This is an alarming book, and is so intended by author Ilan Berman. The fundamental argument is that Russia verges on monumental collapse. This could have earth-shaking reverberations, literal as well as figurative, given the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. The author further believes this state of affairs is particularly dangerous because the United States is preoccupied with other concerns, notably in Asia and the Middle East. Former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich provides a Foreword.
Berman believes a separatist and violent Muslim minority will serve as catalyst for the disintegration of Russia. There is important history which should be included in consideration of this argument. Communist ideology for decades provided cohesion to the remarkably diverse as well as geographically vast Soviet Union. Commitment to the visions of Marx and Lenin was sufficient for workable unity. This glue, however, came dramatically unstuck a quarter of a century ago.
The author's discussion includes interesting anecdotes. In December 2012, for example, the leader of the Shi'a community in Tatarstan, Fariz Askerzade, petitioned Russia's President Vladimir Putin to protect the population against increasing Islamic radicalism. The plea apparently has so far been ignored. The author describes this as 'passivity' on the part of Putin, an unusual way to characterize this ruthless leader. If beleaguered Askerzade is being ignored, cold calculation rather than timidity more likely is the explanation. Putin's assertiveness is reflected in relations with the Kadyrov family of Chechnya, which Berman does not discuss. Akhmad Abdulkhamidovich Kadyrov was Chief Mufti – senior Islamic judge as well as scholar – in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and a leader in the First Chechen War of 1994-1996 against the Russian Federation. The Second Chechen War began in August 1999, shortly before Putin took over Russia, and insurgency continued into 2009.
Moscow persuaded Kadyrov to switch sides. Following his assassination in 2004, he was succeeded by son Ramzan Kadyrov, now president of the Chechen Republic, who is widely regarded as the most powerful leader in the country. These developments indirectly confirm Berman's thesis regarding the importance of Islamic minorities. Berman's book is useful in describing the extraordinary challenge facing Putin and associates in Moscow to maintain reasonably stable relations with neighboring states, while containing the threat of Islamic radicalism.
The author believes that an unstable and weak social infrastructure will accelerate the collapse. Statistics are cited comparing Russia's notably low fertility rate of 1.34 live births per woman to that of other nations. By comparison, the United States has a stable fertility rate of 2.06. The U.S. statistical birth rate is relatively high in large part because many of our immigrants, including in particular Hispanic populations, are typified by large families. Expansion of minorities and growth of diversity, which benefits the American economy and society, is condemned as a time bomb in Russia.
The author generally does not address economic developments, though this is the foundation on which the Russia will continue, and perhaps expand in influence, or fall. Drastic differences between the economies of Russia and the U.S. seriously mitigate broad similarities in rapid growth of minority populations. In future work, he could usefully focus on this dimension. The book asserts that Russia is neglecting important strategic energy development, while also warning that Moscow has designs to dominate the Arctic region. The first point becomes even more important given the remarkable rapid expansion of petroleum production in and exports from the U.S., thanks to fracking technology. Regarding the second point, Putin has been demonstrating effective leadership. The author writes Moscow is exploiting the Law of the Sea Treaty to facilitate territorial expansion. The effort actually is far more comprehensive. A new United Nations-sponsored report on global warming states profound changes are occurring in the atmosphere, intimately tied to human activities in both causes and consequences. UN reports on the environment are widely criticized. The germane point for this discussion is that Russia is actively working to capture global environmental concern.
Simultaneous with the release of the new report, Russia organized the Third International Arctic Forum, in the far northern town of Salekhard. Addressing the conference on September 27, Putin emphasized protecting the Arctic environment must go hand in hand with orderly investment. The Russian Geographical Society in 2010 hosted two international conferences on the Arctic. Over four hundred scientists and other scholars, investors, government representatives, and others were brought together. Historically Great Britain led in such efforts, but now Russia is organizing the region where their stake is vital.
Berman argues that in the Middle East Russia has 'reverted to familiar Soviet-style balance-of-power politics,' reflected in support of governments of Iran and Syria despite their respective pursuit of nuclear weapons and brutal repression of popular rebellion. The term balance of power implies careful calculation of military and economic realities before aligning with any particular nation. During the Cold War, Soviet moves in the Middle East were heavily informed by ideology, the glue which bound the enormous country together, with alignment easier as the spectrum of nationalist regimes in the region moved to the left. Radical nationalist Arab governments were far preferable to democratic Israel, and the region overall reflected the rigid hostility and competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, especially after the Suez crisis of 1956. Iran traditionally has been an area coveted by Moscow for geographic, economic and related strategic reasons. If Moscow's approach reflects balance of power considerations, that seems a departure from the foreign policy of the Soviet Union.
As this implies, evaluating Berman's book is best done in the context of the broad and highly influential rich body of policy literature related to Russia and the Soviet Union. Arguably George Kennan was among the most important of these analysts from the Cold War era. His containment policy, with remarkable consistency, guided United States policies toward the Soviet Union and other communist powers from the administrations of Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush.
Kennan focused on traditional prudent realist diplomacy. He emphasized among other insightful considerations that Soviet leaders 'are not like ... us' in experiences or outlook, total war of a particularly brutal comprehensive sort informed their worldview, a fundamentally unproductive system – if contained – would eventually collapse, and our relations with friendly nations were relatively more important.
This impressive school of thought and policy continues to provide good guidance in dealing with Russia today.