Page 1 of 2 Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess
On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president - now premier -
Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who
were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding
"Orange" revolution in Ukraine. "They lied to me," Putin said bitterly of the
United States. "I'll never trust them again." The Russians still can't fathom
why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They
underestimate the stupidity of the West.
American hardliners are the first to say that they feel stupid next to Putin.
Victor Davis Hanson wrote on August 12  of Moscow's "sheer diabolic
brilliance" in Georgia, while Colonel Ralph Peters, a columnist and television
commentator, marveled on August 14 , "The Russians are alcohol-sodden
barbarians, but now and
then they vomit up a genius ... the empire of the czars hasn't produced such a
frightening genius since [Joseph] Stalin." The superlatives recall an old
observation about why the plots of American comic books need clever
super-villains and stupid super-heroes to even the playing field. Evidently the
same thing applies to superpowers.
The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all
dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly
miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that
the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to
destroy them. That is what the informed Russian public believes, judging from
last week's postings on web forums, including this writer's
These perceptions are dangerous because they do not stem from propaganda, but
from a difference in existential vantage point. Russia is fighting for its
survival, against a catastrophic decline in population and the likelihood of a
Muslim majority by mid-century. The Russian Federation's scarcest resource is
people. It cannot ignore the 22 million Russians stranded outside its borders
after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, small but
loyal ethnicities such as the Ossetians. Strategic encirclement, in Russian
eyes, prefigures the ethnic disintegration of Russia, which was a political and
cultural entity, not an ethnic state, from its first origins.
The Russians know (as every newspaper reader does) that Georgia's President
Mikheil Saakashvili is not a model democrat, but a nasty piece of work who
deployed riot police against protesters and shut down opposition media when it
suited him - in short, a politician in Putin's mold. America's interest in
Georgia, the Russians believe, has nothing more to do with promoting democracy
than its support for the gangsters to whom it handed the Serbian province of
Kosovo in February.
Again, the Russians misjudge American stupidity. Former president Ronald Reagan
used to say that if there was a pile of manure, it must mean there was a pony
around somewhere. His epigones have trouble distinguishing the pony from the
manure pile. The ideological reflex for promoting democracy dominates the
George W Bush administration to the point that some of its senior people hold
their noses and pretend that Kosovo, Ukraine and Georgia are the genuine
Think of it this way: Russia is playing chess, while the Americans are playing
Monopoly. What Americans understand by "war games" is exactly what occurs on
the board of the Parker Brothers' pastime. The board game Monopoly is won by
placing as many hotels as possible on squares of the playing board. Substitute
military bases, and you have the sum of American strategic thinking.
America's idea of winning a strategic game is to accumulate the most chips on
the board: bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a pipeline in Georgia, a
"moderate Muslim" government with a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization base
in Kosovo, missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and so
forth. But this is not a strategy; it is only a game score.
Chess players think in terms of interaction of pieces: everything on the
periphery combines to control the center of the board and prepare an eventual
attack against the opponent's king. The Russians simply cannot absorb the fact
that America has no strategic intentions: it simply adds up the value of the
individual pieces on the board. It is as stupid as that. But there is another
difference: the Americans are playing chess for career and perceived advantage.
Russia is playing for its life, like Ingmar Bergman's crusader in The Seventh
Dull people know that clever people are cleverer than they are, but they do not
know why. The nekulturny Colonel Ralph Peters, a former US military
intelligence analyst, is impressed by the tactical success of Russian arms in
Georgia, but cannot fathom the end-game to which these tactics contribute. He
writes, "The new reality is that a nuclear, cash-rich and energy-blessed Russia
doesn't really worry too much whether its long-term future is bleak, given
problems with Muslim minorities, poor life-expectancy rates, and a declining
population. Instead, in the here and now, it has a window of opportunity to
reclaim prestige and weaken its adversaries."
Precisely the opposite is true: like a good chess player, Putin has the
end-game in mind as he fights for control of the board in the early stages of
the game. Demographics stand at the center of Putin's calculation, and Russians
are the principal interest that the Russian Federation has in its so-called
near abroad. The desire of a few hundred thousand Abkhazians and South
Ossetians to remain in the Russian Federation rather than Georgia may seem
trivial, but Moscow is setting a precedent that will apply to tens of millions
of prospective citizens of the Federation - most controversially in Ukraine.
Before turning to the demographics of the near abroad, a few observations about
Russia's demographic predicament are pertinent. The United Nations publishes
population projections for Russia up to 2050, and I have extended these to
2100. If the UN demographers are correct, Russia's adult population will fall
from about 90 million today to only 20 million by the end of the century.
Russia is the only country where abortions are more numerous than live births,
a devastating gauge of national despair.
Under Putin, the Russian government introduced an ambitious natalist program to
encourage Russian women to have children. As he warned in his 2006 state of the
union address, "You know that our country's population is declining by an
average of almost 700,000 people a year. We have raised this issue on many
occasions but have for the most part done very little to address it ... First,
we need to lower the death rate. Second, we need an effective migration policy.
And third, we need to increase the birth rate."
Russia's birth rate has risen slightly during the past several years, perhaps
in response to Putin's natalism, but demographers observe that the number of
Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how
much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective
mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number of
Russians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.
Russia, in other words, has passed the point of no return in terms of
fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian
Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the
Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority
in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.
Part of Russia's response is to encourage migration of Russians left outside
the borders of the federation after the collapse of communism in 1991. An
estimated 6.5 million Russians from the former Soviet Union now work in Russia
as undocumented aliens, and a new law will regularize their status. Only 20,000
Russian "compatriots" living abroad, however, have applied for immigration to
the federation under a new law designed to draw Russians back.
That leaves the 9.5 million citizens of Belarus, a relic of the Soviet era that
persists in a semi-formal union with the Russian Federation, as well as the
Russians of the Western Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More than 15 million ethnic
Russians reside in those three countries, and they represent a critical
strategic resource. Paul Goble in his Window on Eurasia website reported on
Moscow retreated after encountering fierce opposition from
other countries, but semi-legal practices of obtaining Russian citizenship that
began in former Soviet republics in the early 1990s continue unabated. There is
plenty of evidence that there are one to two million people living in the
territory of the former Soviet Union who have de facto dual citizenship and are
reluctant to report it to the authorities. Russia did little to stop the
process. Moreover, starting in 1997, it encouraged de facto dual citizenship.
Russia has an existential interest in absorbing Belarus and the Western
Ukraine. No one cares about Byelorus. It has never had an independent national
existence or a national culture; the first