HOW DOES HISTORY INFORM RUSSIAS POLICY IN THE GREAT ANTI-TERRORIST GAME?

Dr. Pavel K. BAEV


Pavel Baev, Senior Researcher and Head of the Foreign and Security Policy Program at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)


History is not necessarily a factor that matters in fighting the nasty wars in Eurasias war zone that stretches from Albania to Kashmirand even in thinking about winning these wars.1 Such thinking is often an exercise in bridge-building between strategic planning and conflict resolution; there is hardly much place for history in the former, while in the latter approach it is strongly recommendable to leave history completely out. Around a negotiation table, it serves only as a source of exaggerated claims and a justification for the inability to achieve progress. Indeed, the first condition an efficient mediator places on such table is to bracket out all archival evidence and heroic myths, focusing on issues that really matter: economy and ethnicity, geography and government. For that matter, Lakhdar Brahimi had hardly encouraged historical debates during the surprisingly successful horse-trading negotiations between various Afghan factions in Koenigswinter (Bonn).2

The need to examine historical records of the Great Game comes essentially from the proposition that the key external actors are not at all looking at the war in Afghanistan from a conflict resolution perspective. For the sake of pragmatism, it is assumed here that all members of the coalition have various agendas, where military objectives are often out of synch with political goals, but invariably view the armed conflict as means to larger goals, defined mostly in geopolitical terms.3 The term game is used here for the complex cooperative/competitive interactions of the key external actors without any denigrate meaning and, for that matter, without any connotation to the game theory.

History, therefore, does inform the strategy of the main players in the Caspian area in what was the Great Oil Game in the late 1990s and what has become a Great Anti-Terrorist Game after the watershed of 11 September, 2001. And of all these players it is Russia that has the most illuminating and informative historical experience, even if only by virtue of the sheer length of involvement. Indeed, Russia has been constantly engaged in this game for nearly three centuries, since the troops of Peter the Great captured Baku in 1722.4 All other players were forced to quit on some stage: even Great Britain had to withdraw to the West of Suez after parting with her colonial possessions and has returned only tentatively, with the British Petroleum in Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s and with mostly symbolic contributions to the U.S. war.5 Turkey turned into an introvert country after World War I and was essentially frozen out after World War II; since the early 1990s, it has been very cautiously contemplating a possible return to the Caucasus and potential cost/benefits from brotherly ties with the new Turkic states of Central Asia.6

It has to be emphasized that in Russias uninterrupted history of engagement there were two major radical changes of the very format of the game in the 20th century. The first came as a result of the great revolution of 1917, and its major consequence was not the direct revolutionary spill-over (the invasion of the Northern Iran was very short-term, while Leon Trotskys vision of red cavalry streaming into India never materialized),7 but the very clear and meaningful decision to establish fair and equal relations with neighbors to the South, confirmed in the treaties with Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. To be sure, those treaties did not prevent Russia from taking back Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan by military force,8 or from brutally exterminating the basmachi uprising in Turkestan, but they did mark an important departure from the imperialist norms of international relations.

The second reformatting of the game happened due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and here again Russia demonstrated from the very start readiness to accept newly independent states as partners with own interests and legitimate rights. It is pretty obvious that the first impulse of political disengagement (driven by the desire to advance own reforms and join the West) was short-lived and soon gave way to traditional desires to dominate the area,9 which became more pronounced with the arrival of Evgeny Primakov at the Foreign Ministry. President Putin, while abandoning the template of multi-polar world, has invested serious efforts in consolidating Russias positions in the Caspian area;10 here lies an important difference between his rapprochement with the West and Kozyrevs Go-West course.

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. has resulted in unprecedented proliferation of participants in the game, and now their ranks has further swollen by the arrival of various quasi-state (like Abkhazia or Chechnia), 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 about Central Asia only, but was much greater in scope, stretching from the Balkans to the Far East. Such a game obviously had several theaters with different combinations of actors in each, but Moscow was their natural point of connection; the current attempts to integrate conflict management in Kosovo, Chechnia and Afghanistan in the context of anti-terrorist operations fit into this pattern perfectly. From the Russian perspective, these theaters have always been separable but not separate (to use the term invented in NATO Headquarters) and the main practical question was about the distribution of resources between them.

Historically, the main theater in Russias Great Game was the South-Western, or the Balkans, where most significant resources were concentrated, most serious risks were encountered (the Crimean War showed their true scale)and least significant results were achieved (Crimea was the top prize, hence the pain of losing it to Ukraine).11 The Caucasus was the second in significance, but Central Asia was a very distant third, being more of an opportunistic frontier than a real target for foreign policy. While the Balkans have since the reign of Catherine the Great attracted plenty of public attention (providing ground for the Slavophile ideology) and the Caucasus has generated a strong impact on the Russian culture (particularly the literature), Central Asia by and large remained unnoticed. It was an object of geographic expeditions, where a couple of explorers were accompanied by a dozen of Cossacks, and only slightly larger military expeditions, which used the valuable intelligence obtained by geographers.12 The arrival of the Ministry of Emergencies troops in Kabul in late November 2001 for setting up a field hospital (which doubled as the embassy) resembles this pattern more than it does the famous paratroopers march on Pristina from April 1999.

It is perhaps slightly ironic that it is on this opportunistic theater, which received only peripheral attention and left-over resources, that Russia achieved its most impressive territorial gains. But there is plentiful evidence to assert that British responses to this expansion were a case of serious over-reaction, driven perhaps by the fears of uprisings in India and pains of defeats in Afghanistan. From the Russian perspective, the postulates of Mackinders geopolitics were hardly anything more than a peculiar academic paradox, and the empirical evidence of controlling the Heartland for more than a century suggests that Moscow in fact was not that far off target. Looking closely at the records of Russian penetration into Iran, it is also possible to conclude that the passionate and eternal Russian drive toward the warm waters of the Indian Ocean was entirely a figment of British imagination, exploited more recently by Vladimir Zhirinovskiy.13 Russias Great Game was historically about acquiring control over the Black Sea Straights,14 but the application of this term to the sands of Central Asia was indeed incomprehensible.

One specific feature of Russias expansion and contraction in the South is that it has always been very careful about avoiding a full-blown ideological conflict with Islam. Fighting non-stop with the Ottoman Empire for two and a half centuries (from the first Azov expedition of Peter the Great to the World War I), Russia consciously refrained from defining this epic struggle as a crusade or a clash of civilizations. Incorporating territories with Muslim population first in the Caucasus and then in Central Asia, Russia made no effort at converting them to Christianity and maintained only minimal missionary activities. Present-day identification of Islamic terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism or Wahhabism as security challenges marks a certain departure from this pattern, but again, the appointment of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Supreme Mufti of Chechnia, to the position of the head of local government shows that Putin remains very cautious about alienating Islam. Another point here is Moscows clear intention to continue cooperation with Iran, including arms export and nuclear projects, no matter what allegations about the support for Islamic terrorists are coming from Washington.15

Another distinguishable feature is that trade and economic interests more generally have never been a driving factor of territorial expansion. While the cotton from Central Asia did play an important role in the rapid development of Russias textile industry in the late 19th century, it was an advantage discovered post factum. As for the Soviet policy of industrialization, it was never a part of any game and had a problematic economic foundation; hence the scale of economic dislocation in many newly-independent states after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Imperial Russia was never quite able to consolidate its influence in Iran primarily due to the weakness of economic ties, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from an economic perspective was a disaster from day one. Russian experiments with conflict management in the former Soviet South in the 1990s generally follow this historical pattern; there was an obvious over-reliance on military instruments with very little effort to promote economic ties.16 With the arrival of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, there has been a noticeable change toward the economic power projection, first of all in the energy area. While being a quintessential gosudarstvennik (state-comes-first may be the best way to translate this Russian school of thought), Putin has shown a surprising ability to integrate corporate interests in his strategy, and has achieved some impressive results. Indeed, on the background of the war in Afghanistan an event that attracted too little attention was the opening of the Caspian pipeline, which marked a triumph of Russias efforts to play the Kazakh oil against the Azeri oil and outflank the Baku-Ceyhan project.17 While own history contains few informative points for Putin on how to shift the emphasis from the military-industrial complex to the energy complex, he may well learn from the records of joint field work of the British Petroleum and the British government.

Yet another remarkable feature of Russias engagement in the Great Game is that it never had any real allies in the risky gambles. That is very much in contrast with its European policies, where in every major war since the challenge from Peter the Great to Swedens Charles XII, Russia was able to form or to join an alliance, carefully calculating the balances of power. In the South, it was most of the time carrying the burden alone and watching the friends even more carefully than the enemies (Austria was never a reliable ally against the Turks, and Britains failure to intercept German cruisers Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean at the start of World War I came as no surprise).18 Here again, Russia's unequivocal decision to join the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition may be seen as a departure from this pattern, particularly after all sorts of irritated noises about the U.S. and NATO penetration in the late 1990s.19 On the other hand, Putin has certain grounds to claim that in fact it is the West which has joined his struggle against terrorism in which Chechnia has been just one theater. Russia by no means has shown any eagerness to take on dirty jobs for the U.S., and may well plan for building up its military presence in Central Asia, assuming that the U.S. has only limited staying power.20

Overall, history may inform Russias policy in the first war of the new century (if we do not give credit to Chechnia) to a much greater degree than the U.S. leadership. If that is indeed the case, we might expect Russias policy to be more integrated across the geographic areas and sharply focused on 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 powerhouse.


1 This article is based on the presentation at the seminar The Great Game in Central Asia: Past, Present and Future organized by the Network of Asian Studies, University of Oslo, 3 November, 2001.

2 It could perhaps be mentioned that the German hosts (who hardly possess massive insight in the history of the region) played an equally important facilitating role, while Chancellor Schroeder largely turned the event into a personal photo op against a mildly exotic backdrop of beards, turbans and men in robes (John Vinocur, Peace in Kabul or Not, Berlin Wins on Global Stage, International Herald Tribune, 7 December, 2001).

3 Fareed Zakaria tried to argue against President Bushs initial position that the U.S. was not in the nation-building business in Afghanistan, maintaining that political stability in Afghanistan has a vital impact on U.S. national security (Fareed Zakaria, The Coming Priority: Nation-Building Lite, Newsweek, 22 October, 2001, p. 17).

4 Peters expedition against Khiva in 1717 ended in disaster, but against Persia he was more successful, explaining forcefully to the Shah that it was much wiser to cede Baku and Derbent to Russia, which was his friend, than to lose them to Turkey, which was his enemy. The Shah, according to one historian, was in no position to argue against this Russian logic (Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, 1980, p. 827).

5 In all fairness, Britains role in the global war is much greater than its physical contribution, since Prime Minister Blair has emerged as the evangelist-in-chief of the coalition, pioneering nothing less than a wholesale rethink about international relations and the meaning of national interests (Stryker McGuire, Onward, Christian Soldier, Newsweek, 3 December, 2001, p. 46).

6 For good insight, see: Bülent Aras, Turkish Foreign Policy Toward Transcaucasus, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 5 (11), 2001, pp. 78-89; Ramazan Özey, The Geopolitical Importance and the Main Problems of the Turkic World, Eurasian Studies, Vol. 20, Special Issue, Summer 2001, pp. 83-94.

7 Trotskys argument for shifting the main direction of the permanent revolution from Europe to the East found little support as too exotic: The road to India may prove at the given moment to be more readily passable and shorter for us than the road to Soviet Hungary (quoted from: Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1973, Second Edition, Praeger, New York, 1974, p. 121).

8 Stalin wrote in October 1920: The so-called independence of so-called independent Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Finland, etc. is only an illusion and conceals the utter dependence of these apologies for states on one or another group of imperialists (J.V. Stalin, The Policy of the Soviet Government on the National Question in Russia, Works, Vol. 4, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, p. 365).

9 For my earlier analysis of this shift, see: Pavel Baev, Russian Military Thinking and the Near Abroad, Janes Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 12, December 1994, pp. 531-533.

10 For a balanced analysis of Russias intentions and capabilities, see: Roland Dannreuther, Can Russia Sustain Its Dominance in Central Asia? Security Dialogue, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2001, pp. 245-258.

11 On the attitude in the Russian military toward Crimea, see: Sven Gunnar Simonsen, You Take Your Oath Only Once: Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet, and National Identity Among Russian Officers, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2000, pp. 289-316.

12 Famous Russian historian Mikhail Florinskiy wrote about the expansion toward Boukhara and Khiva: The conquest of these and adjacent regions was due largely to the endeavor (and insubordination) of three generalsCherniaev, von Kaufmann and Skobelev (Michael T. Florinskiy, Russia: A Short History, Macmillan Publishing, London, 1969, p. 324).

13 In his famous autobiography The Last Dash to the South (Poslednii brosok na iug, Raut Publishers, Moscow, 1993), Zhirinovskiy wrote about his vision of Russian soldiers who wash their boots in the waters of Indian Ocean and change forever into summer uniforms.

14 It should be noted that Britain and France agreed to reward Russia for its contribution to the allied efforts in World War I with this prize only in late 1916, butaccording to the British ambassador, that news fell perfectly flat in the State Duma (Michael T. Florinskiy, op. cit., p. 400).

15 For informed analysis, see: Brenda Shaffer, Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran, Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, 2001.

16 I looked into this deficiency in: Pavel Baev, Peacekeeping and Conflict Management in Eurasia, in: Roy Allison and Christoph Bluth (eds.), Security Dilemmas in Russia and Eurasia, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1998.

17 For a penetrating analysis, see: Amy Myers Jaffe and Robert A. Manning, Russia, Energy and the West, Survival, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 2001, pp. 133-152.

18 For a detailed account of the hard encounters of the Black Sea Fleet with these cruisers that greatly reinforced the Turkish Navy, see: Rene Greger, The Russian Fleet, 1914-1917, Ian Allan Publishers, London, 1972.

19 See: Robin Bhatty and Rachel Bronson, NATOs Mixed Signals in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Survival, Vol. 42, No. 3, Autumn 2000, pp. 129-145.

20 Speaking with the media before his visit to Greece in December 2001, Putin mentioned that he did not expect any permanent U.S. military presence in Central Asia after the operation in Afghanistan and emphasized that Russia could not be indifferent to security developments in the region (see: Putin Says U.S. Troops Wont Stay in Central Asia, Reuters, 5 December, 2001 in Johnsons Russia List No. 5582).


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