Vladimir Putin arrives on April 20, 2017, to chair a meeting of the Pobeda (Victory) Organizing Committee at the Kremlin, with a focus on promoting objective information on Russia’s history and present, including its role in the victory over Nazism. Photo: Reuters

What the United States missile strikes on Syria on April 7 illustrated was that neither the US nor China respect the so-called Russian bear. When Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were having dinner during their first face-to-face meeting, Trump ordered the strikes against Russia’s client, Syria. It is unclear whether the US missiles bypassed Russia’s deadly S-400 air defense system or the Russians chose not to deploy. But one thing was clear – the US attack went ahead even though the Russian had been alerted.

The Americans have also blamed the Russians for continued Syrian gas attacks on the civilian population. It’s difficult to see the US having taken such actions against Russia during the Cold War at the height of Moscow’s power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done everything he can to reverse what he called “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,” the collapse of the USSR, since he came to power in 2000, succeeding Boris Yeltsin. But while Putin attempts his grand restoration, the power of the US, China and, it can be argued, Iran (especially since the 2015 nuclear agreement) have rocketed past the Russians.

Moreover, Putin has never learned that communism was in fact the greatest geopolitical tragedy in recorded history, a moral failure that caused needless loss of human life. The best-seller The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression does a superb job of revealing in voluminous detail, in the words of one reviewer, the actual “terror, torture, famine, mass deportation and massacres” that Soviet bloc communism unleashed on the world. This legacy is the main reason Putin’s Russia is now in a death spiral.

Russia cannot compete with the US or China economically, militarily or demographically, because of the proliferation of atheist beliefs resulting in anti-family policies beginning during the Bolshevik Revolution, high alcoholism rates and widespread use of abortion. This failure causes the Russians to continue being a geopolitical menace.

Russia has visions of greatness through military adventures in Syria and invading Crimea, the latter being the first illegal land grab in Europe since World War II. Russia cannot afford these adventures with oil prices in the US$50 range and the world awash in oil, and its economy is not diversified beyond the export of oil, natural gas and minerals. Its shrinking domestic economy and low export rates for natural resources create a dangerous situation for the country, its citizens, and former Soviet satellite countries.

If Putin had not been a former colonel in the KGB, then possibly he could have restored a country blessed with abundant natural resources, an enormous land base and STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent into a thriving nation. Instead, the Russians under Putin did not attempt democratic or market reforms. They coalesced around Putin’s cult of personality and, bolstered by record-high oil prices, they squandered trillions, not unlike Middle Eastern autocrats, on restoring the Russian bear of centralized government control and powerful security services, all in the name of “Mother Russia.”

Unless major corrections occur, the Russian economic situation reliant on high energy prices and a downward demographic spiral will leave the country vulnerable, along with its religious and ethnic divisions. These issues will cause the Kremlin to weaken further and lose the projection of power

As Russia takes steps to bolster its image and power by invading and intimidating neighboring states it controlled during the height of Soviet power, all of these efforts may prove in vain as factors the Russians refuse to confront and correct spiral out of control, the demographic decline and moral rot being the biggest factors in their dying country.

Meanwhile, multinational companies such as Exxon can’t evade Western sanctions, leaving trillions in economic activity unfulfilled and foiling the Russian people’s attempt at regaining respect. In this regard, becoming an efficient, effective and transparent society instead of a corrupt kleptocracy would be a better use of Russian technical expertise and natural resources.

Unless major corrections occur, the Russian economic situation reliant on high energy prices and a downward demographic spiral will leave the country vulnerable, along with its religious and ethnic divisions. These issues will cause the Kremlin to weaken further and lose the projection of power.

Losing his grip on Russian areas that bristle at Putin’s heavy hand will be another factor looming on the horizon for peripheral areas of the country. Putin’s government has taken steps to boost the country’s birth rate, but those changes will take decades to realize, and unless abortion rates are reversed, it could turn into a state of affairs where it is one step forward and two steps back. The natural replacement rate and Putin’s pro-child policy have not overcome Russia’s devastatingly high abortion rates; only China has a higher rate at this time.

While Russia remains an economic power, competition from other countries with a natural-resource base (US shale oil and natural gas as an example) exposes long-term weaknesses that have not been fixed, and it does not seem that Putin’s government will address these issues in 2017. India, China, Europe and the US rising from the great recession – particularly India – spells trouble for Russia’s attempts to keep up with global powers that have emerging and regional ambitions Moscow can’t match. It is reminiscent of the US outspending the Soviet Union, which bankrupted Russia’s economy and ended the Cold War.

The world needs Russian expertise and the resilience of a people who  defeated the Nazis and catapulted the Allies toward victory in World War II. But given the factors against Russia and Putin’s authoritarian, corrupt leadership, many, including this writer, question whether the country’s slide into oblivion can be reversed. Unless the demographic decline is altered and an over-reliance on exporting natural resources is replaced with a mature, diverse economy, Russia will not be the great power it envisages when it attempts to compete with the US, China and India on the world stage.

The period of Russian decline masked by macho-adventurism abroad will only crush it in coming years. Here’s hoping, for the sake of world economic stability and continued energy production, that the bear finds its way out of its self-imposed trap.

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Todd Royal

Todd Royal has a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University and has worked for Duke University. He is published by the U.S. Library of Congress on hydraulic fracturing and the geopolitical implications of expanded US oil and gas production. He is a consultant and writer on international geopolitical strategy, energy, and US state and local government.

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