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Russia's Continued Social, Economic and Military Decline

Russia's Continued Social, Economic and Military Decline

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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security

Recent protests in Russia over government corruption and electoral issues have occurred in several cities, prompting a government crackdown. In response to the demonstrations, the Russian government has detained opposition candidates, who have been barred from participating in upcoming elections.

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These protests were moderately sized and right now, they do not threaten the government. But despite the mass arrests of protesters and organizers, these types of demonstrations are the face of Russia’s many problems.

Russia Is Struggling with Demographics, Its Economy and Its Military

Not only are the state of Russian demographics and its economy absolutely abysmal, but Russia is struggling to maintain a military footprint that is commiserate with its geographic size and regional interests. At the same time, Russia wants to prevent the more liberal aspects of Western culture from causing border nations that were once within Moscow’s sphere of influence to drift away from Russian influence.

Russia certainly does not want the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union (EU) to expand eastward; otherwise, Moscow’s reach would dramatically shrink. Relations between Russia and China have warmed a bit, but China has problems of its own. Even working together, these two nations lack the global reach necessary to improve their respective standings.

Protests Underline Russian Dissatisfaction with Government’s Performance and Their Living Standards

Gauging protest size and duration is not always the best measure for determining eventual social or political change. Moreover, if the protests succeed in removing a government, it is not always the case that the protesters gain a stake in the new government.

The Arab Spring uprising is perhaps a recent and rather profound example. For Russia, these protests may not be especially large, but they do speak to dissatisfaction with the government.

Currently, the protests are largely motivated by choice in governance, but underneath it all is a significant decline in living standards. In the past few years, Russia has cut the pensions of its veterans and slashed the pay of its teachers.

Problems with National Resources Such as Oil Are a Growing Issue for Russia

Oil revenue, on which the government is highly dependent, has fallen significantly and cut into federal expenditures. Moscow simply does not have an answer to these problems.

To put this situation in perspective, it is necessary to consider Russia’s size. As the largest nation on the planet, it would seem that Russia has an inexhaustible amount of natural resources that it can bring to the global market. The problem is building the infrastructure to reach those resources.

Russia’s population is around 145 million people, and those citizens are spread across a large swath of land. It is prohibitively expensive to build roads and other modern amenities to small populations residing in less-than-ideal territories.

In other words, spending money on infrastructure to support these small populations would cost more than the resources that they manage to extract. With the decline of energy revenue and the imposition of U.S. sanctions (the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, comes to mind), the economic picture in Russia is rather bleak.

Military Problems in Russia

On August 8, there was an explosion at a Russian naval testing facility at Dvina Bay in northern Russia. Following the explosion, emergency officials in the city of Severodvinsk reported a spike in background radiation. The announcement from these officials prompted a run on iodine drops from local pharmacies despite the claim by authorities that there was no radiation threat.

A mere month ago, another accident occurred, this time on a Russian submarine. Reportedly, a fire broke out on the vessel, killing the 14-person crew.

Though the Russian government has released few details of the incident, a naval officer speaking at the funerals for the crew claimed that the deceased crew “averted a planetary-scale catastrophe.” If this officer is correct and not just embellishing a eulogy, then Russia has much to answer for.

In addition, an arms depot in Siberia exploded, forcing evacuations from local settlements. While it is possible that all of these events are the result of Moscow working on advanced weapon systems, it is more likely that budget cuts in some areas of the military have taken their toll.

Multiple Challenges for the Russian Government to Handle

Naturally, the social, economic and military situations within Russia place severe strain on the government. Social unrest, while low at the moment, has the potential to greatly expand.

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To quell any social unrest, this is why Russian government has come down as hard as it does on these protests. Moscow wants to use force to dissuade these demonstrations from expanding to the point of no return.

Even the most despotic regime cannot exist without a population, but brute force does work well when all other ideas fail. At least it may work for a little while.

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