In his new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, Ilan Berman analyzes the serious problems Russia faces, despite the recent leadership maneuvering of Vladimir Putin on the world stage. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about Russia’s future and what U.S. foreign-policy makers should be mindful of.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You say that Russia is “crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions.” What are the contradictions?
ILAN BERMAN: On the surface, Russia today projects an image of strength, thanks largely to the machinations of Vladimir Putin. But this foreign-policy activism masks real problems at home. Russia’s demographics are tanking, its Muslim minority is radicalizing and increasingly restive, and the seeds have been sown for real strategic competition with neighboring China, which covets Russia’s eastern regions both politically and economically.
Alone, each of these trendlines would be deeply worrisome. Taken together, they are nothing short of catastrophic for the Russian state as we know it. Therein lies the rub: The corrupt, centralized system set up by Putin and company over the past decade or so simply isn’t built in a way to ameliorate these trends. That means that sooner or later it will fall victim to them, with serious consequences for Russia, and for the rest of the world.
LOPEZ: What are the consequences of a Russian downfall for the rest of the world? Should we worry about Russia losing its ability to monitor the chemical-weapons situation in Syria?
BERMAN: We certainly shouldn’t worry for that reason. I’m hardly the only one who doubts the Kremlin’s motivations in offering to rid us of our pesky Syrian situation. But we shouldn’t be sanguine about Russia’s internal problems because they have the power to unleash a tremendous amount of political and economic instability — the reverberations from which will affect us and our allies. A collapsing Russia, for example, is likely to act more aggressively toward countries in its immediate periphery, resulting in growing tensions with Europe and NATO.
LOPEZ: Has Russia helped stabilize the Middle East in the midst of recent revolutions?
BERMAN: Russia has been deeply unnerved by the changes that have taken place over the last two years in the Middle East and North Africa. To the Russians, the early democratic stirrings in places like Tunisia and Egypt were reminiscent of the “color revolutions” that took place on Russia’s periphery last decade — and rekindled the fear that the same could happen in Russia, too. More recently, the growing empowerment of Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood has heightened worries over the spread of the same into the Russian Federation itself. That, among other reasons, is why Moscow has doggedly continued to support the Syrian regime against its domestic — and increasingly radicalized — opposition.
LOPEZ: When did Vladimir Putin go from cartoon villain to peace negotiator?
BERMAN: Who says you can’t be both? Putin is still every inch the larger-than-life authoritarian strongman that we’ve come to know. But he is also a savvy politician and has deftly exploited the absence of American leadership in the Middle East to secure his country’s strategic interests. The Syria plan proposed by the Kremlin — and eagerly embraced by the White House — reinforces the stability of the Assad regime, a key Russian ally; secures Russia’s navy continued access to the port of Tartus; and bolsters Syria’s main regional ally, Iran, which also happens to be an important Russian strategic partner. That’s a huge coup for Moscow. The long-term dividends for us, on the other hand, are a lot less clear.
LOPEZ: You do say that Russia’s collapse isn’t certain. Then why write a book about it?
BERMAN: Because the key to navigating the global-security environment is figuring out where the major players are heading, in strategic terms. Currently, American policymakers — both Republican and Democrat — tend to presume that Russia is operating from a position of strength and needs to be accommodated to make progress on a slew of foreign-policy issues. The long-term domestic trend lines there, however, suggest that something very different is in store for the Russian state. Our officials should be preparing for that unraveling — and for the threats that could emerge as a result.