A Bear, Dying

The spat between Russia and Ukraine over the price of natural gas has finally ended with Putin backing down from his threat of jacking up the cost of natural gas shipments to Ukraine. The ridiculously complex arrangement allows both leaders to save face without causing a crisis.

At the same time, Melana Zyla Vickers notes in TCS Daily that this shows how Russia’s power in the region is waning:

The lesson? Length of time autocratic Russia could put the screws to a neighbor in the imperial and Soviet era: decades. Length of time autocratic Russia can put the screws to that neighbor in an era of globalization: three days.

Just as Russia last year discovered it couldn’t hand-pick a communist to serve as the Ukrainian president, it cannot now use gas prices to punish Ukraine for asserting its political independence. The broader lesson for Russia’s neighbors — or any expansionist bully’s neighbors — is that you must integrate in the region beyond you, economically and politically, so that you spend as little time as possible with the bully behind closed doors.

She notes, quite correctly, that in an age of globalization, it’s much harder for a state like Russia to continue to bully well-connected former Soviet republics like they can with Moscow’s less fortunate client states. Moscow may be able to throw its weight around with isolated former Soviet states like Belarus or Turkmenistan, but Ukraine’s pro-Western President has ensured that Ukraine is no longer a puppet state for Moscow’s interests. The fact that Ukraine’s natural gas lines also supplied significant portions of Western Europe only highlights how Ukraine is increasingly important to the world economy.

Russia is trying desperately to punch above its weight, but as Stephen Green observes, Russia is in dire straights in terms of demography:

Today there are about 143 million Russian citizens, down five million in ten years. Maybe 115 million are actually Russian, with the remainder divided amongst Ukrainians, Tatars, Muslims, and the various indigenous peoples of Siberia. Fifty years from now, demographers expect that in the best-case scenario, Russia’s population will have fallen to around 100 million. Of those, probably not many more than 65 million will be ethnic-Russians. You can bet, however, that Russia’s Muslim peoples will increase in numbers, while the Slavs fall.

Russia has a massive problem with AIDS, Russian prisons are hellholes in which antibiotic-resistant strains of TB are rampant, alcoholism is at endemic levels, and the very structure of Russian society, already battered by decades of communism, is coming unraveled. In 2002 the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece published a detailed look at Russia’s decline in the post-Soviet era, and things haven’t improved much subsequently.

While it is certainly possible that life may improve in Russia over time, things are likely to get worse before they get better. The older generation have never experienced democracy, the country is still run by the same apparatchiks who ran the USSR during the dark days of the Soviet empire, and reversing Russia’s demographic decline will take a significant investment in public health and other key social institutions. A new, democratic Russia would have to begin nearly from scratch.

Putin is quickly finding that Russia’s power is not what it once was – and his own instincts are proving to be frequently self-destructive. How long Russia’s decline will last, or if it is even reversible is all up in the air. However, one thing is certain, the near future for Russia is exceptionally bleak and keeping Putin’s destructive impulses from harming Russia’s neighbors will be a major foreign policy challenge.

2 thoughts on “A Bear, Dying

  1. I think Stephen Green over simplifies minorities in Russia. First off Tatars are Muslims, so I am not sure why makes them distinct. The biggest Tatar population is in the province of Tatarstan around the Volga-Ural region. Kazan Tatars have long had the distinction of known as “the jews of the Turks” for their European style bourgeoisie and disapora across Russia. They are very secular muslims. The other Muslims that Green was likely talking about are in the Caucausus. Both Turkic speaking people and Caucasian speaking people live there. Except for the Chechens and maybe a few Inguish (closely related to Chechens), these group have not showed a penchant for Islamic Fundamentalism. The attempted Chechen millitant invasion of Dagestan was an abysmal failure. Dagestan is literally a province that resembles the tower of babel. In this province the size of Virginia, 24 different ethnic groups live. Caucasian people such as Avars, Inguish, Chechens, Laks, and Lezgis, live side by side with Turkic people such as Kumyks and Azeris. The biggest group (Avars) has only 24% of the population. Russian is obviously the common language. Preservation of Muslim culture and the indigenous languages remain priorities, but these people still want to stay in the Russian orbit as that too has become part of their culture. Even though the demographics will change, Green’s subtle hint that this will lead to religious strife is absurd. Only in Chechnya have we seen that, and it’s been more a case of a nationalist struggle being co-opted by Islamic elements than anything else.

  2. Many are labeling Russia’s pressure on Ukraine to pay market prices for natural gas as “Cold War” tactics. Of course, the Ukrainian government is paying the full price for their anti-Russian rhetoric and pro-Western orientation. Russia is flexing the only muscles she has: natural resources. But, it’s not so much a message to the Ukraine as to the West. And it’s not so much “Cold War” as Realist geo-politics.

    Putin quickly realized that Russia only has one card to play in today’s world of growing demand for natural resources. Domestically, this realization became clear with the takeover of the Yukos oil company. Disguised as retribution for legal transgressions, Putin removed the threat of a western-oriented Yukos
    by imprisoning its managers, and paved the way for a predictable government takeover of Russia’s oil industry. Today, it is not so clear what the rules of oil investment are (i.e. no foreigner shall hold majority stock in a Russian oil company), but it is very clear who makes the rules.

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