As I learned during a recent visit to Russia, it’s common to lay blame for every woe that Russians face—from the weather to the downturn of the economy—on the United States. But Russia has also made trouble for itself. As Nicholas Eberstadt explains in World Affairs:
A specter is haunting Russia today. It is not the specter of Communism—that ghost has been chained in the attic of the past—but rather of depopulation—a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation. The mass deaths associated with the Communist era may be history, but another sort of mass death may have only just begun, as Russians practice what amounts to an ethnic self-cleansing. Since 1992, Russia’s human numbers have been progressively dwindling. This slow motion process now taking place in the country carries with it grim and potentially disastrous implications that threaten to recast the contours of life and society in Russia, to diminish the prospects for Russian economic development, and to affect Russia’s potential influence on the world stage in the years ahead.
Eberstadt feels that the Putin-Medvedev government’s almost maniacal focus on its natural resource position, which it hopes to leverage to great power status in the European theater at least, was misplaced. An investment in health care might have been a much better investment in the future.
Putin’s Kremlin made a fateful bet that natural resources—oil, gas, and other extractive saleable commodities—would be the springboard for the restoration of Moscow’s influence as a great power on the world stage. In this gamble, Russian authorities have mainly ignored the nation’s human resource crisis. During the boom years—Russia’s per capita income roughly doubled between 1998 and 2007—the country’s death rate barely budged. Very much worse may lie ahead. How Russia’s still-unfolding demographic disaster will affect the country’s domestic political situation—and its international security posture—are questions that remain to be answered.