The Russia We Don't Know

  • National Newswatch

I recall growing up in Calgary in the late-1950s when a neighbour began digging a bomb shelter.  He wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last.  Clearly, the Soviet Union had designs on world domination, and vehicles like the movie industry or arms suppliers were quickly forced to respond.  Nikita Khrushchev was the Soviet leader, and his ambitions spread fear in other countries, Canada included.We all know what happened in the 1990s, how the vast Soviet Union collapsed, and the new Russia emerged from the chaos.  There were even those moments when many believed that democracy was about to fill the nation with a new burst of hope.Then came Putin, and all bets were off.  His invasion of Ukraine has made him more unpredictable than ever.  He remains in power and powerful.  NATO partially exists to contain his ambitions.  Russia is now a country of riches and refugees, of politics with little principle, and a people as patriotic as they are paupers.Russia's designs still hover over the rest of the world, but it isn't the dark shadow of the world it once was.  We got hints of it recently when Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin came within a few miles of Moscow in a failed attempt to grasp more power.  Almost overnight, Putin's hold on the country wasn't a sure thing.  His military arsenal has been unable to defeat Ukraine.  Yes, he has nuclear weapons, but their implementation would be suicidal and forever seal his fate in history.  His nation is perhaps permanently fractured.  What once was a global juggernaut is now a weakened nation of slightly over 140 million people – half of America's.As Richard Hass recently pointed out, Russia has roughly the same life expectancy as Haiti. “The country is failing at almost every level,” he concludes.   Its economy, partly due to global sanctions, has shrunk by 10% since the Ukraine war commenced.  Russia's public budget essentially tells the tale.  It is increasing its military and security budget by 50 %, including prison and public prosecution offices.  To pay for that increase, Putin has put forward a 9% reduction in health spending, a 2% reduction in education spending, a whopping 25% reduction in infrastructure spending, and a 19% decline in industrial spending, which will come at the cost of thousands of jobs.How will the already beleaguered Russian people feel about a massively increased security budget, especially with a Ukrainian war that Putin just can't seem to win?  People will become poorer across the board, and the public prosecutor's office will be more than willing to try and sentence anyone speaking out.Russia's economy is beginning to crater despite its vast oil and natural gas reserves.  Russia's debt is expected to hit half a trillion dollars soon, which will take up 25% of the country's GDP.  Last year, Russia defaulted on its debt for the first time since 1918.  The shortages at stores are well known and the mood of its people gets darker with each new development.The 2021 Health Care Index lists Russia's system as 58th best out of 89 countries, with a very low score for the quality of infrastructure. A Bloomberg report ranks Russian healthcare last out of 55 developed countries based on the efficiency of state healthcare systems.  It's a special growing problem for the country's large senior population.The Russia so feared in our recent past is quickly becoming a pariah.  Even if Putin pulled out of the Ukraine conflict, he remains a war criminal who would rather fight a major conflict, regardless of loss of life, than face a prison term.  He would likely benefit should he prove victorious, but he will nevertheless be surrounded by citizens close to the breaking point and rivals from the criminal elite eager to replace him following a mixed record of 17 years.  No Gorbachevs or Yeltsins are in the wings, merely professional thugs more interested in power than progress.“Russian stories never have happy endings,” Bill Bowder, author of Red Notice, wrote.  We are now seeing that play out again, in real-time, casualty after casualty, and the loss of one dream after another.  This is the Russia we must now get used to.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.