Rumours of Russia’s death greatly exaggerated

7 October, 2008

An article in the Washington Post (Behind the Bluster, Russia Is Collapsing, by Murray Feshbach) has repeated the truism that Russia is deteriorating to the point of collapse, which may cheer those worried about Russia’s aggressive hegemony, but is really based on self-delusion.

First, it is said that Russia’s military is “in tatters, armed with rusting weaponry and staffed with indifferent recruits”, wielding “a badly outdated arsenal, one that would take many years to replace”. I will have to take the author’s word and assume him to be knowledgable on the details of Russia’s military capability, but the outdated arsenal is obviously current enough to dispatch the Georgian forces with ease. It will probably serve equally as well against any other of Russia’s immediate neighbours (except China). Russia’s army may well be behind the forces of NATO and the United States, but there is more to war than the battle – the “international community”‘s impotence in the face of the recent Georgian excursion was painfully predictable. As long as Russia confines its efforts to expansion of influence rather than terrority, there is little chance of another Poland ultimatum.

In the matter of face to face combat, Russia has had a hot war going on in Chechnya virtually since 1993 (they broke for a couple of years in the late ’90s). Its troops are battle-hardened, with experience against guerilla fighters. Its leaders have a long, serious tradition of military thought. A Western assault on Russia would be very costly, with the potential to make Iraq look like a picnic. In light of this, dismissing the Russian military as antiquated is a serious error.

Next: althought “Russia’s resurgence has been fueled … by windfall profits from gas and oil”, its “economy is almost totally dependent on the price of oil”, and “a predicted drop of about one-third in the price of a barrel of oil will surely constrain Putin…”. Who has predicted a 1/3 drop in the oil price, and do they live in the real world? What oil producers have learned from recent events is that they can increase their profits even as they decrease their sales. As oil becomes rarer, it will become more profitable, until alternative energy sources become viable not just for cars but for industrial purposes. Russia has ten years minimum to fatten its bank accounts on oil money, and then, as oil is phased out, gas will become even more important. So fossil fuels will sustain Russian aggression for at least 20 years. Collapse is hardly imminent on that front.

Then there is the health “crisis”. Crisis for whom, exactly? One exciting statistic is that one million Russian’s have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. This is about 0.5% of the population. Most of these are IV drug users; most of the rest are low-level sex workers. Doubtless a multitude of suffering and personal tragedy is involved here, but economically and socially these people contribute little, and are perhaps in sum a drain on Russia. If so, their illnesses and deaths will only advantage the Mother country.

And what of tuberculosis? It killed “an astonishing 24,000” in 2007. Of course, since tuberculosis is most likely to attack people with suppressed immune systems, such as HIV sufferers and the aged, there is again not much economic loss involved here. Other likely to suffer include the malnourished, people living in close proximity with sufferers and IV drug users (there’s the HIV connection again).

“Average alcohol consumption per capita is double the rate the WHO considers dangerous to one’s health.” How much is the WHO rate? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s exceeded in every country where drinking alcohol is legal. If Russia is so bad, how come “Europeans are the heaviest drinkers in the world“? (This was an EU study, which would have excluded “oriental” Russia from European statistics.) Heavy drinking has been a part of Western culture for centuries, and yet it somehow flourished. There’s no reason to think Russia will be the unique exception.

“Three times as many Russians die from heart-related illnesses as do Americans or Europeans.” Well, they have to die of something. If that something happens to strike down citizens at the end of their working life, and obviate the need for lengthy treatment, so much the better, economically speaking. It’s a bit of a Logan’s Run solution, but effective.

But, you cry, surely all this illness and death is hugely expensive to the state? Well, it would be if they paid for it. But Russia’s welfare system is even more dire than the USA’s – illness and death are mostly privatised, so Russia pays little and reaps much in the elimination of economically inconsiderable persons who are chronically unemployed or indigent, socially marginal, or aged and unable to work.

Finally, there is the declining birth rate. Actually, I think every Western country is experiencing this decline, except the USA, which has been propped up by early-generation immigrants from poor countries. Affluent countries experience declining birth rate – this is a fact. (And immigration generally has bolstered Western statistics for some time – given Russia’s negative attitude to immigration, perhaps this is part of the reason for its population decline?) Declining birth rate is seen as a problem for two reasons: first, one may end up with a situation in which the working generation must support a numerically superior retired population. Second, a shrinking (or static) population reduces economic growth. In fact, the larger part of the West’s economic growth in the 20th Century was due to population expansion. The fact that indefinite expansion is untenable has been dismissed as Commie talk, though this may change in light of recent economic problems.

Russia escapes the problem of a large aging population to support by reason of its low life expectancies. The diseases of middle age, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular disease, are a benefit to the state, as long as the state is callous enough to provide only minimal care. (BTW, the low standards of Russian TB hospitals are probably comparable to American or British facilities of 100 years ago – again, these conditions did not lead to socioeconomic collapse.) The issue of reduced economic growth will not apply until the gas and oil run out, before which Putin will have plenty of time to wreak havoc in his neighbourhood.

The only logical argument for Russia’s imminent decline is the statistic that “70 percent of [newborns experience] complications at birth”. Sadly, that’s all the information Feshbach gives on this problem. I wonder of all Caesarean births are classified as “complications”? That could explain this otherwise phenomenal claim, which seems worse than one might expect from the poorest parts of Africa or Asia, and worse that what our ancestors experienced a couple of centuries ago.

I wonder what motivated Mr. Feshbach to publish this article, apart from a desire to put all his interesting statistics to some sort of use? His strong implication, that Russia is not a military or economic threat of stature, does not stand up even to cursory examination. It can only serve to mislead policy makers and endanger us all.


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