In 2040, it is clear that Vladimir Putin’s imperial fever dream failed to adjust to the new reality of the bipolar world of the US and China. Russia is a second-rate power. If Russia did not have an aging nuclear weapons stock and a seat on the UN Security Council, Moscow would not command the world’s attention. This is a far cry from the days of the Soviet Union and even the early years of the Putin era.
Mother Russia Losing Its Children
Russia’s population peaked at 142 million in the years just prior to Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine—and that is still down from the immediate post-USSR high of 149 million. Demographers had projected Russia’s population to tumble to 120 million by 2050 but now believe that it has already slipped below that level in 2040. In the Ukraine war, the nation suffered over two million casualties and outward migration.
Only the blinkered optimists among Russia’s still-active propagandists project a near-term reversal in population growth. In fact, younger Russians are more discouraged than ever from marrying thanks to the continued dismal state of the economy and attendant lack of interest in having families. Even Russia’s own demographers project continued decline. Moreover, Mother Russia continues to bleed youth, who emigrate in the tens of thousands each year to anywhere offering something better than the bleak prospects of post-Putin Russia.
Other demographic data support their pessimism. Deaths still outnumber births by over half a million. Ethnic Russians, about 72% of the population at the start of the Ukraine war, now comprise just 60% of the country’s population. The Russian fertility rate, which hovered around 1.52 per Russian female in the early 2020s, has fallen below 1.0, less than half of replacement level. Child-bearing-age women postpone pregnancy indefinitely or simply leave the country. In major cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, ethnic Russians complain of the growing presence of non-Russian ethnic minorities, increasingly necessary to fill jobs and run what’s left of Russia’s spiraling economy.
Economy: Back to the USSR
The causes of the population decline are many and did not start with the Ukraine war but were accelerated by the conflict. Principal among those is the state of Russia’s economy. Russia’s continued pariah status in the West has meant sanctions and embargoes on key technology equipment and components remain. Cut off from critical inputs like microchips, Russia’s main manufacturing sectors have been reduced to basic machine parts and consumer items that only Russians buy. There is no export sector, except for weapons, exports of which have suffered from sanctions. When asked to comment on their economy, even Russians with no memory of the USSR respond “back to the USSR.”
Most damaging of all, the world is rapidly moving beyond the traditional sources of oil and gas for its energy. Almost all of Europe has moved to renewable sources and the US now relies on fossil fuel for less than half of its energy needs. China, too, is weaning itself off oil and gas, a decision forced on the Chinese leadership by the global momentum toward addressing climate change and by growing cries among the Chinese public for cleaner air in China’s choking cities.
All of this has meant dramatically lower fossil oil prices. Previously the mainstay of the Russian budget and economy, oil commands less than $40 per barrel on most markets, with plunges as low as $25. Natural gas, on which China and many developing nations still rely, has also seen a comparable slide in price. Both have become a buyers’ market now, translating into dramatic revenue declines for Russia and consequent reduced public investment and lowered social welfare payments.
Rated as the eleventh or twelfth largest in the world in 2022, Russia’s $1.8 trillion economy has grown to around $2.5 trillion, too low to even make the world’s top 20. The principal reason for the decline is Russia’s near-total economic dependency on neighboring China. Virtually all its hydrocarbon exports flow to China at lower prices than before, while most of its finished and consumer goods are Chinese imports. And for years, all of Russia’s transactions with China have been in renminbi, which also comprise more than three-quarters of Russian foreign exchange reserves.
In one of military history’s most shocking reversals, Russia, once the source of much of China’s advanced military weaponry, now imports substantial amounts of Chinese weapons, including major military aircraft. While joint production agreements exist, China reserves its most sophisticated weapons and manufacturing for itself, leaving Russia’s armed forces with second-tier armaments and what few advanced weapons it still can manufacture. This means that Russia no longer makes or uses top-level weaponry.
What has most chagrined Russia’s population, especially its youth, is what has happened across the border in Ukraine. Having reclaimed almost all the territory Russia had annexed in 2014 and 2022, a devastated Ukraine has emerged from the war emboldened, energized, and brimming with new-found hope and pride. Within two years of the war’s end, it had joined the EU and a year later it became a member of NATO. A rising tech sector, which emerged during the war as the nation was forced to innovate its own and Western-imported weapons and equipment, has been perhaps the biggest surprise. Ukraine has acquired a new reputation, evolving into a tech innovation hub, and even attracting some of Russia’s frustrated youth.
After the war, the West, especially the EU, poured development funding into the country to rebuild it. Private capital quickly followed in many of Ukraine’s sectors, including manufacturing, minerals, construction, and agriculture. When Russia failed to follow through with its war reparation pledges, Western governments joined Ukraine in going after Russia’s $300 billion in reserves they had frozen at the start of the war. A landmark legal case in UK courts, which awarded Ukraine tens of billions of dollars in frozen Russia’s assets in Britain, set the precedent and similar settlements followed in France, Germany, the US, and even Switzerland. The few billion in Russian reserves in the West remain out of Moscow’s reach and Russia’s central bank wrote them off long ago.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy handily won Ukraine’s presidential election in the spring of 2024 with more than 70% of the vote. A subsequent worldwide tour won him and Ukraine massive support, especially in the West. Even China’s Xi Jinping, with an eye on Ukraine’s key ports in Odessa and Mariupol, warmly welcomed him to Beijing, promising development support for rebuilding the country. Hailed as the “defender of democracy,” Zelenskyy was welcomed with great fanfare in Washington by both Democrats and Republicans. President Joe Biden received him at the White House on a state visit, the most lavish of his presidency. A tour of major American cities and Silicon Valley won him and his country both plaudits and pledges of investment in Europe’s fastest growing economy.
Important to these supporters and investors, Zelenskyy doubled down on prior efforts to clean up the country’s corruption. With broad public support, most new members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, were elected on clean government platforms, sweeping away vestiges of the old, corrupt guard and elites. Trials of those accused of corruption and payback schemes during the war and the initial phases of reconstruction have been public and garnered widespread attention and support among the Ukrainian people.
Most galling of all, to rank and file Russians, however, is seeing their nation having to grovel before Beijing. Russia’s voting record on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has become a virtual rubber stamp of Beijing’s. Most shockingly, even when Beijing abstains, Moscow is forced to do China’s bidding by vetoing UNSC resolutions clearly not in Russia’s best interests. UN diplomats jokingly refer to Moscow as Beijing’s errand boy in New York.
Russians bristle at their reduced stature in the world. Pockets of resistance have grown into movements. Of late, opposition groups and demonstrations have mobilized around the theme of Russia shedding its client-state status to China. When Moscow sought to clamp down—they were acting on Beijing’s order to quickly snuff out the rebels—it only further amplified the ire of Russians everywhere.
Increasingly, gangs of Russian youth in multiple cities and even smaller towns have been seen tearing down Beijing-supplied surveillance equipment, which has become ubiquitous throughout Russia. Rebel youth groups have become so brazen that their destructive acts proliferate throughout social media under the hashtag “Not China’s East Germany.” They demand that Russia drop its vassalage to Beijing and turn to the West and democracy.Russian leaders who succeeded Putin regularly trek to Beijing now for what Russians presume are China’s newest marching orders for its client. Dreams of a new Russian imperial union once entertained by Putin have now dissolved into subservience to the boss in Beijing. The Chinese boss is behaving just like his Soviet 20th century predecessors. Putin’s imperial dream has turned into a nightmare but the Russian people do not intend to live forever in it. In 2040, Russia is on the verge of another revolution.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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