, 3.5 million British and 4.5 million Irish immigrants, and 1.5 million Swedes and Norwegians. Between 1840 and 1930, the U.S. received 900,000 French Canadians (the entire population of Quebec was 892,000 in 1851). They were all different, but all considered shades of “white-ish.” The great southern migration between 1870 and 1910 included some 25 million Greeks, Balkans, Poles, and Hungarians, including 5.3 million Italians and 2.5-4 million Jews. Widely considered of low intelligence with a criminal predisposition, they were very much “not white.” On the West Coast, there were approximately 1,000 Chinese in 1850 and 107,000 in 1880, with accompanying prejudice about the rise of “non-whites.” Today, Germans, Italians, Jews, Swedes, Greeks, Irish and Poles are all “white.” Asians, for purposes of college admission, are “white” as well.
The Far East and China
The absence of Soviet-era residence permits has produced out-migration from Russia’s Far East. In 2000, 28 million Russians lived in Siberia and the Far East. In 2010, only 25.4 million live there. On the other side of the border, Chinese growth and interest in Russian resources could make the Far East a flashpoint. A 2001 Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighborliness, codifying territorial compromises and designed to diminish American influence, formally “sunsets” in 2021—at which time, China may decide to claim some of Russia’s resource-rich territories that may well be largely deserted.
Managing these trends would seem to be enough to occupy Russian governments far into the future, but the State does not have enough resources to invest in the health and education of its people, in part through mismanagement of its natural resource wealth, to which Berman devotes considerable time, and in part because what money flows to the treasury is not spent on expanding social services.
The spending priorities are rather those of Vladimir Putin, who referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century,” makes reclamation of “Russia’s geopolitical greatness” his chief priority. The Sochi Olympics are estimated to cost $48 billion, up from Putin’s initial bid of $12 billion. In this classic clash of means and ends, Putin appears to be correctly judging at least some percentage of the Russian people. In a 2012 poll, one-third of Russians “approved of or admired” Stalin, while an equal number said, “Russia needs a strong ruler like him.” Berman writes:
On the other hand, a 2012 RIA Novosti poll found that “one in five Russians desires to live abroad,” and the number rises to nearly 40 percent of those between 18 and 35, thus exacerbating the problem of population decline.
Under Putin, Russia has prioritized major military investments, including a “twenty-first-century nuclear arsenal,” even as the U.S. reduces its own capabilities. The Russian effort includes “new intercontinental ballistic missiles, the deployment of additional long-range strike capabilities, and serious work on electromagnetic pulse weapons, with an additional estimated $600 billion to be spent on improving Russia’s military capabilities through the end of the decade.”
This is where the story comes to us.
Chapter Seven, “Misunderstanding the Muslim World,” paints Russia as both desirous of being important in the Muslim world and simultaneously wary of encouraging Sunni radicalism that may further haunt Russia at home. Russian experts, writes Berman, warned that “the Kremlin’s outreach to Palestinian radicals was at odds with its approach to the breakaway republic of Chechnya—and that this double standard could end up damaging Russia’s image in the eyes of moderate Muslims.” Nothing so much damaged Russia’s image in the region, however, as its steadfast support of Bashar Assad’s minority government in Syria as it unleashes its rage against the Sunni majority population, including the use of chemical weapons. “Moscow’s approach has increasingly placed it on the wrong side of the Arab Spring—and of the Muslim world writ large.”
This is not the majority view, but Implosion is most impressive when it focuses on what the majority isn’t watching.
Russia’s determination to restore Ukraine is one example of Russia’s interest in a “post-Soviet Union of Slavic peoples.” Positing itself as the protector of Slavs in Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic States, Russia understands the restoration of Slavic-populated territory as one way to stem its demographic decline. If those countries don’t see themselves as part of a greater Russia, the 2010 war in Georgia may serve as an object lesson on the limitations of NATO as well as the possible future of Russian military adventure in its near abroad.
Creating U.S. Policy toward Russia
The problem of writing a book about impending massive change is that massive change can occur while the ink is still drying. Berman suggests the U.S. and Russia have entered a “strategic pause,” in which “despite ongoing diplomatic contacts between the two countries, mounting anecdotal evidence suggest that the Obama administration having unsuccessfully tried engagement with the Putin regime, is now content to ignore it altogether.” But that was before the Russian-led deal over Syrian chemical weapons that allowed the Obama administration to pull back from its announced intention to strike Syria militarily, and before the P5+1 deal on suspending Iranian nuclear enrichment.
Implosion actually spends little time on how U.S. policy toward Russia should be managed, beyond noting that the “reset” was a manifestation of American, not Russian, aims, and the fraying of bilateral ties over such issues as the Magnitsky Act and Russia’s announced intention to prosecute those who “advocate homosexual and deviant behavior.” Berman wisely suggests that the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment—the “futures shop”—study alternative scenarios for Russian management of its military, social and political decline, which might include:
- A strengthened imperial impulse
- A Chinese Far East
- Russian territorial expansion to the West
- Multiple Chechen-type insurrections
- A Russian civil war
“None of these alternative futures is assured. But all are plausible,” writes Berman, who positions readers to see what isn’t there. Yet.
Murray Feshbach would be pleased.