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Putin’s Race Against the Clock: Or How the Reports of Russia’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

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Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Vladimir Putin is in a race against the clock. For decades, Russian fertility rates (like most other states in the Developed world) have been in precipitous decline. Going back to the Soviet Union, people were having fewer and fewer children, as Jonathan Last details in his magnificent book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”.

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the population density of Russia shifted still further when travel restrictions were removed. This allowed for free travel of Russian citizens between the various regions of Russia. The population overall was thinning and, in the Russian Far East, a vastly underdeveloped region, the few people who lived there mostly fled for the more developed European side of the Russian Federation (think Moscow and St. Petersburg).

Then came the plummeting Russian life spans, followed by the epidemic of alcoholism (and other lethal diseases, such as HIV/AIDS). These problems were made doubly damaging to the Russian state, as they had lost significant numbers of their population when the Soviet Union was disbanded and the Russian Federation was birthed. When that happened, many regions that were once under Russian control were broken away and given to the newly developed states that now surround Russia (such as Ukraine). Since the Soviet era, use of abortifacients among the population is higher than the average OECD state.

Indeed, the United Nations recently reported that:

“the abortion rate in Russia was 37.4 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years, the highest of any country represented in data collected by the UN.”

Simply stated, the existing Russian population is small and shrinking. It is sick and its lifespan is generally shorter than those of most other advanced countries in the world. On top of this, the Russian state is corrupt and autarkic. The Russian economy swings wildly from utterly anemic to promising opportunity. Also, Russia suffers through the constant agitations for independence of its other remaining components, such as Chechnya. All of this compounds together to create a highly enfeebled Russian state that, at one point in the 1990’s, looked as though it might actually collapse.

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Boris Yeltsin (right) hands over power to his protege, young Vladimir Putin in 1999.

That’s when Vladimir Putin ultimately rose to power. Replacing the quixotic reign of permanently intoxicated Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Putin, a former KGB man and student of Soviet hardliner, Yuri Andropov, moved swiftly into power. His inner sanctum of advisers consisted of a combination of ultra Russian nationalists, conservatives, and new age Russian imperialists. What’s more, many of his inner circle of advisers belonged to the Siloviki, a group of Russian national security types who desired to bring about a strategic pivot in Russian foreign policy away from the West and closer toward the East.

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Alexander Dugin, the gonzo Russian geostrategist who insists that “Liberalism must be destroyed” and who is the father of the Neo-Eurasianist ideology.

Also, eventually, Mr. Putin would find himself enamored by an eccentric Russian geopolitical expert, Alexander Dugin, who founded the Neo-Eurasianist school of Russian foreign policy. This worldview called for a conservative nationalist imperialism to be the guiding principle of Russian foreign policy. As such, the Russian Federation would need to secure its periphery and exert its will in key areas, in order to prevent the spread of influence of Western powers (as well as to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical control of the Eurasian landmass).

Mr. Dugin has been dubbed by Foreign Affairs magazine as “Putin’s brain.” Indeed, Dugin and Putin share many interests in common–from bullying Russia’s neighbors to recreational target practice. What’s more, oddly enough, Mr. Dugin was present in Turkey less than twenty-four hours before the purported Gülenist coup began (it has been speculated that the coup was overblown and allowed to occur at the behest of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, so as to provide an excuse for his wholly undemocratic crackdown). Some have also theorized that Russia had a hand in the Turkish coup.

Over the years, Mr. Putin’s government has not only reasserted Russian power in its Near-Abroad, but it has also embarked on a strenuous campaign of national revival. The Russian government has encouraged Russians to start having more children. The government has offered couples who have children generous economic incentives.

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Vladimir Putin attending a Russian Orthodox Christian church service.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has attempted to change the disturbing trend of childlessness (which has its roots in the Soviet era) by attempting to reinvigorate the wider appeal of the Orthodox Christian Church.

On top of that, Mr. Putin has been adamant in his attempts at annexing Russian-speaking regions of neighboring countries (i.e. Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014).

Lastly, Putin’s regime has also attempted to rebuild Russia’s connections with its past by reopening the old Cossack military schools (which were closed when Lenin and the Communists took power in Russia in 1917).

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Young Russian boys train for combat at the recently reopened Cossack military schools in Russia. These schools were closed by Lenin in 1917, as the Cossacks were strident supporters of the Tsars and their White Army in the Russian Civil War against the Communists’ Red Army. Putin views this as a way of returning Russia to its roots.

All of this is part of something larger. It is an attempt on the part of the Putin regime to create a new national mythos from the smoldering ashes of the Soviet Union. In so doing, Mr. Putin (and Neo-Eurasianists like Alexander Dugin) undoubtedly hope to give his people new meaning.

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A map of Putin’s plan to reclaim the old Russian Empire, courtesy of the New York Post.

To reinvigorate the national blood not only literally (with increased fertility rates), but also with a new national mission that will drive the Russian people to not only create a new “civilization-state” that cuts across all of Eurasia (with Moscow as its capital) requires larger numbers of people than currently exist in Russia. Consequently, such a Russo-Eurasian “civilization-state” must encourage many of the Russian people to move eastward, in order to save the fertile lands there from stagnation and reclamation by their resource-hungry Chinese neighbors.

Or, as The Washington Post reports:

“The move is part of Moscow’s desire to leverage the unexploited potential of a region that remains a kind of “Wild West” — a realm rich in natural resources but whose residents hail from scattered indigenous tribes, the descendants of political exiles and other forgotten schemes of the Soviet Union.”

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This is Yuri A. Bugaev reconnoitering a tract of land in the untouched wilderness of Russia’s Far East. He has come from St. Petersburg, answering the call of Vladimir Putin for only the strongest Russians to effectively colonize and settle the untamed Russian Wild East. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Indeed, in the last year, the Putin government signed a law that effectively gave away 2.5 acres (which would remain tax-free for up to 5 years) to any Russian who decided to move to the “Wild East” of Russia. If the plan proves to be effective, the Russian government believes that it could increase the population in that far-flung region to about 36 million Russians. Such a move would stunt the influx of Chinese migrants who (if current population trends persist) are set to overtake the Russian citizens living in the Wild East within the decade.

“At around 3.9 million square miles, the Far East region takes up nearly a third of Russia. But barely 5 percent—7.4 million—of Russia’s 143 million people live in the area that stretches from Siberia to the Arctic region near Alaska, all the way down to the islands off Japan.”

It remains to be seen if the Kremlin’s population schemes will pay off–particularly in the Russian Far East. Yet, one thing remains clear: thus far, the Putin regime has been proven somewhat correct.

In 2012, Kenneth Rapoza of Forbes wrote of his experiences living in Russia, witnessing a population rebound:

“CIS immigration has helped stabilize Russia’s population. Given that people who move to Russia tend to be of working age, the working age population has stabilized in contrast to earlier expectations of a rapid contraction in the labor force.  Employment has generally been stable in recent years. But CIS countries like Urkaine and Belarus are not the only neighbors moving in.”

Mr. Rapoza is not the only one who has spoken of the success that Mr. Putin’s policies have had. Are they enough to move the country’s fertility rates up drastically? Right now, no. But this is not a short-term plan on the part of Putin. This is a decades-long endeavor and one that the Judo master plans on wrestling to the ground effectively.

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Vladimir Putin announcing the fact that Russian fertility rates have increased to 1.78 children per 1,000 women. This is a boon for the Russian president, who has consistently championed policies aimed at increasing the ethnic Russian population in his country significantly.

Recently, in December of 2016, President Putin gave his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly in which he proudly asserted that in 2016, the nation’s total fertility rates had increased to 1.78 children per 1,000 women (up from 1.7, which while a small number is not a small feat). Most demographers will tell you that this rate is well below the societal replacement rate (the bare minimum number required for a culture to  survive beyond its current population) of 2.1 births per 1,000 women. But, this is a significant uptick and the Kremlin is taking credit.

“The meaning of the whole of social policy–the multiplication of the human capital as the main wealth of our country.” – Vladimir Putin in his December 2016 address to the Russian National Assembly

Critics will also necessarily point out that, next year, if trends persist, Russia is actually set to begin losing 300,000 people per year due to the aforementioned poor mortality rates and consistently below-average fertility rates.

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A map of the Russian diaspora in the Russian sphere of influence.

However, Russia is making one big push for more people beyond simply encouraging greater baby-making among the Russian population. Mr. Putin is desperately trying to bring more people–especially ethnic Russians who have found themselves outside of the Russian Federation–back into the Russian fold. If he can accomplish this by cleaving bits of territory from his Near-Abroad that are populated by mostly ethnic Russians (think Crimea or Eastern Ukraine), then he can explode his population to a more productive number.

As Adam Smith, the father of capitalism (not that Russia is actually capitalist), once observed: nations with large populations tend to be more prosperous than nations that have small populations.

This is the nature of Vladimir Putin’s desperate race against the clock. For too long the Russian people have failed to reproduce adequate numbers to ensure societal replacement. As such, the country has stagnated (by the way, these trends predate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Putin has recognized that in order for his Russian-dominated Eurasian Union to fully take shape; in order for Russia to capitalize on its resource-rich Far Eastern holdings, he must increase the Russian population significantly.

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Image courtesy of China Daily.

Right now, ethnic Russians are a decreasing population whereas minority groups, like the Muslim population of Russia, are set to become the largest population within Russian borders (should trends persist). Putin is making a calculated gambit: he can take what he needs from Eastern Europe, in order to swing to the Far East, and beef up his country’s flailing economy by developing the resources there.

This is Vladimir Putin’s interest. These are his goals: the restoration of Russia as a Eurasian hegemon. While Putin and much of the Russian elite certainly dislike the West (and, specifically, the United States) far more than even the average Russian citizen does, the fact remains that Russia is not necessarily an existential adversary to the United States in the way that Wahhābīsm is today or the Soviet Union was yesteryear.

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Image courtesy of Politico.

There’s one more thing also: if the United States was serious about stopping Vladimir Putin, the time to have done that was in 2009. However, the Obama Administration chose to try its “reset” with Russia which only induced Mr. Putin toward greater aggression and brinksmanship with the West. Now, the incoming Trump Administration is locked in by the poor choices of his predecessors. There are other priorities also pulling at the incoming Trump Administration which makes increased hostility with Russia a luxury that America can ill-afford right now.

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President Obama’s Russia reset was a disaster that paved the way for Vladimir Putin to make the gains that he has on the global stage. Now, Trump is left holding the bag and having to make the best out of a bad situation that his predecessor created through fecklessness and indifference.

Such is life.

Politics is the art of the possible, as they say. Therefore, the incoming Trump Administration should plan to hold the line against Russian irredentism in places like Poland or the Nordic states, but it will simply have to tolerate Russian revanchism in areas that have large ethnic Russians, such as Crimea or even potentially Eastern Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin was dealt an awful hand when he assumed power. For decades, Russia has existed as the sick man of Eurasia. Indeed, it seemed as though George de Lacy Evans’ thesis in “On the Designs of Russia” was about to be made into a reality until the year 2000. Around that time, Mr. Putin’s leadership began to arrest the Russian decline.

As Western scholars on both the Left and Right continue to insist (and as I used to believe) that Russia is set for dissolution due to poor fertility rates and high mortality rates, these academicians make the same mistake that they did in denying the realistic probability of either Brexit or the election of Donald Trump: the human factor of will power. Make no mistake, it is through sheer will that Putin has managed to ensure that his dysfunctional government not only keeps Russia together, but potentially lays the groundwork for a strong pan-Eurasian Russia.

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Polandball.

America’s feckless post-Cold War Russia policy has made both Putin and the return of Russia as a great power possible. Putin’s tireless (and ruthless) commitment to increasing his population in order to enact the Neo-Eurasianist fantasy of a Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union has been made into a partial reality due to the sheer determination and singular will power of Vladimir Putin himself. The West should stop underestimating him. People are not widgets and destiny is not predetermined. If Putin can arrest his demographic decline through an infusion of new populations coupled with increased natural births–irrespective of the abysmal mortality rate–then Putin can ensure Russia’s rise and reign.

tumblr_n2mc2t9rbu1rvtvymo4_500Of course, the deck is still stacked against Putin’s gambit. But, oddly enough, Putin seems to be unfazed by these negative trends working against him. Putin and his cadre seem content to give it their all and see how it turns out.

Thus far, they’ve managed to see seemingly impossible odds go in their favor: they have eviscerated European solidarity, managed to checkmate the U.S. in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria.

Meanwhile, they are set to settle the seemingly interminable Kuril Island dispute with Japan. Oh, and, they’ve somehow managed to not only buddy up with Shiite Iran, but also to make nice with Turkey, all the meanwhile building a new friendship with Egypt and protecting Assad from revolution in Syria.

Now, Putin has managed to somehow make his own people start having more children. This, even as the social and cultural situation in Russia deteriorates to such a new low that, Dmitry Gubin, a Russia expert, has claimed Russia is now a Third World country, competing with the likes of Turkey and Kazakhstan.

Indeed, Gubin asserts that,

“the simplification, crudificaiton and primitivizaiton of culture is an inevitable process in the descent of the country into the third world, and this means that we do not have the stagnation which will disappear when a new Gorbachev appears. There aren’t the mechanisms that used to exist, and the new one works in a different way.”

Yet, just because Russia may have descended into a powerful Third World country; just because a purported sense of barbarism has come to dominate the Russian culture under the Putin regime does not mean that Russia will lose its potency any time soon. Nor does it mean that the situation in Russia is fixed.

Even if Russia is doomed to collapse (which, it very well may be, given all of the factors arrayed against the Putin regime), one must never lose sight of the fact that a) nothing is fixed when human beings are involved and b) it is going to take Russia a long time to collapse. In that interregnum, whose to say that the Putin policies don’t end up breathing life back into Russia?

Putin has played his hand masterfully and is thus far beating the clock. The West needs to stop underestimating him. What’s more, the Trump Administration is going to have to face reality: Russia isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As such, it should formulate policies that do not automatically antagonize the budding Russian great power. If Russia is doomed to fail, then it would be best that Mr. Trump take Angelo Codevilla’s recent advice and “speak softly” to Russia whilst arming “their targets to the teeth.” However, if Russia is not destined to collapse (as I believe), then Codevilla’s advice is doubly more important.

This is the only sensible solution. The reports of Russia’s demise are greatly exaggerated indeed.

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Tsar Putin always wins when there is discord and dissent on his western borders (Europe) and to his south/southwest (Middle East).

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