In the late 1960s, Charles de Gaulle is reputed to have commented that the Soviet Union would collapse before the end of the twentieth century and that Russia itself would find its eastern borders back on the Urals before the twenty-first century had ended. Given our focus on the present it is impossible to predict what the future will look like thirty years down the road. Nevertheless, given the arrogant machinations of Putin and his crew of kleptomaniacs in destabilizing the small states on Russia’s western borders, it is not difficult to argue that Russia that may well regain much of its political, if not direct, control over its Baltic neighbors, Belarus, and Ukraine, not to mention the small states in the Caucasus. But such a prediction would miss looking at the troubles that Russia faces to the east.
As Colin Gray has so ably pointed out, the future is not foreseeable. Moreover, much of the worry about Russia and its neighborhood focuses on the present and largely misses the deep fractures and geopolitical difficulties that the Russians confront, and which Putin and his cabal have done so much to exacerbate. Moreover, Putin’s leadership has dissipated much of the wealth that Russia has amassed since 2000 with its oil revenues, which have disappeared into its pockets, while it has wasted large sums in building up its Potemkin village military forces. Thus, it has done virtually nothing to repair and rebuild the industrial wreckage left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union, create a reasonable infrastructure of roads and railroads, and make some small steps to creating a reasonable health system for Russia’s aging and alcoholic population.
On the strategic level, Russia’s leaders confront deeply serious problems on their eastern and southern borders. The Caucasus and its murderously tribal animosities, present a long-term threat, to which there appears no reasonable solution, but which will continue to suck in Russian resources. But it is the east that presents the long-term threat to Russian stability. The “Stans” remain ruled by fellow kleptomaniacs, while bubbling away amongst their population are deep dissatisfactions with how matters are being run. Perhaps even more threatening is the rise of radical Islamic movements, undoubtedly supported by the spill over from what was and is happening in Afghanistan. Nothing in the current troubles in the “Stans” bodes well for Russia, particularly because, like the northern portions of the Caucasus, a large portion of its petroleum resources are concentrated in the region.
The strategic calculus looks no better in Russia’s far eastern territories. The flight of Russians from the eastern regions of Siberia continues apace. What remains to a considerable extent are the aged and alcoholics with nowhere to go in western Russia. Moreover, the continued movement of Chinese from the poorer areas of their nation continues, while the Russian government possesses neither the will nor the border security to prevent that movement. These Chinese immigrants represent a population that is not likely to be assimilated, but which unlike the local is willing to work long hours in terrible weather conditions to make a better life for themselves. And the Chinese have not forgotten that their claims to Siberia predate those of the Russians by centuries.
All of these factors will in the long run affect Russia and its strategic position. Admittedly the current crew would rather focus on what they believe to be their nation’s traditional interests to the west, but ironically the great threats will come in the east, threats which they seem to be ignoring. Russia will pay in the long run a terrible price for that disinterest.