In the mid-1980s, before most could envision the Soviet Union’s collapse, William F. Buckley, National Review publisher and conservative icon, observed that without its military the U.S.S.R. was “a third-world country, sort of an India of the North.” Buckley was prescient and deadly accurate, about the Soviets at least.
Three decades on, the news is filled with claims and fears that the Russia remnant of the Soviet Union is reclaiming super-power status, having “earned” it assisting Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities against Syrian civilians, reseizing Crimea from the former Ukrainian Socialist Republic, hacking America’s computers and meddling in our election.
Russia and its leader, Putin, appear to command the respect, applause and approval of America’s imminent leader.
In fact and truth Russia, following a decade of experimentation with press freedom, capitalism and free elections, is descending into third-world status and stature again. But for an old and diminished stockpile of nukes, Russia is becoming an elephantine version of North Korea – defining greatness in its ability to terrorize externally while impoverishing its people. The Russian economy’s near total reliance on oil and gas also reveals Russia becoming “sort of” a Venezuela of the North East. Unlike the Saudis who see the petrochemical handwriting fading on the wall, Russia can’t diversify with a chunk of Uber or other future technologies, because Western sanctions block most of that.
North Korea? Venezuela? Hyperbole? Over the past year the average Russian’s wage declined by 9.5 percent to less than $450 monthly – less than in Serbia or China. The steady shrinkage of the Russian economy, by virtually every measure, certainly has been exacerbated by declines in oil and gas prices and sanctions imposed by the U.S.A. and E.U. after the seizure of Crimea. But, the steady decline preceded those events and continued after oil prices began to rise. In the midst of Russia’s economic decline, its GDP fell 40 percent from 2013 to 2014. That compares with the United States’ steepest decline since the Great Depression, a two percent drop from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession. The relative sizes of the economies of the world’s only real superpower and the meddlesome wannabe are instructive. With a little more than twice its population our GDP is more than ten times Russia’s hydrocarbon dominated and backward looking one. The Russian people seem to understand this, as deaths outpace births and population relentlessly declines.
The only bright spot in the Russian economic outlook is a recent surge in military construction and expenditure. The nation of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky of Prokofiev and Shostakovich of Lenin has devolved into a state that defines its greatness and power in external threats and disruption while its people become poorer and lose hope for the future.