20 years under Putin: a timeline

This fall, prominent U.S. political scientist Ilan Berman presented his new book titled Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, in which he analyzes Russia’s transformation and identifies a number of key trends that define its domestic and foreign policies. Harriman Institute Visiting Scholar Daria Mattis reviews the book.



According to Ilan Berman, Russia claims to be a strong international player, projecting “quite a striking geopolitical image” of a “country on the march”; however, at a closer glance, it becomes “very clear that that perception is wrong.” In reality, Russia is undergoing dramatic transformation, argues Berman: “The transformation is going to be every bit as earth-shattering as the collapse of the Soviet Union was some two decades ago.” Berman outlines three major trends that are “beginning to emerge now but are on a trajectory to intersect” in today’s Russia.

First, Russia is dying demographically. According to UN statistics, Russia’s replenishment rate (the average number of children per woman) is only 1.6 (in Europe and the U.S. it’s 2.1). As a result of both natural death and emigration, Russia’s population is contracting by close to 0.5 million people every year. Even the Russian government acknowledges that the entire population of Russia (which is 142.9 million people now) will shrink by about a quarter—to 107 million people—by 2050. “This is a massive constriction of the human capital,” says Berman.

Berman points to three major factors that have contributed to this demographic decline. First, “Russia, unlike the U.S., never experienced a peace dividend after the end of the Cold War”  in terms of investment in social, cultural, and educational infrastructure. Median life expectancy for Russian males today is the same as it is in Madagascar—sixty. The life expectancy for Russian females is a little better—seventy-three. Remarkably, “both numbers are a decade to a decade and a half lower than they are for the analogous governments in Europe and in the United States.” Part of the reason for this is that, as a function of Russia’s GDP, health care expenditures in Russia have remained constant since the mid-90s. Berman observes, “The Russian government simply is not spending money on the welfare of its people.”

The second factor is the “wholesale collapse of the Russian family.” According to the UN, Russia has the highest divorce rate in the world. Half of all Russian marriages end in divorce, meaning that multiple children in such families are an “endangered species.” Although there are many families with one child, there are few families with four, five, or six children, and larger families are necessary for population replenishment.

The third factor is the “rampant culture of abortion” in Russia. Official statistics suggest that 1.2 million abortions are performed in Russia annually. That is equivalent to 300 per hour for a population of 142 million people. In fact, the number could be twice that, because of private clinics, unreported abortions, off-the-books abortions, etc. Overall, abortions reduce Russia’s potential population by 2 percent every year.

According to UN statistics, Russia’s replenishment rate is only 1.6 (in Europe and the U.S. it’s 2.1). As a result of both natural death and emigration, Russia’s population is contracting by close to 0.5 million people every year.

Layered on top of this is an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today it’s estimated that about 1 percent of the Russian population is HIV-positive. The problem is being perpetuated and expanded by Russia’s culture of drug use. Russian consumption alone accounts for more than one-fifth of the heroin used worldwide, according to UN statistics. And more than one-third of injectable drug users in Russia are HIV-positive.

Finally, the fourth reason is that Russia’s population is fleeing. The repressive practices of the current Russian state and dismal economic, cultural, and social domestic conditions are forcing Russians to seek exits. As a result, Berman says, “the pace of exodus from Russia right now rivals the outmigration a century ago, when the Bolsheviks took power.” More than two million Russians are estimated to have left since Putin took power in 1999, and “1 in 5 Russians today desires to live abroad and 40% of Russians between the age of 18-35 are actively contemplating departure.” These statistics are devastating because they are “symptoms of a population that has lost hope in their future and one that no longer trusts the government to be a steward of its needs.”

The second trend Berman identifies is national and religious transformation. The country’s Muslim population is growing quite rapidly. Broadly speaking, Muslims do not have abortions as a matter of convenience, generally do not drink, do not divorce, and have more children per family unit. As a result, while Russia’s population is declining, the percentage of Muslims within the Russian population is actually growing. Today, Russia’s twenty-one million Muslims make up 16 percent of the overall population. According to the Russian government’s own estimates, by the end of the decade, one in five Russians will be Muslim. By the middle of the century, some projections say, every other Russian will be Muslim.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community is not well integrated into Russian society. Russian authorities practice an active economic protectionist policy in the regions, and support the rise of a corrosive far-right nationalism. In Berman’s words, Russian policymakers have said of Russian Muslims that “they are Muslims but they are not so much Russians—part of the ‘internal abroad’ that we need to manage, not that we need to integrate.” As a result of being deprived of economic opportunity and been treated as part of the “internal abroad,” Russia’s Muslim community exhibits increasing atomization and radicalization.

An example of the rise of radical Islam can be seen in Russia’s North Caucasus and Chechnya. The trend here can be boiled down to the notion that radical Islam is “migrating from Russia’s periphery to the Russian heartland.” Another rising insurgent strain of extreme Islam is being witnessed in Central Russia, in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Thus, Berman concludes that “the North Caucasus is not contained and localized—in fact, it is resilient and is spreading elsewhere.” Looming on the horizon, Berman says, is a widening conflict between the Russian state and these forces that the state cannot control: “We are not talking about one Chechnya, we are talking about many Chechnyas. The maturation of this conflict over time is taking far larger proportions than had been originally seen by Moscow.”

The repressive practices of the current Russian state and dismal economic, cultural, and social domestic conditions are forcing Russians to seek exits. As a result, “the pace of exodus from Russia right now rivals the outmigration a century ago, when the Bolsheviks took power.”

The third trend Berman discusses can be described simply as “the Chinese are coming.” Nearly one-third of Russia’s population lives in the Asian part of the country. Russia has long been concerned about access to Asian markets and doing commerce with Asian states like China. The Russian Far East and Western Siberia have been referred to as “Russia’s economic bread basket”; however, this territory, which is cumulatively four million square miles, is barren. The Russians are leaving. “They are leaving for warmer climates, for greener economic pastures,” Berman says. The population of Western Siberia has declined by 20 percent over the last two decades. As a result, the territories of Western Siberia and the Far East have twenty-five million people altogether—or in other words, six Russians per square mile. “If there are no people, there is no workforce,” concludes Berman.

The presence of Chinese business has become more persistent and visible in Russia. “The investment both in human capital and in economic terms that the Chinese government is making in the region dwarfs what the Russian Government has done,” says Berman. “Places like Vladivostok are far closer geographically to Beijing than they are to Moscow.” Ironically, the regions in Russia’s distant East are “still treated by people in Moscow as an economic and political backwater.” These regions “are increasingly transforming and [the people are] beginning to view themselves as Asians generally and Chinese specifically.” This situation demonstrates that not only is Russia unable to compete with Asia economically, “it simply doesn’t have control over its territory.” This is where real territorial conflicts could soon arise—first and foremost with China. The Russian and Chinese governments have tussled over these territories for centuries, and the current border was demarcated in 2001. Such a shift in the geopolitical and economic environment in the Far East could have “dire implications for Russia—as an energy superpower globally and also as an economic powerhouse in Asia.”

In conclusion, Berman argues that not only are the three macro-trend-lines “deeply damaging for Russia” on their own, but “the interaction of the three is catastrophic,” because the state built by Putin and his followers is “built for the here and now, it is not built as a long-term national enterprise.” Thus, Putin’s state “has not dealt with these strands in a serious fashion.” Why? Because “it is not wired that way”; “Russia’s government more than anything else is a cult of personality built around Putin and his close circle of followers. It is one that is kept in place by massive corruption and graft and sweetheart contracts.” The latter means that “attracting the real serious sustained international investment, FDI and others to turn the demographic trends around would require the dismantling of at least a part of Putin’s state.” So the Russian government is caught in a cul-de-sac of its own political making. Yet this does not mean that the current regime will quickly dissolve or disappear. “You can expect Russia to enhance its imperial impulse—the ideological leaning to reclaim lost lands is likely to be given a shot in the arm by the loss of lands elsewhere,” warns Berman. As Russia begins to lose its Eastern periphery, the impulse to expand westward territorially will be reinforced. As Russia begins to press westward for demographic and economic reasons, there are going to be tensions with Europe and the NATO block.

Finally, according to Berman, the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, initiated by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev four years ago, has proven to be “not as healthy as it could be.” In fact, he states, “the reset has been a failure.” Berman’s new book is intended to give the White House food for thought regarding Russia’s trajectory, because only with a thorough understanding of the trends underlying that trajectory can America develop a rational policy toward Russia. “The real challenge for the United States in 20-30 years may not be from Russia’s strength but it may be from Russia’s weakness,” concludes Berman.