Russia’s Biggest Problem Isn’t the War—It’s Losing the 21st Century

From a Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria headlined “Russia’s biggest problem isn’t the war. It’s losing the 21st century.”:

In his important book “The Third Wave” Samuel Huntington pointed out that division among the ruling elite is a key sign of weakness in authoritarian regimes. When prominent members of the establishment break with the system, it often triggers a larger set of changes. Conversely, when you do not see such defection, it means the autocrat will probably be able to survive. (Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad offers one example of this principle at work.)

How would we apply that to Russia today? Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s failed attack has revealed some dissent within Russia’s ruling elite. But Vladimir Putin was apparently able to snuff it out within a day or two. It appears that Prigozhin got no public support from any key figure in the Kremlin, which could be why he ended his quixotic march on Moscow. Putin has spent much of his tenure crushing dissent from liberals; now he is subduing his challengers from the nationalist side.

Power struggles within the Russian state take place in a black box. As the lines often attributed to Winston Churchill go: “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” For now, it is Prigozhin’s bones that we see figuratively — and perhaps soon we shall see them literally.

What is not a matter of speculation is the state of Russian society. I’ve been stunned by one statistic ever since I read it: A 15-year-old Russian boy today has the same life expectancy as a 15-year-old boy in Haiti. Remember, Russia is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. And it is an urbanized, industrialized society with levels of education and literacy comparable to, and perhaps even exceeding, other European countries.

This analysis comes from an August 2022 working paper by scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, who has long studied demography. He points out that for three decades now, Russia has been depopulating. With a brief respite from 2013 to 2015, deaths have outpaced births, but he notes that this trend is one that we see in many industrialized countries.

What stands out in Russia is its mortality rate. In 2019 — before covid and the invasion of Ukraine — the World Health Organization estimated a 15-year-old boy in Russia could expect to live another 53.7 years, which was the same as in Haiti and below the life expectancy for boys his age in Yemen, Mali and South Sudan. Swiss boys around the same age could expect to live more than 13 years longer.

Education usually correlates with good health, but not in Russia. Eberstadt points out that shockingly, Russia is a country with “First World” education levels and “Fourth World” mortality rates for its working age population. He then digs deeper into the educational attainments and finds that the mystery deepens. With huge numbers of well-trained people, especially in the sciences, Russia performs miserably in the knowledge economy, much worse than did the Soviet Union.

In 2019, Russia ranked behind Austria in international patent applications, despite having 16 times the population. Today, it ranks alongside Alabama in annual U.S. patent awards (the gold standard for companies everywhere), despite having almost 30 times the population. All these numbers will likely get much worse given the hundreds of thousands of (likely well-trained, urban, educated) Russians who fled the country after its aggression against Ukraine.

What explains this stunning mismatch in Russia? A new book by scholar Alexander Etkind, “Russia Against Modernity,” makes the case that Putin has created a parasitic state that gets revenue by extracting natural resources rather than any creative production and that fulfills none of the functions of a modern state in terms of providing welfare for its people. Corruption is intrinsic to this kleptocratic regime, Etkind wrote, noting that post-Soviet Russia has seen the fastest rise in inequality anywhere in the world. After the anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012 (which an enraged Putin blamed on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), the Russian state became even more anti-modern.

For Putin’s regime, the West now represents forces of social, economic and political modernization that could infect Russia. In his speech as he launched the invasion of Ukraine, Putin accused the United States of seeking to destroy Russia’s traditional values and impose new ones on it which directly lead “to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.” For Putin, modernizing Russia would create a more active civil society, greater demands for better health care, more opportunities for ordinary citizens and a less kleptocratic state. And so he advocates a traditional Russia, which celebrates religion, traditional morality, xenophobia and strict gender conformity.

What does this all add up to? I am not sure. But it’s fair to say that Russia’s biggest problem is not that it is losing the Ukraine war but rather that it is losing the 21st century.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.

Speak Your Mind