Editor’s note: This essay is an excerpt of the new Hoover Press book Russia and Its Islamic World.
It is widely assumed that Russian foreign and domestic policies operate quite independently of each other. This is not the way to make sense of Russia and its Islamic world. Not the least of the reasons is that the manner in which the Kremlin treats its Muslim citizens is inextricably linked to the manner in which it deals with the neighboring Muslim states of the former Soviet Union. Thus, when Putin is affirming his benign intentions toward Muslims in those states, the question arises about how he is dealing with discontent in the Muslim-inhabited territories of the Russian Federation itself. Nothing gives greater cause for concern than the scorched-earth offensive in Chechnya that he ordered in 1999 when still only Yeltsin’s prime minister.
The ex-Soviet independent states in central Asia, moreover, have their own reasons to distrust the Russian claim to benevolent intentions. Russians and their rulers display something like the postimperial syndrome that affected Britain and France after the Second World War when they gave up their colonies around the world. Russia has increasingly tried to bar the other great powers from acquiring influence in the former Soviet republics in the south of the old USSR—and it is beyond dispute that Putin’s management of ties with them is intertwined with Russian military operations in the Middle East.
Russia’s involvement with its Islamic world is shaped by a triangle of factors: the Muslim factor in the Russian Federation, the Muslim factor in the Russian interaction with ex-Soviet central Asia, and the Muslim factor in Russian military and political interventions in the Middle East. None of these factors can be properly understood if it is examined separately from the other two.
In the longer term, and perhaps sooner rather than later, this three-cornered interaction is likely to be at the fulcrum of events as the Russian president, government, and security agencies confront their many challenges. Foreign Muslims have no value for the leadership in Moscow except as a means to an end, and Putin’s pose as the Islamic world’s best friend is no more than a pose—and a hypocritical one at that. He has no preference about the kind of Islam he finds among his Muslim allies and clients. Iran’s Ali Khamenei is a Shia, Syria’s Assad an Alawite, Turkey’s Erdoğan a Sunni. Russian foreign policy is aimed predominantly at reducing the American impact in those parts of Europe and the Middle East where the USSR used to exert influence. The objective is to restore Russian pride and impact. It is of no concern to Putin that he is raising high the beams of savagery inside and beyond Russia’s borders. Putin aims to make the world accept Russia as a great power whose interests require respect, and he tramples on political dissent wherever it arises in the Russian Federation.
Putin’s policies bristle with risks. Russian politicians and commanders have intervened in Islamic parts of the world ostensibly with the universal principle of protecting the sovereignty of individual states. This was obviously in flagrant contradiction of their behavior in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Assad, Khamenei, and Erdoğan are aware that Putin regards them as his pawns in a geopolitical chess game. They themselves hope to use him for their own national purposes. Putin calculates that so long as Russian ground troops are kept to a minimum, there is no danger of an imbroglio such as followed both the 1979 Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and the America-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after the turn of the millennium. But Middle Eastern politics are more unpredictable than a game of chess because they are conducted without any agreed rules. Military interventions, even ones involving a successful offensive, can result in disastrous complications. Catastrophe has not yet taken place for Putin, but he is no more gifted with the powers of clairvoyance than Leonid Brezhnev was about Afghanistan or George W. Bush about Iraq.
Putin likes to give the impression of being able to do as he likes. The reality, however, is that Russia has no lasting capacity to dictate the terms of its Syrian intervention. The Russian economy has gross weaknesses that arise from its dependence on world petrochemical market prices. The country’s international standing rests on the narrow foundation of gas and oil revenues so that the bid for power beyond Russian borders may yet prove to be chimerical. America in particular will have opportunities to complicate Russia’s presence in Syria just as the Americans once made trouble for the Soviet Union in the Afghan war. Russia’s allies, moreover, are likely to exploit their opportunities to impose their choices on their patron. It is far from inconceivable that Moscow will find itself sucked into Middle Eastern conflicts that its government has failed to foresee.
Even so, Putin’s personal popularity remains high among Russians for thumbing his nose at American presidents. He has restored confidence to a people whose morale plummeted in the last decade of the twentieth century along with the standard of living and the value of the ruble. The decade of the 1990s is one that the Russian people seek to forget. Putin has staked his reputation on an ability to continue to make Russia feared and respected abroad. This has placed a premium on the need for assertive behavior; the more that Putin behaves like a mad dog in the global pit, the better the Russian electorate admires him. There is a growing temptation for him to take gambles, and it cannot be discounted that he will take one risk too many in the Middle East, Ukraine, or the Baltic states. Having played the nationalist card in Russia’s politics, he cannot now remove it from the pack and throw it aside. Any potential successor would find it difficult to remain in office without continuing the policies of vigorous nationalism. All this involves a danger to world peace that is likely to fester and grow.
It would be a mistake, moreover, to assume that Russia’s Muslims will always accept Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and spurn Islamist criticism of Putin. The attention of Russia’s television news outlets to the Syrian civil war, especially to Russian military operations, inevitably sharpens public knowledge of the devastation of cities. Although the broadcast media from 2015 insisted that Russian warplanes attacked only Islamist rebel units, it did not require much imagination to suspect that thousands of Sunni Muslim civilians were slaughtered. Russia’s agenda in the Middle East has the potential to backfire politically on the Russian government.
The situation is probably even more combustible in ex-Soviet central Asia, where oppressive kleptocracies have dominated since communism fell apart. The episodic outbursts of discontent show that the authoritarian administrations are frailer than they appear. Local Islamists see opportunities for implanting their ideas among Muslims who are unhappy about authoritarianism. The potential for eruptions of popular protest exists in several of the states across Russia’s southern borders. One possible result would be the emergence of an Islamist regime somewhere in the former USSR, a regime that might well cause trouble for a Russia that since 1991 has supported anti-Islamists throughout the region.
The world may yet witness seismic disruptions in central Asia and the south Caucasus, where post-Soviet rulers have kept order by the kind of severities that were applied by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and by the Assads in Syria. In such a situation, Russia would be particularly vulnerable to trouble because of its prominence in rendering assistance to anti-Sunni powers in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon. A government of Sunni jihadists in central Asia would hardly aspire to an accommodation with Russia’s ruling elite.
Memories are long in Chechnya. The Russian conquest was completed a mere century and a half ago, and many Chechens, like some neighboring peoples, simply refuse to accept their north Caucasus as being part of Russia. Though the latest outbreak of Chechen resistance was crushed in 1999−2000, the tranquility of pacification may not last long. Nor can it be taken for granted that the Volga Tatars and Crimean Tatars will stay quiet forever. Other countries have witnessed a sudden growth of Islamist extremism among their young Muslims, and the Russian Federation is heating a cauldron of resentments.
Both internally and externally, furthermore, Russia has had direct experience of the Islamic world over many centuries since the time of the Golden Horde. It has managed its own Muslims without excessive difficulty since the fifteenth century when Muscovy shook off the Mongol yoke; and as the Russian borders expanded, more and more Muslim communities fell under tsarist dominion. Although revolts were not infrequent, the imperial armies were more than a match for the rebels. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Russia’s pretensions to oversight of the Ottoman Empire’s affairs provoked the British and French into military action in Crimea. At the same time, the Russian authorities sought to prevent the Ottomans from appealing over their heads to Russia’s Muslims.
In the twentieth century the complications of internal and external factors sharpened as the communist revolutionaries tried to integrate Muslim communities in the former Russian Empire while eroding religious belief among them and creating communist parties in the Muslim lands of European imperial powers, including the Middle East. When the USSR itself emerged as a superpower after the Second World War, the Kremlin tried to entice whole Muslim states into its zone of influence even while continuing to obstruct the observance of the Islamic faith inside its own frontiers.
The Islamic faith enjoyed a resurgence in the USSR in the perestroika years, and active resistance to communist authority strengthened. In 1989, the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan under pressure from the mujahidin. Since the fall of communism in 1991, the anti-Russian Islamist militants—unlike jihadis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—have made use of advanced technological facilities. The victories of Russian armed forces in the north Caucasus have fallen short of expunging terrorist groups from Russia’s territories. Although the ruling elite has stabilized politics in the Russian Federation, there is no certainty that the stability will be of long duration. This is one of the reasons why Putin puts so much reliance on authoritarian methods to suppress dissent. It is also predominantly why, in a period of economic recession when the government has reduced its welfare budget, he has played to the nationalist gallery in his country.
This has created a precarious conjuncture in Russia, its “near abroad,” and the Middle East. The perils of Putin’s maneuvers are growing, and it must be hoped that he behaves with prudence in some kind of relationship with the Trump administration. This would objectively be in the Russian national interest. But even if Putin succeeds in keeping Assad in power in Damascus, such an outcome will not bring about a permanent peace across the Middle East—and Russia could suddenly find itself dragged into a military quagmire just as the USSR did in Afghanistan. Should Putin not behave with caution, other powers will inevitably feel the need to restrain him. Even so, talks are preferable to wars; stability is better than volatility. Putin has proved a point by gaining acceptance of Russia as a great power. But it is a power with an Achilles’ heel in its economy and with a Chinese neighbor that dwarfs Russia in industrial and technological dynamism. The chances for world peace will ultimately depend on the recognition by Russian rulers that their prospects of lasting success depend on their willingness to treat the West as a partner, not an enemy.
Reagan and Gorbachëv in the late 1980s demonstrated what is achievable if mutual trust can be established. But whereas in the late 1980s the USSR sorely needed a respite from the demands of the arms race, Russia nowadays is looking for ways to shake up the world order. Global politics have entered a time of intense instability, and Islamic factors are exerting a disruptive impact on the search for peace.