Misreading a Russia on the Run; Far from Robust, the Federation Is Facing Implosion

Article excerpt

Byline: Ilan Berman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Don't let Russia's recent attempts to play peacemaker on Syria fool you - U.S.-Russian relations are still on the rocks. A range of issues - from Russia's stubborn support for the Iranian regime to the Kremlin's very public snub of the White House in granting asylum to fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden - have cast a profound pall over bilateral ties. In the process, they have sounded the death knell for the vaunted reset of relations with Russia that President Obama made a centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda during his first term in office.

In response, experts have taken to calling for a strategic pause in relations between Washington and Moscow, so that the White House can reassess exactly what is possible to achieve through outreach toward Russia. That's undoubtedly good thinking. However, Washington's reappraisal also needs to take into account the larger, more long-term threat to international security that is now posed by Russia. This is because the Russian Federation is fast approaching a massive social and political upheaval, one that promises to be as transformative as the Soviet Union's demise some two decades ago. Russia's coming crisis is driven by the convergence of three trends:

Russia is dying. The once-mighty Russian state is undergoing a catastrophic post-Soviet societal decline. Health standards are abysmal, and life expectancy in Russia is nothing like it is in the West - just age 60 for men (less than in Botswana and Madagascar) and 73 for women, roughly the same as in Saudi Arabia. Alcoholism - the scourge of Soviet society - continues to ravage the country, with a death rate among Russia's youth that is 35 times higher than among their counterparts in Europe. So does drug addiction. According to United Nations statistics, more than a fifth of all heroin consumed globally every year occurs in Russia. Prevalent, too, is a corrosive culture of abortion, with unofficial estimates placing the number of annual abortions at 2 million to 2.5 million - close to 2 percent of the Russian Federation's potential population.

In all, the country is contracting by close to half-a-million souls every year owing to both death and the emigration of its citizens (to Europe and beyond). At this rate, according to the Kremlin's own estimates, Russia could lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century. …