By Patricia H. Kushlis
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russian Federation was and is still the world’s largest country. Geographically that is. It stretched and still stretches from Murmansk to Vladivostok but lost its soft-underbelly – the Central Asian republics which the Czar had incorporated into his expanding empire by the end of the nineteenth century. These republics were also the locus of the Soviet Union’s highest birthrates.
When Vladimir Putin became president in 1999, he warned his countrymen that the Russian Federation’s population was declining by approximately 750,000 people per year. In reality, the drop has only been a loss of about 337,000 people annually according to Rosstat, the Russian statistical agency. A larger potential drop was mitigated by immigration of Russians (and others) from other Soviet republics especially in the turbulent years of 1991-2. Nevertheless the overall decline has been relentless. Last year, Russia seemed to have reversed the downward drift for the first time, but demographers warn that the upswing is a short term blip on Russia’s overall population projection radar screen.
Unless something changes dramatically, the same thing will happen to the Russian Federation that happened to the Soviet Union – an overall decline in Russians which can only be altered, according to Tony Wood in The London Review of Books, with increased immigration from former Soviet Republics. Since most ethnic Russians have already left –sometime fled – those other republics this means Central Asians willing to do the work Russians will not and at a lower price. Yet they are too often viewed with distain by the Russians in the cities to which they come to do their dirty work.
By the end of the Soviet Union, Russians had become a minority in their multiethnic empire. After the break up, however, Russians composed 81.5% of the new federation’s population giving them a comfortable majority for a change. That percentage remains stable over twenty years later. Much of the domestic population growth – such as it is - is concentrated in the troubled North Caucasus where Russians fight a continued civil war with Chechen separatists and among a few other disaffected minority groups. Yet their numbers are too small to matter.
Does a nation’s population decline equate to diminished national stature internationally or do demographics even matter in the larger scheme of things?
The Russian population is still large – the ninth largest in the world (142.9 million in 2010) but its wellbeing and consequent longevity and productivity – especially for males – remain a disaster for too many. Or do Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal and the continuing high price for its’ primary commodities – oil and gas – on the world market rank far more importantly in international games of power and influence than numbers of its people?
In short, what do the demographic realities mean for the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin on the world stage?
That Russia is punching above its weight is obvious. It’s been doing this for a long time. Putin’s grandstanding may play well in the countryside today but it grates abroad and draws backlash in the major cities. But what are the international implications? Should the Russian government think about changing its image, its approach as well as negotiating style to reflect better today’s reality? Easier, of course, said that done - and advice likely resented especially from an outsider.
Will Moscow need to keep an eye over its shoulder at increasing Chinese migration into Russia territory in the Far East and possibilities of a challenge to Russia’s long term national sovereignty over these vast under populated parts of Asia with their incredible natural resources? How influential can an ever demographically shrinking Russia expect to be internationally and how will the Russian government best play its hand abroad?
Thompson, an expert on the Soviet Union, a consummate diplomat and a chain smoker ultimately responded just prior to walking out and leaving Gromyko sitting there: “Mr. Foreign Minister, I deeply regret that the policy of your government has required you to put on such a performance. You know as well as I that if there is to be a nuclear exchange between our two great nations, the incineration will be of the Soviet Union which will disappear from the face of the earth. I will report your remarks to my government with deep disappointment.”
Why bother recounting such ancient history? Well, because much less was known in the West about the highly secretive Soviet Union than we know about the Russian Federation. But what Thompson did realize rightly was that Gromyko was punching well above his country’s weight that evening at the US Embassy – and he called him on it.
Timing Is A Lot but Not Everything
Gromyko’s empty threats came shortly before John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the new and untried American president. Was Gromyko’s bullying that night designed to be a foretaste of things to come based upon a misreading of the character and resolve of the new US president?
The world has changed tremendously since that frigid January night in Moscow so long ago and the threats of nuclear holocaust and echoes of Nikita Khrushchev’s “we will bury you” bluster are deep in the dust bins of history. The Russian Federation is a far cry from that once secretive failing third world state bristling with nuclear weapons. But old habits, pride and national negotiating styles do not disappear overnight. The Russian Federation is, after all, the Soviet Union’s successor state and many of its habits have simply transferred to the current generation of leaders.The question remains: to what extent is Putin’s Russia punching above its weight in the international arena and how can the US and others best deal with this echo chamber from the past?