Center for Strategic Communication

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

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

In an article in the January/February 2009 Foreign Service Journal entitled “A
Confrontation in Moscow,” veteran Russia-hand and career Foreign Service Officer Kempton Jenkins recounted a meeting on January 13, 1961 between Soviet
Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko and US Ambassador Llywellyn Thompson.  The topic? The tense dispute over access to
Berlin in which Gromyko reiterated “Khrushchev’s ultimatum to the West to
accept East German sovereignty over West Berlin or find itself forcibly
expelled” or . . . worse.

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?