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Putin Addresses Shrinking Russia

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
May 12, 2006

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Russia is not the bear it once was. A brain drain and demographic crisis have left the country smaller, in terms of population as well as stature. Alcoholism and AIDS are also on the rise. So too are racism, skinhead violence, and xenophobia, reports Amnesty International.

No wonder President Vladimir Putin chose to focus on domestic issues, not foreign policy matters, in his May 10 State of the State speech. He called for a ten-year plan to reverse Russia's dwindling population by offering economic incentives to encourage women to have more children (NYT). Unless something is done, demographers predict Russia's population could fall from its current 143 million to below 100 million by 2050. Within that shift could be major ethnic, social, and religious changes as well: Analyst Paul Goble estimates that Muslims may be Russia's majority by 2025 (VOA). With violent xenophobia and racism also on the rise, Russian society could become more volatile (Economist).

Yet Putin did not completely neglect foreign affairs in his speech, which included reference to threats from abroad, including, of course, the United States. In his address, he likens Washington to a wolf that eats whatever it wants without listening to others (Guardian). Putin's comments came shortly after sharp criticisms by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, in which he accused Russia of blackmailing its former satellites like Ukraine and Georgia by manipulating gas prices and of rolling back human rights and press freedoms.

Putin also addressed Russia's security inferiority complex, heightened in the wake of a much-discussed Foreign Affairs piece confirming Russians' worst fears: that Washington, given its growing nuclear primacy, has rendered near obsolete the principles of mutually assured destruction, which formed the backbone of nuclear deterrence throughout the Cold War. To help fill in this military gap, Putin has called for spending much of Russia's windfall of oil profits on military hardware like submarines and strategic missiles.

U.S.-Russian relations have been on a steady downtick for some years now, particularly in the wake of the so-called Yukos affair of 2003, Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, and Russia's bullying of Kiev earlier this year over gas prices, which sent ripples through Europe's energy markets. But the latest chill, what some analysts are calling a "mini-Cold War," comes at an especially awkward time for Putin. He is set to host the G-8 summit this July, which NPR's Daniel Schorr predicts will be a tense affair. A recent CFR Task Force Report says America's relationship with Moscow is headed in the wrong direction and even suggests staging a separate G-7 conference that conspicuously leaves out Russia. Some have called for a boycott of the summit. Sarah Mendelson of CSIS, however, says instead of a boycott the West should use the G-8 forum to address Russia's human rights crisis on its home turf (WashPost). Others say Russia should not be ostracized at a time when Moscow's support is needed to defuse the crisis with Iran.

The recent flurry of criticism has left Russia in a difficult spot. In response, the Kremlin has launched a PR campaign to burnish its image abroad (Weekly Standard). Moscow has also grown more defensive and increasingly accuses the United States of employing double standards, Andrew Kuchins of the Carnegie Endowment tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman, pointing to Washington's embrace of autocrats in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

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