(with full apologies to the EPA...)
Noel Maurer and I had a discussion some time back about the Ukrainian Gas war as an example of Russian 21st Century Imperialism. Noel felt that it was incompetent imperialism. Badly handled and an extreme example of stupidity in motion. Most people were aware of the Gas War. It was in the news and on everyone's mind. The drama was rather extreme. Little new democracy facing down the big, bad Russians in the depths of winter and made the Russians look stupid. A deal was struck with the support of the EU and US. The world's attention turned elsewhere. The Russians, however, merely waited for that to happen. This is a pretty common pattern for the Russians as of this moment. Right now, unbeknownst to most people, the Russians are out trying to eat the smaller fish of the xUSSR republics.
For one, the Gas War isn't over. The Russians have been putting the full court press on the Ukrainians when everyone else was looking at Iran, Isreal and elsewhere. The Russians bought up the rights to the Turkmen gas that the Ukrainians thought they could mix with the Russian gas to make sure it didn't destroy their economy through price shocks. The Russians then turned around and started talking about jacking up the price of gas even past the amount they asked for during the lowest points of the Gas War. Then they demanded that the Ukrainians hand over their transit pipes that Naftogas owns. They did during the Gas War and now they're doing it again. This time, with the chaos in Ukraine's political sphere, it is looking likely that the Russians will win out. First it will be the pipes. There will be temporary breaks in the gas prices as 'concessions' and then the Russians are likely to jack the price to whatever they feel like to demand whatever they want. Putin has set a precedent.
The Russians haven't just been picking on the Ukrainians about this. The Russians are even trying to muscle the Armenians, Moldovans, and Belarusians as well. The Moldovans are getting beaten up with respect to gas over the Transdniestr region where Russian troops are acting as 'peace keepers'. Lukashenka might be as crazy as a bed bug, but he has long sought a Soviet style union with the Russians. That makes you wonder why the Russians would want to make threats to him, right? After all, he is in their pocket, right? Well, the Russians want ownership of the pipeline through Belarus as well and are making the same threats as they are to the Ukrainians: fork it over and face massive price hikes. AKA Do as we say or we destroy your economy.
Gas isn't the only place the Russians are beating up old Soviet Republics. Georgia and Moldova are getting their economics kidney kicked because Russian has implemented a ban on all of their wines. Georgia and Moldova's vineyards are one of their very important pillars of their respective economies. Then Russia, under the auspices of quality control, has banned their very important products. Given a lot of the problems with Georgian wines that would have been plausible and even understandable. However, Putin has been coming out to say that he would lift the bans if Russian companies were allowed to take over those industries. hrm. Sounds familiar.
It's obvious that the xUSSR republics, especially the European ones, are the small fish in the picture, about to be eaten. The amusing thing is that while the Russians are acting the shark with respect to the smaller countries, they are in fact, the fish in the middle. The Chinese are working on eating Russia.
First on the list of examples is the forestry deal that I posted about just yesterday. The Chinese are looking to get to exploit the forestry resources of Siberia almost exclusively. First it will be a pilot project and then, probably, on a huge scale. The second point was the energy deal being worked out between Russia and China. Russia might think that it could do an OPEC on China, but the relative strengths are astounding and only going to get worse. The reason? Demographics.
The third, very crucial point is the difference in demographics: the Russians are in a population decline. Russians have a TFR of 1.28, where in a healthy first world country it takes a little better than 2.1 or 2.2 to just keep a stable population. Additionally, they also have a rapidly shrinking population through death .37% annually, and that figure is getting worse. While the Chinese are 1.3 billion people with an annual growth rate of .59% and a TFR that is below replacement, but not as vastly so as the Russians: 1.73. The Chinese are actually emigrating out of China and depress that growth a nontrivial amount. Some of them are going to Russia.
Here and here have some interesting, if a little dated stats on Chinese immigration into Siberia. As the Russian needs for workers increases, their alienation of the xUSSR republics and the EU gets worse, and their own population declines, they are going to have to get workers from somewhere. The Chinese seem very likely as the source. Since the Russians are not at all friendly to absorbing other nonSlavs into being Russian culturally, the Chinese that do come will remain culturally self identifying as such.
The Chinese have a almost cultural concept that the PRC - or whatever form of government that governs 'China' - has the right to rule wherever there are Chinese people. Singapore has long promoted that it is a part of the people, but separate politically. Now, China doesn't actively promote the idea of annexation of these areas, but it does try to influence these areas as much as possible.
Now, if the Russians should get a leader that suddenly goes through a intense nationalist phase, there will be problems. The Russians really don't like the Chinese on the personal or culture level. If China starts to 'own' too many parts of Russia or there are too many Chinese people in Russia - a la like how many perceive the Mexicans in the US - you might see a rather bad backlash. The first would be in the form of nationalizations of Chinese assets. Second would be in the form of considering expulsions of Chinese from Siberia and the rest of Russia. This would be a mistake.
The Chinese government barring some calamity would intervene. Russia would be in a world of hurt. Consider the predictions of an 85 million-person population come true circa 2050 for Russia, and the massively bigger population for China (18x? 20x?). Then consider the massively growing wealth of China vs. Russia. If these trends continue, we are going to see a massive stomp at best. It would turn painful for China, but not as badly as it would be for Russia. Russia, as we have known it, would pass. It would all depend on the distribution of population in Russia and if anyone comes to their rescue. Somehow, I doubt many nations would leap to its aid given the trend in alienation that it is going down.
Unfortunately, I can all too well see a xenophobic Russian leader lashing out at the Chinese sometime after 2020. I can all too well see the end result too. Too bad that Russia is all too bent on trying to push around or eat the smaller fish instead of considering its future it seems to have selected. Too bad that they seem to have turned away from the once promising prospects of joining the West, NATO, and European Union. Too bad their cultural arrogance, one that rivals or perhaps even surpassing that of my own American culture, is preventing them from joining with their other cousins in the bright future of the EU. Too bad that their own self image is so such contradictory opposition to the reality.
Too bad that the Russians didn't embrace that European future. Instead, they have embraced a Eurasian one. For that reason, I weep for Mother Russia. I weep for the Great Russians.
Putin! Oh Putin! What have you done?