Experts said Wednesday that a myriad of demographic, social, and economic problems could transform Russia into a virtually unrecognizable country in just a couple of decades that is more harmful to U.S. and Western interests.
As Russia’s native population shrinks, incorporates more Muslim immigrants, and remains tightly controlled by President Vladimir Putin, it risks social strife and sectarian conflict, said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a former CIA and Department of Defense consultant, during a panel event at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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The country’s shrinking population is largely a result of declining fertility, high mortality rates, a surge in divorce rates and abortions, an AIDS "epidemic" stemming from rampant heroin use, and emigration, said Berman, author of the new book, Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America.
Russia’s population—currently estimated at 142.9 million—could dwindle to 107 million by 2050, according to official Kremlin projections.
Russia’s demographic composition will change dramatically as a result, Berman said. Muslims, currently a minority in Russia with an estimated 21 million residents, could account for a fifth of the country’s population by the end of the decade and a majority by mid-century.
While the cultural shift in Russia does not necessarily pose problems on its face, Berman said the Kremlin’s alienation of Sunni Muslim residents—and its support for Shiite regimes in Iran and Syria—leaves them vulnerable to radicalization.
The jihadist threat has crept inside Russia’s borders despite a bloody campaign in the 1990s to root out ethnic separatism in the Caucasus region to its southwest, he said.
Americans witnessed this failure to contain the Caucasus terror threat first hand when the suspected perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings were revealed to be ethnic Chechens Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he added.
The former deputy mufti or Islamic scholar in the southwestern Russian region of Tatarstan was fatally shot outside his home last summer as clashes between Muslims and local authorities escalate, he said.
"Russia’s anti-radicalism campaign in the Caucasus has been very brutal and remote," Berman said.
Yet "it’s increasingly not over there; it’s in the Russian heartland," he added. "If you like Chechnya, you’re going to love what’s happening in Tatarstan."
As Russia attempts to address the radical Islamist threat to its south, it also faces encroachment from the east, Berman said. China has already begun importing tons of crude oil through pipelines in the sparsely populated Siberian region, a process that could quickly turn Russia into the docile supplier of its energy-hungry Asian neighbor, he said.
That will cause Russia to "go West, young man," Berman said, seeking more influence in former Soviet countries like Ukraine and Belarus and inflaming tensions with NATO countries in Eastern Europe.
"There are lots of things we could do to ameliorate those trends," he said, adding that the United States should remain engaged in the region and not abet Putin’s view of his country as a "great power."
"We many not be able to stop them, but we should be thinking about them."
Meanwhile, Russia’s oil and gas-centric economy continues to stagnate.
Profits for Russian energy giant Gazprom have plummeted in recent years, partly due to the innovative natural gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States and its effect on global gas prices and export markets.
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the only way out for Putin is to invite domestic and foreign investment and allocate more oil and gas revenues to education and healthcare—and away from his cronies. Yet those reforms are unlikely to take place because they would loosen Putin’s grip on power, Aron said.
"There’s no other way for Russia to grow or not slide into a recession than stimulating investment," he said. "But stimulating investment requires structural reform that will kill the regime. It’s a catch-22."
Younger Russians have noticed the divestment in social services—Russian health care expenditures have stagnated as a percentage of GDP since 1995—and made plans to flee, Berman said, potentially draining the country of its entrepreneurial class. A recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 35 are contemplating departure.
The recent mayoral election in Moscow provided a glimmer of hope for Russia’s middle-class youth, Aron said.
Opposition leader and virulent Putin critic Alexei Navalny surprised many observers with a strong second-place finish in the election despite allegations of vote-rigging and a five-year jail sentence for Navalny in July that he says is politically motivated.
However, Aron said Navalny’s showing could prompt Putin to further implement a crackdown on political dissenters and Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which must register under the Cold War-era label of "foreign agents" if they receive foreign funding. That could push people "who are Russia’s best hope" and normally more pragmatic to adopt a more radical agenda as Putin eyes a fourth presidential term in 2018, he said.
"When evolution becomes impossible, revolution becomes inevitable," Berman said.