Russia: what’s next?

There’s no better way to pick a fight than to try and pick the future, and my predictions of what nations are going to be Top Dogs in a hundred years are, apparently, no exception. In particular, my depiction in THE MIRRORED HEAVENS of an Eastern superpower composed of a rising China and a resurgent Russia has stirred up some debate about the feasibility of such a construct. Particularly vis-a-vis the Russian part of the equation.

And with good reason. We crushed Russia in the Cold War: suborned its satellites to revolt, and deprived the Soviet Union of large sections of its outlying territory. Leaving only the Russian core, which across the 1990s became an economic basketcase.

But Russia has a way of coming back off the mat, and that’s what they’ve been doing. Here are some of the reasons why—despite the fact that Russia remains in serious trouble—it’s unwise to count them out. And why I contend that great power status for Russia a century from now is eminently plausible:

#1: Rising energy prices: Russia is one of the world’s largest energy producers, and they’ve been ruthless in using the onset of peak oil for military/foreign policy advantage. You think that oil at $130 a barrel gives them leverage? Try oil at $200.

#2: Location, location, location: MacKinder’s geopolitical theses have needed revising since he first proposed them in 1904. But his core contention—regarding the advantages conferred on the nation that occupies the Eurasian heartland—is one we ignore at our peril.

#3: Several thousand nuclear warheads: Nukes don’t translate automatically into power, but they sure as hell make you difficult to ignore. And Russia’s military remains formidable, though a far cry from the old Red Army days.

#4: National psyche: This is always a difficult one to invoke, but the fact remains that the Russians as a people are very dangerous to underestimate. As the Nazis found out.

No one’s going to argue that Russia isn’t beset with problems. But here’s the thing: anyone can come up with Giant Challenges a nation faces in the here and now, and cite those as Absolute Proof that it’s bound to face decline. But if you’re going to argue convincingly for decline, you not only have to show that those factors are accelerating, but that no action that nation is likely to take will reverse those factors. Alternatively, you have to show that whatever advantages a nation has are certain to erode, no matter what that nation does. (Case in point: Britain’s world power across the 19th century was based to a large degree on the fact that she was first to industrialize. As the larger land powers followed suit, they surpassed her, virtually inevitably.) I have yet to see anyone do that convincingly with Russia, though I will fully admit that Russia may very well fail to rise to its current challenge.

Indeed, my personal view is that Russia’s trajectory across the next century will be a function of its leadership. Again and again throughout history, a strong tyrant has rallied Russia and pushed it forward, albeit often at a terrible price. History may or may not repeat itself, but as to one scenario in that regard: in the world of THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, a man embodying all the (best?) qualities of Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin comes to power in the 2030s; under his leadership, Russia institutes full-scale “super-modernization” schemes, with an emphasis on space-based systems and information technology—and is then able to formulate an alliance with China that both keeps them out of Siberia and redirects Chinese expansive impulses south.

But you know what? I really thought the thing that would cause all the controversy was my prediction that the UNITED STATES would still be a superpower. To be continued.

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17 Responses to “Russia: what’s next?”

  1. David J. Williams » Blog Archive » The next generation of warfare Says:

    […] David J. Williams Autumn Rain 2110 « Russia: what’s next? […]

  2. Wired Says:

    David, while the notion of a Eurasian block with China and Russia is a most interesting and, quite honestly, from a geopolitical fiction writing perspective, feasable approach, you’ve like many other writers succumbed to an approach that neglects real trends in favour of an interesting setting. I’m not saying that this, per se, is something bad. In fact, I myself prefer reading this kind of nation-state based military fiction to most other genres. But with regards to Russia the facts are undeniable: it’s recent economic boom is based on high ressource prices – and on those alone.

    It’s not backed by infrastructure investments, or a general trend to modernize the Russian economy. Secondly, Russia is a nation with bleeding borders and a thousand papercuts striking ever more closer to it’s core. And once the recent generation of post-communist, Moscow-backed leaders in it’s periphery come to an end, it’s borders will erupt in a dozen civil wars, most of them with the aim to install Muslim regimes, thereby paralyzing Russia as an international actor as it has to throw all it’s meager ressources against it’s southern flank in a vain attempt to stem the tide. Which brings me to point three, namely that the tide has long since swept over the dykes. Russia is a dying nation. There can be much said about macroeconomic trends and futuer ressource prices, but demographics are the ultimate macro-indicator, one that cannot easily be turned around. Fact is, simplified, Russians don’t breed, and on top of that are drugging themselves to death. HIV infections are on the rise, male life expectancy in dropping so fast that it’s almost reached the level of African developing countries, and the average Russian reproduction ratio is 1.11 children per couple. Just to maintain a steady population, 2.11 would be needed. 1.11 children per couple. regardless of all the nukes in the world and oil reserves the size of the Pacific Ocean, that’s not the profile of a coming superpower. It’s the profile of a civilization that’s rung it’s own death bell.

    And that’s not even taking into account that the only group seriously getting children in all the Russian Federation are, well, I guess you expected as much: Muslims. Not exactly poster children for modern mmpire building either…

  3. David Williams Says:

    An excellent analysis of the problems Russia currently faces, and I take no issue with any of it. The demographics is at the heart of it; unless Russia can reverse that, she’s (literally) history. But if she can, then reassertion of control of the periphery remains well within the realm of possibility. At least Russia is aware of the problem, and isn’t sleepwalking its way into catastrophe. The decline slowed in 2007, but the water continues to pour into the boat . . .

    But here’s the thing: all I’m arguing against is assuming that Russia is screwed by definition. She’s looking at an uphill battle, but I don’t think she’s toast. Yet. And you’re right that in some ways, my choice of a Russia-Chinese combination was informed as much by what I thought would be interesting as plausible. My main focus is on just how much more disastrous the 21st century could get if geopolitics goes bipolar again . . . and on just what a pandora’s box weaponization of space is likely to unleash.

    In any event, really appreciate the comment/dialogue.

  4. Wired Says:

    You definately have a point, David, and Russia – at least politically – may be more able to turn it’s demographic problems around than most of Europe, given their prevalent (and successful) authoritarian revival since V. Putin. Thinking about it, they could very well be the “head” (hightech, miltech) to China as the “body” (manufacturing), and with China getting access to Siberia’s ressources… *whistles*

    Well, I’ll have to wait to read what you’ve made of it. ;-)
    Thank you for the reply, by the way. I just found your site two days ago via a messageboard link, and my Amazon tells me I’ll have to wait almost three weeks to get my fingers on “The Mirrored Heavens”. Hell, I’ll probably be the first German to get my fingers on it! Ah, the joys of living on the eastern side of the Atlantic… ;-)

  5. David Williams Says:

    Wired- – I’m inclined to agree; all the more so as we’ve seen that scenario (of Russian tech combined with Chinese manpower) before: back in the decade of I Like Ike, before the Sino-Russian split. Though I do think the tech gap between Russia and China will definitely narrow somewhat across the next few decades, it’s still likely be one of the foundations of any such alliance. (assuming that Russia can keep it together).

    And I hope you enjoy the book! Definitely drop me a line and let me know what you think!

  6. David J. Williams » Blog Archive » Thoughts amidst the heatwave Says:

    […] And man, those things are nasty. I’m not going to try to offer them up as evidence in the Great Russian Decline Debate, but it’s a good reminder that while it’s sunk a long way from its Red Army days, the […]

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  8. FDS Says:

    actually your information about Russian demographics and HIV is wrong

    Myth of the Russian AIDS Apocalypse (about HIV)

    Demography I – The Russian Cross Reversed?

  9. Evalinsapple Says:

    According to reports I read recently, Russia’s test-run weaponry is faulty. And Russian oil was only bringing in $72 a barrel. My sources are the Chinese Communist news.

    So apparently Russia isn’t playing nice with China. It would seem they are being taught a lesson. The value of Russian money dropped recently as well.

    But this is December and in May I may have guessed that Russia would be a rising power too. China’s very sneaky…

  10. David Williams Says:

    @Evanlinsapple – – I’m in this one for the long-haul. Peak oil will push those oil prices back up. . . . .

  11. Evalinsapple Says:

    Here is the problem I have with this arguement: China is looking at alternative energy. The day after Putin put his foot down demanding his share of the money for Russian oil, China was boasting of reseraching alternative energy for vehicles.

    If Obama’s plan was put in action we would be weaning ourselves from oil. Our main need of oil comes from space warfare. And what we rarely hear of in the news is what kind of alternative energy we have for spacecraft. It would seem that electric and solar power won’t work for spacecraft, but is there something else out that that will?

    I like Russia as a country for power too. Any country smart enough to realize the pitfalls of both capitalism and communism and experiement with both has my vote. I just hate how its culture reeks of religion. China will continue in atheism. And while oil may be why the big whigs go to war, religion will win the ignorant masses.

  12. David Williams Says:

    Well, keep in mind that my future Eastern superpower, the Eurasian Coalition, is an alliance between Russia and China, who decide that the one thing they have in common is a hatred of the U.S.. . .

  13. Evalinsapple Says:

    Right now I’m reading Mirrored Heavens. It’s mystifying, and I’m totally engaged. So far the alliance is between the U.S. and Eurasia. I don’t like America much either. I ranted on another website today about our declining civil liberties.

    Yet the smartest still deserve assistance from the rest of the world. Have you heard of a book called the Ever Shrinking World? You were right: The Terminator Salvation movie came a bit late. We needed this sort of warning sooner.

    Bush was all to eager to go to war with the Middle East. I can’t help but wonder now if China and Europe aren’t gloating that it was the U.S. economy that suffered the worst. We made their job of controlling the Middle East easier perhaps? Or just exacerbated a thousands of years universal problem.

    I look forward to finishing your book. It’s nonstop action! That’s why I think we would compliement each other’s style well. I am more into the dialogue and character developement and need help with weapons information and blood and guts.

  14. David Williams Says:

    I see America making the same transition Rome made: i.e., from republic to empire. Declining civil liberties are one part of the larger problem. Obviously the United States of the MIRRORED HEAVENS is a democracy in name only. And those who rule it could give you a very reasoned explanation of why that’s necessary.

    And yanno, there are times I don’t even disagree with them. It’s not clear to me democracies can conduct a sustained and coherent foreign policy. Only the worst kind of demagogues could have allowed themselves to be played so easily by Bin Laden and drawn into the MidEast quagmire that we’re still stuck in.

  15. Evalinsapple Says:

    So you see America as fallilng like Rome fell? You said it’s going from Republic to Empire…I see it as going to vice versa. China and other countries are investing in our Reserves, so you couldn’t possiably argue America is gaining the upper hand. Did I blink and miss something?

  16. Evalinsapple Says:

    So you see America as fallilng like Rome fell? You said it’s going from Republic to Empire…I see it as going to vice versa. China and other countries are investing in our Reserves, so you couldn’t possiably argue America is gaining the upper hand. Did I blink and miss something?

  17. Oil Crash Says:

    Great stuff but I’m having a hard time viewing it on my blackberry. The layout isn’t correct (maybe you can fix this). I’ll have to try again when I get to the office.