With his diplomatic intervention in Syria and his much-discussed article in the New York Times last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reaffirmed his reputation as a shrewd interlocutor on the world stage and a discerning analyst of global sentiment. He has inspired a wave of commentary about Russian resurgence reminiscent of 2007, when Time magazine named Putin person of the year for putting “his country back on the map.” Unless Russia can improve its demographic outlook and retain its competitiveness in global energy markets, however, occasional maneuvers on Putin’s part will be unlikely to translate into an enduring Russian renaissance.
In 2000, when Putin first assumed the presidency, Russia’s population was 146.3 million; last year, it was 143.5 million. The United Nations recently estimated (.pdf) that it will decline to 107 million by 2100. Russia’s population did increase in 2012 for the first time since 1991, a fact that led some to hope that the country will be able to stave off demographic decline. It is unclear, however, how much of that increase comes from births of ethnic Russians. “Anecdotal evidence,” notes Walter Russell Mead, “suggests strongly that the ethnic Russians are still dying out and that they are having many fewer children proportionately than the many non-Russian nationalities on the territory of the Federation.” There is also a broader question of integration: How will Russia assimilate its rapidly growing Muslim population—estimated to be about a seventh of the country’s total—and respond to the surge of Chinese migrant workers in its sparsely populated Far East?
Meanwhile, the energy bonanza underway in North America, and especially the United States, is challenging the influence that Russia can wield in global energy markets. Some analysis of that phenomenon has admittedly been exaggerated, even breathless at times. It strains credulity to imagine that the U.S., the world’s second-largest energy consumer, will ever achieve complete energy independence, let alone in as little time as a decade or two. And while energy dependence is a fundamental reason for America’s entanglements in the Middle East, it is not the only one. The uprisings in the Arab world, the chaos in Syria, the prospect of nuclear proliferation and the reconstitution of various al-Qaida affiliates, among other phenomena, will require continued U.S. engagement in the region. Even so, the Economist rightly argues that the U.S.-led shale-gas boom “is shaking Russian state capitalism to its foundations.” Putin himself said last April that the shale boom could “redefine the hydrocarbons market in a big way. Russian energy companies have to be ready right now to meet this challenge.”