Sunday, January 31, 2010

There’s an old saying, familiar to historians and foreign policy practitioners, that “geography is destiny.” A modern twist to this rule is that demography is no less decisive.

Russia is finding this out the hard way. Over the past several years, under the direction of former President (and current Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin and his handpicked protege, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia may have re-emerged on the international scene with a vengeance. But behind all of the Kremlin’s contemporary geopolitical bluster, the successor state of the once-mighty Soviet Union is caught in a demographic and socioeconomic death spiral.

The numbers tell the story. The population of the Russian Federation is estimated to be declining by about three-quarters of a million people every year. At this rate, the Russian Federation could number just 100 million souls by the middle of this century. Further in the future, the picture gets even gloomier. Russian officials such as Sergei Mironov, chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of Parliament, have predicted that the population of Russia could dip to 52 million people by 2080 if its current demographic trajectory is not altered.

The culprits are manifold. After nearly a century of poor health care and widespread abortions, Russian infertility rates are considerably higher than those of Western nations. Life expectancy, meanwhile, is significantly lower - the result of rampant alcoholism, runaway drug abuse and what experts term an “epidemic” of HIV/AIDS. Add to these trends the lure of brighter economic prospects in the West, and the phenomenon that scholar Nicholas Eberstadt has called “the emptying of Russia” becomes fairly easy to understand.

The net effect has been a catastrophic decline in Russia’s ability to sustain its own population. When surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006, Russia’s national fertility rate was estimated at 1.4 percent nationwide, far below the 2.1 percent necessary to maintain a population at its current size. Russia, in other words, is dying.

Given these grim indicators, recent figures showing that Russia’s population decline has ceased for the first time in 1 1/2decades have provided the Kremlin a much-needed reprieve. However, knowledgeable experts see this stability as fleeting. “In five years, Russia will again begin dying out,” warns Anatoly Vishnevsky of the Moscow Institute of Demography. Moreover, the “youth bulge” (and corresponding spike in fertility) that temporarily halted Russia’s demographic decline is said to be largely exhausted. The result, as Mr. Vishnevsky puts it, is that “the country is approaching the edge of a demographic abyss.”

In and of itself, this trend gives real reason to doubt Russia’s continued long-term viability as a modern state. But Russia’s dire demographic crisis is being exacerbated by two equally dramatic factors.

The first is a dramatic change in Russia’s ethnic composition. Russia’s Muslim population, numbering between 15 million and 20 million, is still a distinct minority, but a skyrocketing birthrate has put Muslims on track to account for a fifth or more of the country’s total population by 2020. By midcentury, according to official estimates, Russia will be more than 50 percent Muslim - and the character of the state will be fundamentally different.

That is not necessarily a problem, per se, but in recent years, and particularly since the 2004 hostage-taking and massacre in Beslan, the Kremlin has embraced increasingly draconian domestic policies toward its Muslim minority. This repression, in turn, has bred a dangerous alienation among Russia’s Muslims - an ideological distance radical groups such as al Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir have been quick to exploit. The result, experts say, is growing evidence of an atomized and increasingly restive Muslim minority, one that has little connection to - or love for - the Russian state as it currently stands.

The second is Russia’s growing strategic imbalance with neighboring China. Since they mended diplomatic fences in the mid-1980s, improving bilateral diplomatic, economic and military ties has been a cardinal priority for both countries. This meeting of the minds has led Moscow and Beijing to erect a formidable strategic partnership over the past 2 1/2 decades, one built in large part upon a shared desire for “multipolarity” and a diminution of America’s global influence.

Today, however, the two could be on a strategic collision course, even if they don’t publicly acknowledge it. The bulk of Russia’s strategic resources - its claim to fame as a global power - are concentrated in the country’s inhospitable Far East, a territory that a dying Russia will find increasingly difficult to harness, let alone populate, in the years ahead. China doesn’t have that problem. The Chinese population on its side of the countries’ shared border is already exponentially larger than Russia’s, and that disparity is only likely to grow in coming years. At some point in the not-too-distant future, therefore, Chinese leaders could seek to satisfy their country’s voracious appetite for resources by looking north to Russian territory (which once was theirs).

All of this goes a long way toward explaining why, when Russia and China inked their long-planned Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation back in 2001, they did so for a mere 20-year time span. Two decades hence, Beijing thinks, the demographic balance between itself and Russia may be quite different, and a re-evaluation of the current, peaceful status quo could be called for.

None of this means that the United States no longer has to worry about Russia. Quite the contrary. The Kremlin’s neo-imperial foreign policy, its persistent designs over Eurasian energy and its ongoing efforts to oust Western influence from the “post-Soviet space” are all guaranteed to preoccupy policymakers in Washington in the years ahead. What it does indicate, however, is that further into the future, the strategic challenge posed by Russia might not stem from its strength, but from its weakness.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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