- - Tuesday, November 5, 2013

By Ilan Berman
Regnery, $27.95, 252 pages

During the upcoming February 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Black Sea resort city of Sochi, the Russian state will be putting on its best face to project itself as an elite sports nation and a highly capable, efficient, hospitable, economic powerhouse and technologically advanced country. Away from the carefully controlled scenes broadcast by the television cameras covering the Olympic events, however, Russia’s reality will be very different. As explained by Ilan Berman in his important book, “Implosion: The End of Russia And What It Means For America,” despite such official posturing, “the Russian Federation is fast approaching a massive social and political upheaval that promises to be as transformative as the USSR’s demise some two decades ago.”

Russia’s coming systemic crisis, Mr. Berman writes, is driven by the convergence of three significant trends. First, “Russia is dying” and undergoing “societal decline due to abysmal health standards, runaway drug addiction, and an AIDS crisis that officials have termed an ‘epidemic.’” This has also led to a dramatic decline in the size of the Russian population by close to half a million people annually owing to death and emigration, with Russia projected to “lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century.” In fact, as Mr. Berman points out, compounding Russia’s population crisis is the annual emigration of between 100,000 and 150,000 Russians, often for economic and political reasons, with an estimated 40 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 35 contemplating such departure for other countries.

Second, Russia is experiencing a “radical change in its ethnic and religious composition,” with a demographic revolution expected to fundamentally change the country’s Russian character. This is a result of the fact that its current Muslim minority (estimated at 21 million) is projected to reach “a fifth of the country’s population by the end of this decade, and a majority by midcentury.” Such a dramatic increase in size, according to the author, which is not being met by measures by the Russian state to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the minority Muslims, is already breeding “resentment and alienation” among the country’s Muslims, which Islamist extremist groups are exploiting for their own narrow purposes. The result, Mr. Berman writes, “is an increasingly restive Muslim minority with little connection to — or love for — the Russian state.”

The growth of Muslim alienation has already led to an upsurge in radical Islamist terrorist attacks against Russia, especially from the restless regions of Russia’s Caucasus republics, which Mr. Berman points out is a major concern for Russian officials tasked with safeguarding the nearby Sochi Olympics from such attacks.

Finally, neighboring China is increasing its sphere of influence over Russia’s resource-rich region east of the Ural Mountains, where Russia’s own population is declining while Chinese migrant laborers are moving in in greater numbers, resulting in loosening of Kremlin control over the region and sharpening of the strategic competition between the two countries.

This perfect storm, Mr. Berman writes, “of demographic change, religious transformation and external pressure will determine Russia’s internal political climate, its place in the world, and its future strategic priorities.” While this will not necessarily be disruptive in the short term, he notes, “the twenty-first century will be shaped in great measure by [Russia’s] unraveling,” with the country “looking radically different from that of today.”

What is especially alarming about these converging trends is their overlay on current developments in Russia. Thus, while, on the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has strengthened centralized control, as Mr. Berman writes, by concentrating “power in a repressive, centralized state,” in which this “authoritarian regime rules by political fiat, rewards loyalists through a vast network of corruption, and cows its political opponents into silence,” in such a short-term strategy, “Russia is ruled by a government that is consumed with its own financial well-being and global status, but neglectful of the long-term needs of its people.”

Other decline-related issues that concern Mr. Berman include the surge in capital flight from Russia as multinational corporations and investors abandon “the country’s uncompromising economic atmosphere.” Despite its resource wealth in terms of natural gas, coal and crude-oil reserves, the country risks being left behind by the global energy scene because of its failure to make substantial investments to upgrade its energy infrastructure, as well as to invest in energy diversification, including alternative and renewable sources of energy.

Concerning the impact of the convergence of these indicators of decline on Russian-United States relations, Mr. Berman writes that their results “will determine whether Russia emerges as a true partner of the West — or a mortal danger to it.”

With the coming of “the end of the Russia that we know,” Mr. Berman formulates a set of alternative futures for Russia, ranging from a strengthening of its imperial territorial claims, leading to new conflicts along Russia’s periphery, a receding presence in its far eastern regions with China’s growing political and economic influence exploiting this vacuum, to a weakened and socially divided Russia being transformed into a latter-day Yugoslavia that is “riven by ethnic violence and sectarian strife.”

It should be noted that Mr. Berman’s book is quite short — only 126 pages of text, 33 pages of endnotes and an additional 75 pages of Russian government strategic plans for the future, which would not be of interest to the general reader, along with additional indices. Nevertheless, for its well-argued, cautionary insights about Russia’s political, national security and socioeconomic trends, it is a book that merits attention.

Joshua Sinai, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism studies, is the author of “Active Shooter: A Handbook on Prevention” (ASIS International, 2013).

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