In his new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, Ilan Berman analyzes the serious problems Russia faces, despite the recent leadership maneuvering of Vladimir Putin on the world stage. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, talks with National Review Online's Kathryn Jean Lopez about Russia's future and what U.S. foreign-policy makers should be mindful of.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You say that Russia is "crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions." What are the contradictions?
ILAN BERMAN: On the surface, Russia today projects an image of strength, thanks largely to the machinations of Vladimir Putin. But this foreign-policy activism masks real problems at home. Russia's demographics are tanking, its Muslim minority is radicalizing and increasingly restive, and the seeds have been sown for real strategic competition with neighboring China, which covets Russia's eastern regions both politically and economically.
Alone, each of these trendlines would be deeply worrisome. Taken together, they are nothing short of catastrophic for the Russian state as we know it. Therein lies the rub: The corrupt, centralized system set up by Putin and company over the past decade or so simply isn't built in a way to ameliorate these trends. That means that sooner or later it will fall victim to them, with serious consequences for Russia, and for the rest of the world.
LOPEZ: What are the consequences of a Russian downfall for the rest of the world? Should we worry about Russia losing its ability to monitor the chemical-weapons situation in Syria?
BERMAN: We certainly shouldn't worry for that reason. I'm hardly the only one who doubts the Kremlin's motivations in offering to rid us of our pesky Syrian situation. But we shouldn't be sanguine about Russia's internal problems because they have the power to unleash a tremendous amount of political and economic instability — the reverberations from which will affect us and our allies. A collapsing Russia, for example, is likely to act more aggressively toward countries in its immediate periphery, resulting in growing tensions with Europe and NATO.
LOPEZ: Has Russia helped stabilize the Middle East in the midst of recent revolutions?
BERMAN: Russia has been deeply unnerved by the changes that have taken place over the last two years in the Middle East and North Africa. To the Russians, the early democratic stirrings in places like Tunisia and Egypt were reminiscent of the "color revolutions" that took place on Russia's periphery last decade — and rekindled the fear that the same could happen in Russia, too. More recently, the growing empowerment of Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood has heightened worries over the spread of the same into the Russian Federation itself. That, among other reasons, is why Moscow has doggedly continued to support the Syrian regime against its domestic — and increasingly radicalized — opposition.
LOPEZ: When did Vladimir Putin go from cartoon villain to peace negotiator?
BERMAN: Who says you can't be both? Putin is still every inch the larger-than-life authoritarian strongman that we've come to know. But he is also a savvy politician and has deftly exploited the absence of American leadership in the Middle East to secure his country's strategic interests. The Syria plan proposed by the Kremlin — and eagerly embraced by the White House — reinforces the stability of the Assad regime, a key Russian ally; secures Russia's navy continued access to the port of Tartus; and bolsters Syria's main regional ally, Iran, which also happens to be an important Russian strategic partner. That's a huge coup for Moscow. The long-term dividends for us, on the other hand, are a lot less clear.
LOPEZ: You do say that Russia's collapse isn't certain. Then why write a book about it?
BERMAN: Because the key to navigating the global-security environment is figuring out where the major players are heading, in strategic terms. Currently, American policymakers — both Republican and Democrat — tend to presume that Russia is operating from a position of strength and needs to be accommodated to make progress on a slew of foreign-policy issues. The long-term domestic trend lines there, however, suggest that something very different is in store for the Russian state. Our officials should be preparing for that unraveling — and for the threats that could emerge as a result.
LOPEZ: Will there be more Boston-marathon bombings if Russia implodes?
BERMAN: The tragedy that took place this spring in Boston was, in many ways, an echo of Russia's own struggle against radical Islam in the North Caucasus. That contest has been raging for some two decades now, and the Kremlin is losing. It is losing because Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and the rest of the North Caucasus is as restive as ever, despite what the Russian government says publicly. It is losing because its "scorched earth" strategy toward those places over the past 20 years has created massive resentment and anger among the local Muslim population — and increased the appeal of radical ideologies. Most significant, it is losing because those radical ideologies are increasingly finding their way into the Russian heartland, where they are affecting places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. So what has long been a localized, distant conflict is rapidly becoming an insurgency at the epicenter of the Russian state. More instability will doubtless follow, both in Russia itself and — very likely — beyond its borders as well.
LOPEZ: Do you think war between China and Russia is likely?
BERMAN: Not war, per se. But there is certainly strategic competition ahead between Moscow and Beijing — and quite possibly real economic and political conflict, too. That's because the status of the Russian Far East — a massive area that serves as the repository of Russia's energy wealth — is increasingly in question. The area has been a historic bone of contention between Moscow and Beijing, and the border between the two was only settled comparatively recently, in 2001. But that demarcation isn't permanent and is due to be renegotiated early next decade. Even before that, though, demographic and economic trend lines in the Far East suggest strongly that China is rising there — and that the Russian state is receding.
LOPEZ: Why have Russians "lost hope" in their future?
BERMAN: Russians have lost hope in their future because the corrupt, unrepresentative Russian state has proven that it isn't a trustworthy steward of their needs. In Putin's Russia, a tiny sliver of the population has become rich beyond imagination, a ruling clique maintains power through repression and graft, and corruption is rampant. So those Russians that can do so are eyeing the exits — between 100,000 and 150,000 are estimated to be emigrating from Russia every year. Those who don't have the means or the motivation to leave, meanwhile, are resorting to other means of coping, from alcohol to drugs to suicide. On all of those fronts, statistics in Russia are orders of magnitude more grim than among the countries of Europe, to say nothing of the United States.
LOPEZ: How has Putin undone a lot of the good of the Yeltsin years?
BERMAN: During the Yeltsin years, Russia earned a global reputation for corruption, instability, and disorder. But amid the turmoil, there were glimmers of real pluralism. Among other things, Yeltsin enshrined a system of federalism that gave real representation (and a political voice) to the country's numerous regions. Putin, however, has undone all that. He has abandoned Yeltsin-era representative government in favor of a hierarchical, rigidly controlled centralized state. All this has made the Kremlin less responsive to the needs of its constituents, and less aware of trends taking shape throughout its massive territory, which spans nine time zones. That's a recipe for domestic discontent.
LOPEZ: Russia has the world's highest abortion rate. Is anything being done about this problem?
BERMAN: Russia's rate of abortion is astronomical. By official estimates, some 1.2 million abortions are performed there every year. By unofficial ones, it could be as many as 2.5 million annually. That comes out to 300 abortions an hour! Yet virtually nothing is being done to dismantle this corrosive culture of abortion, and very little is being done to counteract other drivers of Russia's demographic decline, including low life expectancy and rampant drug and substance abuse.
LOPEZ: Why are you concerned about the rise in the Muslim population in Russia? At least they are having children!
BERMAN: They are indeed. In contrast to Russia's dwindling Slavic population, the country's Muslims are faring well. By the end of this decade, according to reasonable projections, one in five Russians will be Muslim. That wouldn't be a problem, if they were integrated and content. But they are not. Instead, Russia's most important minority is systematically discriminated against by both the population and the government. As a result, they are increasingly politically atomized — and susceptible to the lure of radical Islam.
LOPEZ: What should the U.S. be doing to prepare for Russia's decline and prevent some of its more serious consequences?
BERMAN: We can start by rethinking our approach to Russia. It is by now patently clear that the "reset" of relations with Moscow so desperately pursued by the Obama administration is pretty much a dead issue. The question is, What comes next? As we begin to reformulate our approach, we should keep in mind that politics begin at home, and Russia's growing internal disorder is bound to shape how the Kremlin behaves in the years ahead. Reinforcing our support for the political independence of Russia's former satellites (such as Ukraine and Georgia); doubling down on the role and relevance of NATO; offering real, sustained assistance to Russia on counterterrorism issues — all of these things can help ameliorate the trends now taking shape in Russia, or at least reduce their impact on the rest of the world
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.