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.
Those who expected Russia to transition from socialism to democratic capitalism were mistaken. Putin, instead, has built an “autocratic state” that has exploited the country’s raw materials, making “a tiny minority of Russians wildly rich, while the vast majority of Russians are left to grapple with an environment that is deeply toxic to entrepreneurship, innovation and honest business.”
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, Russia’s 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.” Even those who are better off tend to see themselves as Muslims in Russia — not Russian Muslims. A growing minority embraces 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.)
In recent days, Putin has been strutting 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 Belorussia), 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 writer Andrei Amalrik wrote a book titled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 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 got closer.)
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 such 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.