At first blush, Ilan Berman’s timing could hardly be worse. His new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, is being published just as Russian president Vladimir Putin has eaten American president Barack Obama’s lunch and saved Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s bacon — figuratively speaking, of course.
Putin also has been empowering Iran’s rulers, selling them the means to make nuclear weapons and denouncing economic sanctions as “a violation of international law.” Adding insult to injury, Putin has been making the case, in the New York Times and elsewhere, that never again should the U.S. military be deployed without the U.N. Security Council’s authorization. That has won him plaudits from progressive internationalists who appear not to comprehend that what he means is that never again should the U.S. military be deployed without his personal authorization — since Russia wields veto power at the U.N.
But while Putin’s star may be rising, his country — use of the possessive pronoun is especially appropriate in this context — may be heading toward a black hole. Russia today, Berman writes, is afflicted by economic stagnation, widespread corruption, a death-spiraling birthrate, “the collapse of the Russian family and an escalating AIDS epidemic.” Rampant alcoholism and drug use round out the symptoms of what Berman sees as irreversible decay.
In Putin’s Russia, Berman writes, organized criminal groups “operate under a new code — one in which they are mindful of, and in return receive exceedingly soft treatment from, the Kremlin.” For these and other reasons, “capital flight from the Russian Federation has surged as multinational corporations and investors have abandoned the country’s uncompromising economic atmosphere.”
Money is not all that is leaving: There also is an exodus that “rivals in size and scope the mass out-migration that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution,” and which undoubtedly includes many of Russia’s best minds.
As “Russia’s Slavic population is constricting,” Berman adds, her Muslim population is expanding. “And by the middle of this century,” he reports, “officials in Moscow predict that the Russia Federation might become majority Muslim.”
Within this population is an “expanding Muslim underclass.” And even those who are better off tend to see themselves as Muslims in Russia — not Russian Muslims. A growing minority embrace bellicose interpretations of Islam. There are proponents of a moderate “Euro-Islam” as well, but they are increasingly under attack — and not just figuratively speaking. Last year, the spiritual leader of the moderate Sufi community of Dagestan was assassinated, as was a prominent moderate Islamic cleric in Tartarstan. (Both Dagestan and Tartarstan are Muslim-majority “republics” within the Russian Federation. Dagestan is where alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six mysterious months in 2012.)
In recent days, Putin has been strutting on the world stage, playing the statesman and diplomat, urging the U.S. to rely on negotiations and soft power when dealing with Syria and Iran. When dealing with his own adversaries and enemies, however, his approach has been rather different. “The Russian military’s engagement in the Caucasus over the past two decades,” Berman writes, “can best be described as a scorched-earth policy that has left more than a hundred thousand citizens dead.”
Berman speculates that, in the years ahead, Putin may be tempted to pursue “an even more aggressive policy” toward the now-independent Slavic republics (Ukraine and Belarus), the Baltic nations (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), and Eastern Europe. But piecing together a post-Soviet Russian empire, in Berman’s view, remains a remote possibility. “Russia’s future is not one of global dominance, as the current occupants of the Kremlin . . . seem to believe,” he writes.
More likely scenarios, he adds, include a losing battle to stem Russia’s Islamization, civil war, conflict with China, and deepening decadence. As for meaningful reform leading to revitalization, Berman thinks there’s not a snowball’s chance — figuratively speaking again.
Back in 1970, a time when the Soviet Union was still seen as a superpower, the dissident author Andrei Amalrik wrote a book titled Will the Soviet Union Survive Till 1984? He selected that date as an homage to George Orwell’s classic novel but, in the end, he was off by only seven years. (Show me the political scientist, journalist, or intelligence analyst who was closer to the mark.)
What caused the decline and fall of the Soviet Union? I would like to think that nations built on soul-crushing ideologies are doomed from the start. But that may represent wishful thinking. Do we really know that history is on the side of freedom? Do we really know that history takes sides?
And if post-Soviet Russia is now imploding, as Berman argues, is Putin aware of that? Could his displays of manly vigor — fighting, hunting, fishing, tagging polar bears — be meant to inspire Russia’s revitalization? Or are these activities just lipstick and a fancy hairdo on a decrepit old hag — figuratively speaking, of course?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.