Ilan Berman’s Prediction of Implosion of Russia Is Implausible

So I have read “Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America,” Ilan Berman,[1] Regnery, September 2013 and I can’t say this book adds value. The author predicts that Russia will implode, or at least sink into economic, social and ethnic turmoil, but his explanation why would that happen doesn’t quite hold water. Moreover, while it is important for U.S. strategists to be prepared for all of Russia’s alternative futures, including worst-case scenario, but this book actually fails to offer a coherent and comprehensive explanation of what implosion of Russia would mean for America.
See main points below with my comments in Italics.
Foreword by N. Gingrich:

  • Acknowledges that Russia matters (nukes, UNSC), but predicts Russia will become weaker as (1) population declines and Chinese migrants leading to “massive Chinese involvement” in Asiatic Russia;  (2) Russia’s Moslem population becomes more  radicalized; (3) corruption impacts economy and FDI.

The Real Threat from Russia:

  • Russia is dying:
    • Population is declining by half  a million every year. This is not true – Russian population has been growing since 2010.
    • Population can decline to 52 million by 2080, if trends not reversed (it actually reversed in 2010).
  • Russia is transforming:
    • Share of Moslems will increase from 21 mln (which is 15%) to 25% by 2020 and over 50% by 2050. That 50% prognosis is implausible.
      • Muslims are not fully integrated into Russian society and therefore can get radicalized. Agree.
      • Militant Islamism has made inroads from North Caucasus to Volga regions. Agree.
      • Spread of militant Islamism underscores Russia’s failure to apply more soft power rather than hard power. Agree.
  • The Chinese are coming. This is not true, or at least not true yet – number of Chinese migrants is less than 0.5 mln and most of them live west of Urals.
    • The Chinese-Russian  Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighborliness expires in 2021, and by then “with population trends working in its favor, China might well want to revisit its presence in the Far East with an eye toward reclaiming lost lands.” Isn’t that a bit too soon? Also, the borders have been already established and signed off in a Rus-Chinese treaty, which doesn’t expire. I would also be interested to see how China can reclaim lands as long as Russia has nukes. I think it would take many decades of cross-border migration before China can try to become a de-facto ‘overlord’ in some parts of Russia’s Far East.

Putin’s Crumbling State

  • Stifling of democracy.
  • Corruption is so pervasive that ‘capital flight’ is increasing: from 33.6 bn in 2010 to 84.2 bn in 2011. Corruption is a huge problem for Russia, but not all of capital outflow can be classified as ‘capital flight’ – some of the money is spent on acqusitions abroad, etc.
  • “Orthodox Iran” – this is a serious exaggeration.
  • Energy dominance to end soon because of shale revolution and because Russia has failed to make investments in infrastructure and finding new reserves. Russia’s clout as gas exporter is bound to decrease indeed, but it will remain a key supplier of gas to Europe and a lead exporter of oil. As for reserves, it has plenty. Moreover, EIA's June 2013 report "Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States” puts Russia as No 1 on the list of the countries with largest  recoverable shale oil reserves.

Russia’s Foreign Policy

  • Rebuilding the Empire: Putin wants to rebuild the Russian empire. Disagree. Russia wants to anchor only best or strategically important parts of that empire, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan and South Caucasus, but has not interest in building one state with the less developed Central Asian republics, even though it wants friendly regimes in such countries tied to Moscow by economic and military alliances.
  • US-Russian relations: Reset generated benefits for U.S., such as NDI, but “strategically the reset rests upon very flimsy foundations.”
    • Magnitsky Act/Dima Yakovlev, etc force US strategists to ponder whether to downgrade relations with Russia or make a “strategic pause.”
  • Misunderstanding of Moslem World: Today, Russia’s standing in the Moslem world has been undermined by its strategic ties to Iran and Syria. If the author means Russia’s standing in the eyes of countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, then yes, but entire Moslem world?
    • Russia’s ties with Iran driven by interest in exports,  shared interest in keeping West out of region and Russia’s understanding of Iran’s potential as a spoiler. Agree.
  • In Retreat in Asia: Russia coverts Asia as relations are sour with West and also because of Asia’s growing economic might, but Russia’s pivot to Asia hindered by economic backwardness of its Far East and regional powers’ reluctance to buy energy from Russia at prices that Moscow demands. Agree.

Several scenarios are possible in Russia:

  • Strengthened Imperial Impulse.
  • A Chinese Far East.
  • Russia Heads West.
  • One, Two, Many Chechnyas. It has been years since Chechnya has been essentially pacified, neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia see more political violence than Chechnya.
  • A New Russian Civil War.
    • None of these “alternative futures are assured,  but all are plausible.”
    • “We don’t know which direction Russia will take in the years ahead, or whether it will manage to survive at all. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s future is not one of global dominance, as the current occupants of the Kremlin seem to believe. Rather, it is one of ethnic, demographic, and societal turmoil, and quite possibly, the end of Russia that we know.” I wonder whether the author got the idea that  Kremlin see Russia’s future is that of global domination? Putin wants Russia to be as an independent pole of power in a multi-polar world, one that anchors and leads most of its post-Soviet neighbors in military-political-economic integration projects that increase Moscow’s weight on international scene and allow it to play a role of balancer in interactions of other poles of power, such as China and US, in their relations between each other. Also, it is far from being clear to me that Russia’s future is necessarily that of turmoil. Yes, some of the trends are adverse, including ageing of population,  failure to integrate Moslems of North Caucasus, economic stagnation, poor governance, corruption,  but there is nothing that Kremlin cannot fix through reforms if it displays political will.

Worst-case scenario for Russia in 2040:

  • Russia in 2040 will be plagued by:
    • Civil “Cold War” between shrinking Slavic population and natives of Russia’s Moslem republics.
    • Violent attacks by domestic and foreign jihadists.
    • China becoming “the de-facto overlord of Russia’s Far East” after decades of Slavic depopulation and “stealthy Chinese immigration.”
    • “In Washington, officials have begun to raise a number of questions:
      • Could jihadist forces seize control of Russia’s nuclear weapons?
      • Might Russia try to buy off Islamists by selling nuclear weapons to Muslim countries? That the author asks such a question reveals that he has not really thought things through or assumes that Russian leadership will act against its own national interests.
      • If Russia and China go to war in the Far East, should U.S. intervene? Such a war is likely to escalate to a nuclear exchange (at least that’s what Russian strategists game out in war-games), so any military intervention would be extremely dangerous for the intervening side.

[1] Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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