Russian involvement in Syria as well as an extensive disinformation apparatus have kept the world’s attention on Russia and projected an image of its strength, at home and abroad. It has also helped present the country and figures like Vladimir Putin as defenders of traditional Christian/conservative values against a decadent Western liberal world order, with some success. However, this Russian noise is little more than an attempt to hide increasing internal and external problems that are pushing the country towards long-term difficulties that will cost it dearly. While this seems only loosely relevant to Europe, it is in fact cause for concern in the near to mid-term future due to the behaviour this could encourage Russia to adopt.
It seems strange to emphasise Russian weakness now. Its intervention in Syria has given Assad the advantage and put Russian-made weaponry on display, as well as establishing relations with state actors (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and non-state actors (e.g. Syrian Kurdish militias) with which Russia had little prior history. It has seized Crimea and created a slow-burning conflict in Ukraine, hindering its development and getting NATO involved. Russian “troll factories” have been active in elections across Europe, steering support towards populist candidates (Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini have both met with Putin), and some heads of government clearly model themselves on Putin (notably Viktor Orban). Its media outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today have helped spread clickbait disinformation in Europe and beyond, often scoring assists from similar outlets within Europe and the US. Yet rather than affirming its strength, these actions stem from the malaise affecting Russia and the increasingly difficult international situation Putin’s actions has put it in. In the following paragraphs, I’ll attempt to break down some of these issues, and why ultimately instead of diminishing its capacity for harm, such a predicament could push Russia to attempt to sow division and undermine public confidence abroad and particularly in Europe to mask its own weaknesses as they intensify.
Russia’s demographic crisis is nothing new, but during the late 2000s and early 2010s the population stabilised and increased slightly. The CIA World Factbook estimates the population to be roughly 142.25 million in 2017, with a decline of 0.1% on 2016, when population decline resumed. Even if the Crimea’s circa 2.2 million people are included (boosting the population to around 144.5 million), the trend of population decline remains, and some population monitoring agencies claim an even lower population, already below 140 million. Rather than an exception, there is good reason to believe that this decline will worsen. Before, large-scale migration of ethnic Russians (and often Belarusians and Ukrainians) from the former Soviet Union, especially Central Asia, helped cover the low birth and high death rates within Russia, especially acute among ethnic Russians. Though birth and fertility rates are not as low as during the economic crisis of the 1990s, estimates suggest that deaths are outpacing births once again, and fertility rates remain well below replacement level. These populations have decreased significantly in all Ex-Soviet states, with emigration, low birth rates, or simply naturalisation and identification with their birth countries reducing this pool of potential “returnees” (while some Russian populations like that of Kazakhstan are still large, others such as those elsewhere in Central Asia are down to tens of thousands as per the latest available figures). Although Russia’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan allows people from these countries to live and work freely in Russia, most Central Asian migrants to Russia are temporary workers occupied in menial or dangerous occupations, and return to their countries of origin (mainly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), rather than settling in Russia (and it’s worth mentioning that Russian public opinion is generally unfavourable to permanent migration of Central Asians to Russia). Even within Russia, the regions with high birth rates, particularly the Caucasus’ Muslim regions or ethnic republics in Asian Russia, are seeing fewer births and increasing deaths though no heavy population decline yet. The World Factbook states Russia’s median age as 39.3 years, which seems youthful compared to most European nations (e.g. Denmark’s is 42, Italy’s is 45). This statistic however hints at how Russians die sooner and faster than others, and the social conditions facilitating this.
Russia’s reputation for alcoholism is well-deserved (with 15.1 litres per capita in 2016, factoring in increased use of moonshine as the Russian government raised prices on legally-sold alcohol), but the extent of Russia’s ill-health, especially in its men, is alarming. The WHO reports in 2015 that circa 30% of the population smokes (as with alcohol, men are heavier users, with 50% smoking), and they smoke heavily. Nonprofit website Tobacco Atlas reports a 2014 yearly average of 2,690 cigarettes per person. Thanks to systemic corruption in law enforcement and porous borders, Russia is one of the world’s biggest heroin markets with at least a million addicts (but easily more, with some estimates at double that), in turn generating more problems. Namely, a lack of treatment facilities and social stigma has allowed needle sharing to spread HIV to over 1% of the population (as per VICE’s Motherboard website), and Hepatitis is also common. The notorious drug Krokodil (so called for giving users’ dying flesh a scaly complexion) was created as a cheap replacement for heroin when occasional crop seizures in Afghanistan caused shortages and price rises. Finally, the WHO reports an obesity rate of 26.5% in the country in 2011, with nearly 60% of the country overweight (this time, women scored worse). The result: an average life expectancy of 65 years for men, lower than many developing nations (even notoriously violent Honduras manages a life expectancy of 69 for men), and 75 for women, as per the CIA World Factbook. This information feeds into and is vital to understanding Russia’s vulnerabilities, which could also jeopoardise its territorial integrity.
In terms of internal control, the situation could soon become difficult. This population decline affects ethnic Russians disproportionately (although they are still an absolute majority of the population), and in many ethnic Republics the population balance, which was often dominated by Russians, is showing signs of reversal. For example, in Kalmykia, census figures show that Russians formed a majority or plurality until 1979, but Kalmyks now form the majority (by two to one) and Russians’ share of the population continues to decrease. So far this has not posed problems, but this could change, and Chechnya’s warlord-turned-president Ramzan Kadyrov could illustrate this well. He often advertises his seemingly unbending loyalty to Putin, keeping control of Chechnya to avoid an insurgency similar to that of the 1990s. In reality, he has consolidated individual control over Chechnya and now boasts a heavily-armed security force loyal exclusively to him, the Kadyrovtsi, who advocacy groups allege have been involved in serious human rights violations, most recently persecuting Chechnya’s LGBT community. Ironically, Putin wanted Kadyrov to control Chechnya at any cost, and Kadyrov is placing himself in a position to resist all attempts to control him by hinting at heavy retaliation if Putin denies him what he wants. For example, Chechen agents operate in other parts of Russia without the Kremlin necessarily knowing, with the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015 in Moscow was thought to be perpetrated by such agents as a warning of their reach. In addition to this, Russian federal forces can only operate in Chechnya with Kadyrov’s explicit permission, the only place in Russia where this is the case, and his Kadyrovtsi are thought to have acquired battle experience in both Ukraine and Syria. Kadyrov may be an extreme example, but the reforms that see most (but not all) ethnic republics no longer electing their leaders, but rather being appointed by Putin could come back to haunt him or a future Russian president. By lessening these areas’ autonomy and creating leaders with little pressure to accomplish work outside of what Putin needs from them, or improve local conditions (many of the ethnic republics have weaker economies and lower standards of living than the national average), he is also forced to make concessions to keep these strongmen onside. If other states win influence inside these republics, or, like Kadyrov, their leaders aim to extend their influence and appeal outside their republics’ borders (his prolific Instagram page is a good if tasteless demonstration of this), these strongmen can put increasing pressure on Moscow to meet their demands or face problems.
Rotting from the inside
Furthermore, the Russian regime may have betrayed its own fear of defeat by arresting and jailing opposition politician Alexei Navalny twice in 2017. It seems strange that the regime should be so sensitive to Navalny’s challenge, as realistically he has little chance of beating Putin or his chosen successor in an election. This therefore seems to betray a regime lacking in domestic confidence and aware of certain longtime grievances that the Russian population continues to hold. They have good reason to worry: the intervention in Syria came with the country under sanctions and a low oil price, leading to heavy use of its reserve fund to avoid more serious economic disruption, and budget cuts elsewhere to sustain its heavy defense spending. The war in Syria is trumpeted as a success because it displayed new military capabilities as well as displacing refugees that have created discord between Russia’s EU rivals, but casualties are coming in (added to those suffered in Ukraine) and Putin’s recent declaration that the troops are leaving has proven false once more. With no real end to a Russian presence in Syria in sight, the Russian population’s patience might not hold indefinitely, especially if key services are cut and casualties start to become a personal issue for more people. The economy may have stabilised thanks largely to higher oil prices, but Salon magazine reports that this recovery has largely benefited the oligarchs who have recovered all the wealth previously lost to sanctions, with living conditions for the average citizen still stagnant. This malaise is rooted in the corruption and larceny that have stripped Russia of a large part of its wealth, leaving a small, fabulously rich oligarchy, but also one roughly one in five adults living in poverty. Economic activity is concentrated in a few key regions, with export revenues depending largely on the extraction of natural resources, meaning that resource prices on global markets determine Russia’s economic success (or failure) more than most countries. Given that key state enterprises control nearly 70% of the economy and are run by a small clique close to the Kremlin, there is little incentive for competition that could encourage the innovation necessary to rapidly and extensively diversify the economy. Additionally, lack of urgency concerning serious economic development has compounded the economic and demographic decline of the Russian interior away from major population centres.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, many monotowns dedicated to a single industry were stranded, and since then few efforts have been made to encourage investment in these areas to generate sustainable economic activity or facilitate their citizens’ transfer elsewhere, leaving millions trapped in poverty and limited to surviving on meagre pensions and homegrown crops. This also has implications for Russia’s territorial control, as most of the population is concentrated in European Russia (west of the Ural mountains), leaving less than 40 million people in Asian Russia (which accounts for 13,000,000 km2 of Russia’s 17,000,000 km2). The population in Asian Russia tends to be concentrated in and around a few major cities at wide intervals from one another. With low population densities in between these cities, poor transport infrastructure and often inhospitable conditions, large-scale production of basic commodities and food is difficult to achieve. This has meant that the central government must subsidise what would otherwise be extremely high prices for such commodities to be supplied to these areas to avoid rapid depopulation of these strategic cities (stretching out towards and beyond the Ural mountains). This is especially relevant considering the Russian Far East, and the nature of Russia’s relationship to China.
In the dragon’s jaws?
Russia’s close ties with China initially appear to be a common-sense alliance to counterbalance the West. In fact it even seems one where Russia has certain advantages, such as providing China with a large proportion of its oil and gas (a $400 billion dollar deal was signed in 2014 to establish long-term Russian provision of gas to China, and put pressure on Europe by raising the price of gas on global markets). However, in the long term this seems like a strategy that will subordinate Russia to China and render it impotent in regions which it could previously consider a solid sphere of influence. Firstly, China has worked to expand its influence in Central Asia with deals for economic cooperation, and through developing infrastructure for its “One Belt, One Road” project. One of the deals already concluded, as per the Financial Times, involves a gas pipeline that allowed Turkmenistan to export gas (it has some of the world’s largest reserves) without needing to pass through Russia for the first time ever. China Uncensored also reports that China has also established military cooperation with Tajikistan, a former Soviet state dependent on remittances from its citizens in Russia for a large part of its GDP.
Furthermore, Russia’s demographic decline is felt most in its Far East especially along the Chinese border. This area holds special significance for both countries. For Russia, a key port suitable for stationing large naval fleets (and consequently projecting power) in the Pacific Ocean is here, at Vladivostok, so it holds great strategic importance despite the poor logistics linking it to the rest of the country, and is rich in oil, gas, timber and fish resources. For China, this region North-East of the Amur river is former territory lost during the Qing Dynasty’s disastrous 19th-Century wars with foreign powers. Though Russian settlers and troops had been piling into the area for years prior, the territory officially transferred to Russia with the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Peking Convention of 1860. By comparison, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1841 (with more land added to the colony in later years).
While China officially lays no claim to these territories in Russia’s Far East, one must remember that the treaties ceding control of these territories to Russia are considered part of the “unequal treaties” that China regards as a national humiliation, and has worked to reverse. Only these treaties with Russia have not been reversed, and as recently as 1969 armed clashed took place on the border leaving dead on both sides, although in 2004 the Complementary Agreement transferred a series of islands at the border to Chinese control, closing the last active border dispute. While China will almost certainly not resort to conflict to reclaim the area, and millions of Chinese are unlikely to move there en masse in a silent colonisation as Russian nationalists claim (ignoring the limited opportunities and harsh living conditions driving the region’s depopulation, and poor infrastructure linking the Chinese and Russian sides of the border compared to the road and rail links available in Northern China to richer cities further South), China can play its economic strength to its advantage and demand increasingly costly concessions from Russia.
To add to this, as Chinese premier Xi Jinping has reiterated China’s intention to take global leadership, an ability to exert pressure on other states would play well to China’s domestic audience. Not only this, increasing tensions with the West and sanctions have pushed Russia economically closer to China, and in some areas the balance of power is heavily stacked in China’s favour. The World Trade Organisation’s 2016 statistics show that China is the second-most important import and export partner for Russia after the EU as a whole (20% of its imports come from China, and nearly 10% of its exports go there), yet Russia is neither one of China’s top five import or export countries (South Korea is its fifth export destination with a 4.5% share of the total, and the United States its fifth import partner with an 8.5% share of the total). So whereas China has more important trading relations elsewhere Russia relies considerably on Chinese demand for its natural resources and as a producer of cheap consumer goods to import to weak consumer markets within Russia. Even the aforementioned gas deal could put Russia in a weak position long-term, as China has very favourable deals to secure oil and gas from countries like Angola and Venezuela, meaning that it does not rely solely on Russia for these resources. Additionally, China, like Europe, is undergoing a rapid energy transition to favour renewable energy (and in neighbouring Mongolia, large-scale investment in wind farms come with a view to also earn export revenue by selling to the much more energy-hungry Chinese regions it borders). This could soon leave Russia struggling to sell sufficient quantities of oil and gas to sustain a strong economy, especially as oil’s long-term trend would suggest prices consistently and considerably below the $100+ per barrel trends seen in the late 2000s and early 2010s, precisely due to a large supply but less demand due to energy diversification, gains in energy efficiency that allow more power to be generated from the same or even less oil and gas than before, and the ever-growing yields and availability of renewables.
In concrete terms, this internal weakness will probably encourage Russia to keep frozen conflicts alive and stoke tensions between European states. Currently, Russia has created or contributed to frozen conflicts in Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. Aside from their status as former Soviet republics, all these states had attempted to move closer to Europe in economic or political relations, threatening to weaken the traditional Russian sphere of influence. And as Vladimir Putin and the rest of the political elite has lost legitimacy on domestic issues thanks to the astounding scale of their self-serving corruption and a nonexistent opposition that could realistically challenge the ruling party and provide alternative inputs to policymaking, the only way to retain legitimacy is to present Russia as a country “winning” abroad. It is also one of the few ways to appease more hardline elements that can draw support from the ongoing stagnation of mediocre living standards and dim career prospects for a large part of the population. As a result, the signs are that Russia’s antagonism of Europe is set to continue. Already, in Italy there is concern over Russian trolls’ ability to disseminate disinformation in favour of the eurosceptic 5-Star Movement and Lega Nord parties, both of whom have either openly supported Russia or had contacts with Putin’s regime, as well as cynical mud-slinging against mainstream party candidates in the upcoming election.
Additionally, with the World Cup in Russia over the summer after a presumed Putin re-election in March, Putin is likely to weave a narrative of whether Russia has proven strong and won the world’s respect, or whether the world has decided to come together to insult and humiliate it. Whatever happens, Putin seems determined to square up to Europe, seeing Russia’s role as either to be dominant or to be dominated; cooperation and mutual respect between states simply does not exist as an option, as it would imply Russian weakness unless it is the only one dictating terms (however, I must admit that Europe’s inability to take Yeltsin seriously and work with him to improve conditions helped feed this resentment from an early stage). As more former Soviet states seek to promote their own cultures and establish their own international relations away from Russia’s shadow (Kazakhstan’s recent move to abandon using the Cyrillic alphabet in order to adopt the Latin one would appear to be one such move, alongside its active diplomacy abroad), Russia will find itself increasingly isolated, and therefore forced either to stand down and initiate serious attempts at rapprochement with other nations (very unlikely), or to continue weakening states around it or reinforce authoritarian allies elsewhere to trap them in a sort of dependence, as has happened to Assad (much more likely).
The EU will have to work to counter continuing Russian interference in elections, its attempts to persuade member states to loosen sanctions and normalise relations without challenging Russia on its actions in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere, and attempts to destabilise states aiming for closer relations with the Union. Here I’d argue that these states deserve increasing support, precisely to help strengthen democratic institutions and increase local living standards as evidence that the EU’s input can make a difference in these countries, and that Russia should not be rewarded for its disruptive actions. With this, Europe’s energy transition will be fundamental to reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the ability to maintain a strong diplomatic position in its regard. Worryingly, Russia’s behaviour is likely to become increasingly confrontational, attempting to push the international community’s resolve as far as possible, and comporting greater concerns for the Union as a whole as tensions inside the country go unresolved.
Russia may not be about to collapse, but it is desperate to sow discord in other countries and weaken them in order to postpone a reckoning with its own problems.