- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Economic uptrends in Russia have produced a new sense of optimism in Moscow, but Russia analysts and economists say that a deeper look at the numbers shows that the country is in an irreversible decline that poses innumerable threats to the West.

Russian markets have soared, and the ruble has become the best-performing emerging market currency this year. But Eurasia expert and strategist S. Enders Wimbush says this information doesn’t show the whole picture.

The Jamestown Foundation senior fellow says he is “terrified” by the notion in U.S. planning circles that Russia is a normal state. Mr. Wimbush argues that present-day Russia is even more dangerous than Russia at the end of the Cold War.

“Russia is like a poker player with a very weak hand,” he says. “They’re going to bluff and they’re going to take risks. Their window of opportunity is shrinking, so they’re going to do anything they can to jump through that window and stay competitive.”

A new project called “Russia in Decline” relies on the analysis of Russians themselves who are experiencing the decline firsthand. Their reports aim to shed light on all of the country’s possible futures, and how each pathway to Russia’s decline could endanger the West. Mr. Wimbush is spearheading the project with Elizabeth Portale, a senior project associate at the Jamestown Foundation.

“The idea is not to find the answer, but to find all the possible answers to as many outcomes as you can imagine,” Mr. Wimbush told The Washington Times. “There is nothing normal about Russia.”

Mr. Wimbush named Russia’s “catastrophic” demographics, educational collapse, and the current “brain drain” (the departure of highly educated citizens) as some of the former Soviet empire’s most pressing issues. Some 350,000 people left Russia in 2015, ten times more than five years ago.

Opinions vary on what the decline will look like— economists lean toward an incremental and linear decline, while analysts and strategists say Russia’s fall will be more radical and unpredictable.

“There might be severe triggering points that create an explosion in the system,” Mr. Wimbush said. “But everybody agrees that the decline is irreversible.”

Russia will plummet into a failed state eventually, Mr. Wimbush said, but the short-term effects of its decline are even more threatening.

“The nation is failing, and the future of Russia will be a surprise because of all the risks they’re going to take,” he said. “It’s going to create one dilemma after another without strong U.S. leadership.”

Russian relations have been a point of contention between candidates battling for their bids in the presidential race. Critics have accused GOP nominee Donald Trump of cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week Mr. Trump suggested he might not back NATO members if they came under attack from Russia.

Mr. Trump has said he would like to “get along” with Russia if elected and has been praised by Mr. Putin. But the Trump campaign has rejected any claims that Mr. Trump has ties to the Kremlin.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has used Mr. Trump’s comments to portray him as an isolationist who would go soft on Russia. Mrs. Clinton, however, has faced criticism for her handling of Russian relations in her time as secretary of state.

For now, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin. But Mr. Wimbush argues that’s not enough.

“If the West is not prepared to draw red lines that matter and show Russia its limits,” Mr. Wimbush said. “Russia will have its way.”

• Jessie Fox can be reached at jfox@washingtontimes.com.

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