Should Putin be keeping a close eye on his own borders?
Red Square, surrounded mostly by the Kremlin and also the Basilica of St Basil, houses the leadership and the Orthodox Church of modern Russia. Despite the cathedral’s religious importance, the area is anchored by Lenin’s massive tomb, the Soviet Union’s atheist father. Soldiers stand vigil at the grave, their features lighted by the everlasting flame honoring Russian combat heroes who have perished.
Red Square is the epicenter of everything the Russian state values. This is Moscow’s epicenter, the seat of Russian authority. Yet, many years ago, when I first stepped into the plaza, what impressed me were the numerous Russian visitors from all corners of this large nation. The majority of these individuals are not always the blonde, green-eyed Slavs depicted in Russian propaganda paintings; many of them were Asiatic, with more Asian than European traits.
That’s when it dawned on me that Russia is only partially a European nation. People of European heritage comprise a minority of the population, dispersed among other groups who predate the Russian conquest of Siberia by many centuries. The great bulk of Russia resides beyond the Urals in what we call Siberia.
Russia is now a multi-ethnic nation with 35 official languages and over 100 minority languages. Moscow is regarded by Orthodox metropolitans as the spiritual capital of eastern Christianity, the “third Rome” (Constantinople being the second), but Russia is also host to millions of Muslims, Buddhists, and Europe’s remaining pagans, ancient Mari people of central Russia.
There is no official statistics on religion in Russia, but according to a recent estimate from the US State Department, around 63 percent of the population is Orthodox. According to the head of the Russian Federation’s Religious Board of Muslims, there were over 20 million Muslims in Russia in 2018, accounting for roughly 18% of the population. Meanwhile, the Russian Jewish Congress estimates that there are around 170,000 Jews and 1.5 million persons of Jewish ancestry in Russia.
The population of Europe is rapidly declining, as it has been in other post-Soviet European nations, while the population of mostly Muslim republics is increasing, signaling that Russia’s face will alter radically in the coming years.
The Russian population is presently about 145 million, down from 147 million in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was dissolving. The Russian population is expected to continue to shrink in the future decades, dropping to 143 million by 2030 and 135 million by 2050, respectively, representing 1.4 percent and 6.9% losses.
The majority of the nation is now Slavic and ethnically Russian, yet the majority of Russia’s wealth — which is primarily hidden under the earth of this huge continent — is not concentrated in Russian ethnic communities. To put the country’s riches into perspective, Russia’s mineral extraction tax accounts for 29.2% of government income, while the Audit Chamber of Russia estimates that oil and gas accounts for over half of all revenue. Almost all of this is in Siberia, in areas that may be challenged in the future by non-Russian ethnic groups. Siberia is also home to a fifth of the world’s lumber.
Iron ore deposits
The Kola Peninsula in Karelia, southern central Siberia, and the Russian Far East are home to the majority of Russia’s iron ore resources. The Kola Peninsula and the Urals are home to Russia’s copper reserves, whereas North Ossetia is home to lead and zinc deposits. A fifth of the world’s gold and silver, as well as a third of its iron, are found in Siberia.
Near the Altai area, where Russia meets the Chinese and Mongolian borders, there is lucrative uranium mining in Krasnokamensk. Russia still retains 6% of the world’s oil reserves and a third of the world’s natural gas reserves, practically all of which are in the Arctic or Siberia. Rusal, Russia’s biggest aluminum producer, is responsible for 5.86 percent of global aluminum output. Russia owns 26.4 percent of worldwide gem diamond output and is one of the world’s top gold producers, with between 25 and 40 percent of the world’s unmined gold resources.
The “curse of resources” is a term used by economists to describe countries that are too reliant on natural resources. They are less democratically stable than governments without riches because resources crowd out other activities, resulting in corruption, inequality, and, eventually, political instability. Could the population decline, ethnic divisions, and concentration of resource riches in a few hands, in the long run, be a formula for atrophy — not only for the Putin administration, but for the nation as a whole? Countries do disintegrate. As the Duchy of Muscovy advanced south and east, the Russian imperial ambition was a 212-year Romanov experiment from Peter the Great through Catherine the Great and on to Tsar Alexander the Second. That would be a long time ago, and things have changed dramatically since then.
Deeply decentralized powers with no democracy or representation, often administered by an insider network, are much more vulnerable than the always bickering, dysfunctional democracies Putin despises. This is why, although seeming to be more unstable than the 30-year Assad dictatorship, the continuously turbulent Italian state, with its compromises, coalitions, and revolving door administrations, has proven to be considerably more lasting and cohesive than tightly controlled autocracies like Syria. Every year that Putin has ultimate control, he becomes weaker rather than stronger.
Coercion and money
Everything changes when there is a war. Putin’s power was founded on threats and bribes. Money from a Western-oriented economy could keep the regions satisfied with handouts, while military and police brutality kept would-be opposition groups, whether ethnic or democratic, on their toes. As the battle continues on, nationalist ardour will diminish, and the threat of years of sanctions will rapidly deplete hard currency reserves.
Sanctions will not be readily eased since the West now seeks regime change. The Russian economy will suffer if it is cut off. Now that the Russian army has shown to be less spectacular in the field than predicted, the authoritarian state’s architecture, which was built on terror as its principal weapon, is beginning to crumble. The already unprecedented brain drain will continue apace. Russia’s most valuable asset, its people, is likely to be lost. In reality, the EU should do the same for young Russians who are now stuck in Putin’s experiment, in addition to removing visa restrictions for Ukrainians. Ethnic and nationalist groups will get increasingly agitated, notably in the Muslim Caucasus.
It’s possible that we’re seeing the second stage of the Soviet Union’s demise. The Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia, and various’stans’ were separated in the first half. The unfinished business in imperial Russia is now coming to light. In the long run, a weakened Russia, using the Putin method of striking when your adversary seems weak, may be appealing to others. Should Putin be looking over his shoulder at his own borders after dismissing the importance of international boundaries? After all, Siberia has a population of fewer than 30 million Russians of all races, while a billion resource-starved Chinese on its southern borders would love to get their hands on some of that natural wealth. These thousands of kilometers of border cannot be defended permanently by a frail Russia.
The twenty-first century may be just getting started.