A Kaleidoscope of Vulnerabilities: Real and Perceived Threats to the Russian State
From the initial days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the inauguration of President Vladimir Putin in May of 2000, the Russian Federation was rife with internal and external struggles. A disastrous transition to capitalism hallmarked by failed privatization programs and hyperinflation, coupled with successive wars in the Caucuses, produced a deeply scarred nation and people as they finally exited the tumultuous decade. Yet the early 2000s did prove to be “Morning in Russia.” A combination of factors, not least of which the rising price of oil globally, along with the steady hand of the new President Putin, who instituted policies aimed at reducing foreign debt, brought economic stability to a beleaguered nation. Yet over 20 years into the Putin era and in the midst of his tragic, disastrous war on Ukraine, Russia faces new and perceived challenges and vulnerabilities, some of which threaten the very stability of the state itself.
In terms of such vulnerabilities, I would like to address two of the most commonly promoted by Russia watchers today, starting with “the paradox of the shrinking space.” This can be briefly described as a simple contradiction related to that of the immense geographical borders of the Russian state, which are vast and even expanding (Crimea, the Donbas), and the contraction of populated spaces within the Russian Federation. In contrast to other anxieties of the Russian state (which will be touched upon later), I argue that concern over “shrinking space” is well founded and should be of the utmost concern to Russian leadership.
The shrinking space conundrum presents problems for the Russian state not simply because of a shifting population (east to west, rural to urban, etc.) but because of the issues of strategic vulnerability that this presents. For example, the sweeping Russian Far Eastern Federal District, a focal point in this problem of depopulation, which covers 36 percent of the territory of the Federation itself, has lost an astounding 22 percent of its population since 1990.
This region and its population flight thus presents a quite serious twofold strategic problem for Russian policy makers. Firstly, as markets continue to close and relations continue to deteriorate between Russia and the West, Russia’s “pivot to the East” will also continue as dependency grows not only on the Chinese market — which makes up almost 13 percent of all Russian exports — but on other markets of the Pacific Rim as well (see figure 1.1 below). Yet a depopulated, under-developed Far Eastern region makes it increasingly difficult for the Russian state to maximize economic output or compensate for trade shortfalls in the West and thus project Russian power in the region. Without the requisite manpower needed to provide the necessary infrastructure overall or to serve in various public and private sector roles, the Far Eastern region will not be able to help Russia policymakers maximize its economic and in turn strategic goals in the region.
Figure 1 - Source: 2018 Russian Export Map - Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity
Secondly, and in many ways interrelated to the first shrinking space issue, due to the lack of an internal market in the Russian Far East, China continues to import Russian goods, fuels, and agriculture at prices friendly to Chinese buyers and industries. Thus, the juggernaut of Chinese industry uses the region almost as an economic colony in order to feed and fuel its booming population just over the border. Such disparities in the region, coupled with China’s historical claims to much of these borderlands, is sure to stoke fears amongst Russian nationalists of an economic “silk glove” takeover of the region. Indeed, the lack of an internal market, combined with the sheer disparity in population and industry just over the border, presents a serious point of economic and strategic vulnerability for a Russian state that has long believed itself to have “Grand Power” aspirations in the Asia-Pacific region.
In addition to the “paradox of shrinking space,” much talk has been made — from Western pundits to Putin himself — on the changing demographic situation in Russia, particularly the decline in ethnic Russian birth rates. Yet I would contend that the emphasis on such trends is both overblown and hardly a problem unique to the Russian Federation itself. Declining birth rates are in reality common among the major powers of Western Europe, and in fact Russia is in a better position to deal with this trend than most (see Figure 1.2 below).
Figure 2 - Source: Birth Rate per 1000 people 1960-2018 - World Bank Birth Rate Data Indicator
Russia has plenty of “ethnic runway,” so to speak, before any such declines are of serious concern. To emphasize this point, Russia, even in the midst of a decline in birth rates, still has an ethnic Russian population of over 110 million citizens, which is almost 30 million more than the entire population of the next largest state in Europe, Germany, with a total combined ethnic population of 83 million. Considering these factors, I would urge pundits and analysts of Russia to avoid such hyperbolic claims of “demographic collapse.”
The Russian state today does indeed face a kaleidoscope of changing vulnerabilities. Yet different determinations can be made, from the hyperbolic to the empirical, depending on through which lens those of the professional and academic community wish to approach Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities. Approaching issues facing the Russian Federation through a correct and measured lens is essential in any future assessments. Nonetheless, even setting empirical analysis aside, this is not to say that perceived threats (such as the aforementioned “demographic crisis”), don’t warrant further analysis. It is quite clear that, real or perceived, Putin has used such fears to continue his promotion of policies built on the fundamental idea of a besieged Russian nation/civilization. Quite conveniently, the fear of declining birth rates of ethnic Russians as a tool of state propaganda fits in nicely between other “threats” promoted by the state to traditional Russia life such as Western cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and LGBTQ activism. While the so-called “fear of disappearance” is indeed overblown quantitatively, such fears are of a particular political utility to Putin, who may continue to use these misplaced anxieties as justification for more aggressive policies at home and abroad.
Zachary Johnson is a SlavX host and graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, having received both a Master's in Global Studies and Master's in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in spring 2022. Listen to his February 2022 interview with Vladimir Kara-Murza and his September 2022 interview with Artyom Tonoyan below: