Russia has nothing to fear but Russia itself

William Echols

Half a dozen military planes down in a month, nearly two dozen men crushed under a collapsing barracks, surging mortality rate and the deaths of troops forced to fight in Ukraine being written off as “training accidents” — for a country obsessed with external enemies, the only real threat posed to modern day Russia is Russia itself.

On Tuesday, a Tu-95 strategic bomber went down in Russia’s Far East, killing two of the crew on board. It was the second such crash of a TU-95, known not so affectionately by NATO as “Bear”, in just over a month’s time. Between June 4th and July 6th, 4 other Russian fighter jets: a Sukhoi Su-24M, a Sukhoi Su-34 and two MiG-29s also went down.

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Russia, of course, is no stranger to such tragedies, whether they are spurred by ratcheted up patrols to keep NATO on its toes, or poor safety coupled with human error.

In one of the more saddeningly bizarre “only in Russia” incidents, Christophe de Margerie, former-CEO of the French oil company Total, was killed when a drunk snow plow driver crashed his vehicle into the 63-year-old executive’s plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in October. De Margerie, ironically, was a dyed in the wool defender of Russia’s interests, though Russia, it turns out, was not a very good defender of his personal safety. It wasn’t the airports first hiccup in recent times. In December 2012, a Russian airliner (without passengers) fell apart after sliding off the runway at Vnukovo, killing four of the eight crew members on board.

And a month after De Margerie’s untimely death, passengers were forced to get out of a plane to push it down the tarmac in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region after its brake pads reportedly froze. Luckily, in this instance where aviation safety regulations were thrown to the arctic winds, no one was hurt.

But in perhaps the worst aircraft tragedy to befall the region in a generation (before Russian-backed militants shot down MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine that is), 43 people were killed when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team struck a tower mast and crashed on the riverbank of the Tunoshna River on September 7, 2011.

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On September 11 of that year, then-President Dmitry Medvedev ordered for all airlines which did not adequately “ensure passengers’ safety” be grounded. It remains a wonder, then, how Russia’s Air Force, heavily reliant on decades-old Soviet stock, which “were designed to be flown 10 years and then thrown away,” continues to operate at its current clip.

But its not just planes. For Russians in general and Russian soldiers in particular, the past week has not been a good one for those dying at the hands of the motherland.

On Sunday, 23 soldiers were killed and at least 22 more wounded after their barracks collapsed on the base of the 242nd Airborne Training Center in Omsk. Officials, of course, claim the building had undergone extensive renovations in 2013. But like so many things in Russia, all that means is that funds were allocated for renovations. Whether they went into the barracks themselves or building some general a new country house is anyone’s guess.

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But it doesn’t stop there. One day prior to the barracks incident,  two people were killed and 4 others injured when a residential building collapsed in the city of Perm.

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For insiders, the chances of poorly constructed buildings tumbling to the ground does not come as a shock. Several years back, while complaining about a couple of massive blue-on-blue residential towers seemingly plucked from a Tim Burton-nightmare (only to be followed up by green and yellow-tiled analogs) in my then neighborhood of Shchukinskaya, an engineer whom I’ll call Dima told me the buildings were structurally unsound and no one would sign off on them before people moved in. And yet people did move in.

The alleged deathtraps.

The alleged deathtraps.

The way he put it, if the things do one day fall apart (and by things, I mean the buildings), when officials go looking for someone to hang, no name will be found on the dotted line. Perhaps the developers will have long-since moved to the French Riviera. No one will ultimately be held responsible, and life in Russia will go on.

A few months after that conversation, an accident at the Sayano–Shushenskaya power station accident in the Russian Republic of Khakassia left 75 people dead. The cause of the accident was a vibrating turbine which had long been known to the plant’s workers. In fact, the very turbine reportedly underwent extensive repairs just months before the accident. It was quickly apparent that the repairs had not worked. The turbine went on spinning anyways. And so it goes.

At the time of writing, Muscovites are marking the worst accident to ever befall the capital’s subway system, when a train derailed one year to the day, killing 24 and injuring 180. I remember having to take a taxi to work, and how the ensuing nervousness when the line started working again was akin to a low grade version to what people felt after the 2010 metro bombing. The illusion of security dissipates. Stress compounds. Activities which once put people in the blanched box of Coopers colors sees them donning tangerine-tinted glasses and nervously throwing glances every which way. It takes a toll.

No, whether falling from the skies or falling asleep in one’s own bed (or on the metro during a morning commute for that matter), just existing in Russia is a risky proposition.

Despite the Kremlin’s obsession with external threats and fifth columns, the only real threat to Russians is Russia itself. NATO is unlikely to shoot down a Russian fighter, but the chances of a Russian fighter crashing during a saber rattling exercise remain staggeringly high. The chances of a B-2 stealth bomber ever dropping MK 82s on a Russian military base, likewise, is negligible. The chances of soldiers dying under a deluge of concrete and steel due to shoddy construction is far more likely.

Add to all that a clandestine war in which Russia refuses to recognize those dying for the motherland (Putin has in fact made the figures for casualties stemming from “training exercises” classified)  and the reality that deaths by external causes reportedly reached a rate five times higher than that in Western Europe by 2006 (though such deaths have recently and thankfully been in decline), it’s no surprise that Russia’s mortality rate is soaring. Really soaring.

In May, the Russian State Statistics Service (Rosstat) released data showing that the number of deaths in the country had grown by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of 2015.

Those deaths, however, were largely not the result of murders or accidents, but rather those suffering from respiratory diseases, diseases of the digestive system, infectious diseases, and blood circulation disorders. The question is why.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, greets Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, injured in a car accident.

Writing for Forbes, Mark Adomanis noted that “some researchers have linked the rapid increase of circulatory-system-related deaths in the 1990′s to ‘psycho-social stress’ brought on by the atmosphere of pervasive economic insecurity which accompanied the end of the planned economy.”

That assessment would gel with research earlier conducted by Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist teaching at Emory University, who essentially argued Russians were dying from a lack of hope. Or, in the words of Masha Gessen, who reviewed Parsons’ thesis, “Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.”

So, is psycho-social stress stemming from the Ukraine crisis and subsequent economic downturn reversing otherwise positive (albeit limited) demographic gains made during Putin’s tenure? Ironically, less than a month before Russian troops occupied Crimea, Russia had recorded its first natural population growth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in an atmosphere when a clandestine war is tearing families apart, stress is literally killing people, while gloomy economic prospects and overall international isolation will likely deter Russians from having more children. Such an atmosphere could also reverse trends which had served to depress death from external causes.

Meanwhile, with healthcare spending down 9 percent over the past two years, cuts which one government agency claimed had led to thousands of extra deaths in Russian hospitals last year, Russia’s mortality rate is likely to continue its upward tick.

In 2012, when Putin announced he was “running” for a 3rd presidential term, he said that the country’s demographic crisis risked creating “a geopolitical ‘void’ whose fate would be decided by other powers.” Putin was right to realize the real threats facing the country were on the home front.

Sadly, he has decided to listen to the advice of men like Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, who is convinced that Ukraine’s westward drift was a conspiracy to undermine Russia.

But if people like Patrushev and Putin really want to find a cabal of people conspiring to bring Russia to its knees, they need look no further than the mirror. It is their corrupt coterie which has siphoned away the country’s future though offshore bank accounts and left critical infrastructure in tatters; it is their mode of rule, and not their intrinsic Russianness, that pushed Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.

With most economic sectors facing 10 percent cuts, defense spending is expected to increase 33 percent over 2014, even though some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death kneel for the country’s military reforms as well.

And as planes, trains and buildings continue to hit the ground and go off the rails, no amount of ballistic missiles or Armata tanks will be able to save Russia from itself.

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5 thoughts on “Russia has nothing to fear but Russia itself

  1. You know, with all the fuckups that are constantly happening, it’s interesting that Russia’s media still kukareku about their mighty rockets. Surely they must harbor some fear that were they to launch, a significant portion of them might quickly fall back to the ground.

    Liked by 1 person

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