On the surface, Russia seems to be a nation on the march. Last week, Russia's larger-than-life president, Vladimir Putin, strong-armed the United States into accepting his plan for dealing with Syria's chemical weapons. There are signs Putin is preparing to expand Russia's role in Iran and its nuclear program, which successive American administrations have failed to shut down.
But today's appearance of strength hides growing weakness that could do more damage to American interests than any mischief Russia can cause today. Russia is fast approaching a monumental transformation, one that promises to be as profound as the collapse of the U.S.S.R. 20 years ago. The result could spell the end of the nation as we know it.
Muslim civil war?
Russia's Slavic population is dwindling, eaten away by declining life expectancy, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and low fertility. By mid-century, the Russian Federation's population could shrink 25% from its current 143 million. Preoccupied with global status, the Kremlin has done little to reverse the trend beyond boosting government benefits and making a few symbolic gestures.
Russia's demographic problem might be even worse than it appears, however. The country's Muslims are faring relatively well. By 2020, the Muslim minority could make up a fifth of its population. And widespread discrimination, both official and unofficial, has alienated Muslims, leaving them susceptible to the lure of radical Islam. As a result, unrest is spreading from Russia's North Caucasus to Russia's heartland.
Russia faces similar pressure in Siberia and its Far East regions, which cover more than 4 million square miles. The population of less than 26 million, some six inhabitants per square mile (less than Wyoming) is dropping. As Russians seek opportunities in warmer, wealthier climes, the region is increasingly a backwater. This decline is ruinous to Russia's economic prosperity, because the Far East is an area with vast, largely untapped, hydrocarbon wealth.
As the Russian state recedes in the Far East, it is being replaced there by a rising and energy-hungry China. Moscow and Beijing have tussled over the sovereignty of the Far East for centuries, and demarcated their common border only a few years ago. But that agreement is temporary (expiring in 2021) and, with population trends working in its favor, China is working to speed up Russia's decline, and its own advance.
It is doing so through legal and illegal migration into the region, as well as sustained investments on a scale that has eclipsed those of the Kremlin. As a result, the future of the Far East is in flux, with Russia's position as a global energy player and a major international power at stake.
These trends are already exerting an inexorable pull on Russia's political direction. They are reinforcing its aggressive, neo-imperial approach toward the bordering countries of the "post-Soviet space," whose political independence the Kremlin doesn't respect and whose sovereignty it actively tries to subvert.
The trends also set the stage for a widening civil war between the Russian state and a radicalizing Muslim underclass. And in Russia's east, where Chinese dominance is fast becoming an inevitability, the stage is increasingly set for growing competition — if not outright conflict — between Moscow and Beijing.
All of which, in turn, will threaten America and the West in new and grave ways in the years ahead. Because, if much of the last century was defined by the rise of Russia (in the form of the Soviet Union), a great deal of this one is destined to be shaped by its failure, with all of the global instability that portends.