BACKGROUND: While planning the next move in Afghanistan, strategists in Putin’s team are looking not in the manuals on conflict resolution but rather in the records of Russia’s operations in the region, which go far deeper than the Soviet invasion of 1979. In fact, Russia has been constantly engaged in the Caspian area for nearly three centuries, since the troops of Peter the Great invaded Baku in 1722. All other players, including Great Britain, had to quit the game at some stage, but Russia’s uninterrupted history of engagement has continued through two major upheavals in 1917 and 1991. At the first of these watersheds, the most remarkable shift was the decision of the newly-born Soviet government to establish fair and equal relations with neighbors to the South, confirmed in the treaties with Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, which marked an important departure from the imperialist norms of international relations. As for the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the most significant feature was Moscow’s instant readiness to accept the newly independent states as partners and its ability to exercise certain self-restraint against resurgent neo-imperialist impulses in the 1990s. The collapse of the USSR resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of participants in the game, whose ranks have further swollen by the arrival of various quasi-state (like Abkhazia or Chechnya), non-state (like Chevron or LUKOil) or anti-state (like Al Qaeda) actors. While Russia is not entirely comfortable in this crowd, it is possible to reflect that for Moscow the game was never only about Central Asia, but much greater in scope, stretching from the Balkans to the Far East. Such a game obviously had several theatres with different combinations of actors, but from the Russian perspective, these theatres have always been, to use a term invented in NATO Headquarters, ‘separable but not separate’. The main practical question was the distribution of resources between them. Historically, the main theatre in Russia’s Great Game was the Balkans, where the most significant resources were concentrated, where the most serious risks were encountered – and where the least significant results were achieved. The Caucasus was second in significance, and Central Asia was a very distant third, being more of an opportunistic frontier than a real target of foreign policy. It was an object of geographic expeditions, where a couple of explorers were accompanied by a dozen Cossacks, and only slightly larger military expeditions, which used valuable intelligence obtained by geographers. In fact, the arrival of the MChS troops in Kabul in late November 2001 resembles this pattern more than it does the desperate dash of Russian paratroopers to capture the airfield in Prishtina.
IMPLICATIONS: With this illuminating historical experience, Russia tends to apply the templates of the Great Game of the 19th century to what is seen as the Great Anti-Terrorist Game of the 21st century. The basic spatial template establishes a firm connection between the anti-terrorist operations from Macedonia to Chechnya to Afghanistan and between secessionist attempts from Kosovo to Abkhazia to Xinjiang. There is also an ideological template that prescribes caution with identifying ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ or ‘Wahhabism’ as security challenges, since in spite of all rhetoric, the Kremlin seeks to avoid a full-blown conflict with Islam at any cost. Fighting non-stop with the Ottoman empire for two and a half centuries, Russia refrained from defining this epic struggle as a crusade or a ‘clash of civilizations’. Following this tradition, Moscow nowadays shows few reservations in developing cooperation with Iran, including arms export, ignoring all signals from Washington concerning Tehran’s support to Islamic terrorism. Yet another template defines a very limited scope of possible cooperation with the West. Historically, Russia never had any real allies in the risky gambles of the Great Game – very much in contrast with its European policies, where it was able to form or join an alliance in every major war, carefully calculating the balances of power. Putin’s unequivocal decision to join the US-led anti-terrorist coalition may be seen as a departure from this pattern, but he has certain grounds to claim that it was in fact the West that joined ‘his’ struggle against terrorism, now recognizing Chechnya as a legitimate target in the global war. Russia has shown no eagerness to take on any ‘dirty jobs’ for the US, and may well plan for building up its military presence in Central Asia, assuming that the US has only limited staying power. Meanwhile, Moscow is aware that its moves could be misinterpreted by the West, leading to over-reaction (much the same way as Britain did in the 19th century), and hence remains cautious in engaging its 201st Division based in Tajikistan. Here history provides one more relevant reflection: Afghanistan was never a specific target for Russia’s expansionist policy – whether in the only war of the reign of Alexander III in 1885, or even in the Soviet war of 1979-1988. The aim was always to secure and stabilize Central Asia, and this aim is very much present in today’s maneuvers. The conceptualization of this aim has, however, evolved from being primarily geopolitical to a more complex one, with stronger emphasis on the geo-economics of oil. While Putin is a quintessential gosudarstvennik (holding a statist perspective), he has been learning fast the importance of economic parameters and networks. His foreign policy integrates security policy with energy companies’ interests to such an extent that we can now speak of a Russian energy complex in much the same terms as the Soviet military-industrial complex of the 1970s and 1980s. Afghanistan is definitely peripheral to the interests of this complex, but the Caspian area with its energy riches is very central – as U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham witnessed in late November at the opening of the Caspian Pipeline in Novorossiisk. Russia would feel perfectly comfortable with Afghanistan divided into 4-5 tribal fiefdoms, as long as none of them hosts terrorist networks stretching to Chechnya or Uzbekistan.
CONCLUSIONS: History may inform Russia’s strategy in the global anti-terrorist campaign to a much larger degree than it does the US leadership. If that is indeed the case, we might expect Russia’s policy to be more integrated across the geographic areas and sharply focused on its own interests. These interests may now be defined more in geo-economic than in geopolitical terms, as Russia proceeds in its evolution from a military superpower to an energy power-house.AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Pavel K. Baev is Senior Researcher and Head of the Foreign and Security Policy Program at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway.
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