Quarterly: Moscow Nights, Eurasian Dreams

Quarterly: Moscow Nights, Eurasian Dreams

Mini Teaser: While America deploys in Eurasia to fight an abstract proper noun, Moscow seeks to reconstitute its influence on the ground.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. Gvosdev

In 1918, sitting amid the ruins of the Russian Empire, the poet Alexander Blok symbolically expelled Russia from the Western community of nations, renouncing Russia's claim to be the heir and successor to Rome:

We shall abandon Europe and her charm.
We shall resort to Scythian craft and guile.
Swift to the woods and forests we shall swarm,
And then look back, and smile our slit-eyed smile.
Away to the Urals, all!

Blok must have struck a chord, for three years later, a group of emigre intellectuals urged an "Exodus to the East." They had in mind lands between the Vistula and the Amur that to them were neither Europe nor Asia, but a distinct "Ocean-Continent" they called Eurasia. Genghis Khan, the unifier of the steppes, was their hero; Peter the Great, the man who tried to "open a window onto Europe", they despised.

The so-called "Eurasianists", however, never found a receptive audience among ordinary Russians. When Charles de Gaulle visited the Soviet Union in 1966 to proclaim a Europe stretching "from the Atlantic to the Urals", most Russians were more than happy to think of themselves as belonging within a common European home. The lands beyond the Urals (Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus) were instead dragged symbolically toward the west, becoming "European" through their association with Russia-especially so after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, however, the non-Russian republics once referred to as "the Soviet Union in Asia" found themselves spinning in a geopolitical void. Time-sensitive designations (former Soviet republics, "newly-independent states") lose relevance with each passing year. Thus, the term "Eurasia" is being revived, sometimes to refer to the entire ex-USSR, but often to designate only the Caucasus and Central Asia-those countries lying beyond the pale of any realistic prospects of being included in NATO or the eu. An old term has met a new history head on.

Blok prophesied that Eurasia would be the host for a major clash between civilizations:

Quick, leave the land,
And clear the field for trial by blood and sword,
Where steel machines that have no soul must stand
and face the fury of the . . . horde.

And so, in the aftermath of September 11, Eurasia has become the principal front in the war against terror-the crucible where Islamist terrorism and a far more ecumenical system of organized crime merge. Two well-traveled smuggling routes for all types of contraband-drugs, weapons, dirty money, and illegal migrants-crisscross the region. The north-south corridor runs from Afghanistan into European Russia via the Central Asian republics; the trans-Caspian route connects Central Asia with Georgia and Azerbaijan, with further extensions via Chechnya and Dagestan (into Russia and northern Europe) and through Turkey and the Balkans (into southern Europe). Call them, for short, the Sleaze Road and Grifter Avenue. Russian law-enforcement sources estimate that the drug trade alone in Eurasia generates up to $12 billion in income and assets. In places like Uzbekistan (where the average monthly wage is $20) or Georgia (where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line), that kind of money buys about as much political "access" and police "protection" for all sorts of nefarious activities as anyone could reasonably require.

Seen in this light, the optimism radiating from the Oval Office about the "deepening of regional integration" as the sine qua non for the security of the entire region-as a joint U.S.-Kazakh statement in December put it-seems a little misplaced. The weak post-Soviet successor states of the Caucasus and Central Asia are in no position to develop effective multilateral regional institutions capable of effectively meeting the challenges before them. Over the past decade, several organizations have been created with much fanfare-the Central Asian Union, the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Community, GUUAM [Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova] and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization among them. They have accomplished little beyond providing work for underutilized diplomats who excel at making speeches and penning declarations. The newest contender-the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, whose charter was signed on February 28, 2002-is unlikely to break the mold.

Strengthening the states that lie along the southern periphery of Eurasia, especially those that abut centers of Islamic radicalism in southwest Asia, will take time and hard work. Such strengthening would nevertheless appear to be a logical course of action that is in the interest of both Washington and Moscow. How to do this is less clear. Secretary of State Colin Powell envisions a joint effort: "We know that this is something we cannot do without the Russians and something that increasingly they realize can't be done without us, and without the full participation of the countries in the region." The Secretary assumes, however, that Moscow, Washington and the governments of the "Eurasian" republics share a common interest in pursuing such cooperation. Alas, things are not so simple.

Russia finds itself in a Eurasian quandary. For the past decade, it has benefited from the weakness of the post-Soviet successor states in order to maintain its influence within and among them. Facing internal unrest or external threats, several post-Soviet states (notably Tajikistan) have requested the continuing deployment of Russian troops on their soil. Separatist movements in places like Abkhazia or Trans-Dniestria have given Russia the opportunity to deploy its forces in other republics under the guise of peacekeepers. Moscow has played both ends against the middle by giving refuge and succor to political opponents of existing regimes (such as the former president of Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutalibov and the former foreign minister of Turkmenistan, Boris Shikhmuradov), while cultivating links with dissatisfied ethnic minorities (the Lezgins of Azerbaijan, for instance) and regional politicians often at odds with their own central government (such as Aslan Abashidze, the leader of Achara, an autonomous region within Georgia). The Russian special services have also been accused of fomenting coups and assassination attempts against leaders inclined to move their states out of Moscow's orbit.

This, then, is the paradox of Russia's Eurasian policy: the unconsolidated states to the south have been unable to act as an effective barrier between Russia and the maelstrom of Islamic radicalism emanating from southwest Asia, but that same weakness makes these regimes susceptible to Moscow's own reduced means of influence. In the wake of September 11, therefore, any significant financial and security assistance extended from the United States to the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, while it would stand to enhance Russia's own security, could also undermine Russia's Eurasian sphere of influence.

That is why the Russian political elite is anxiously trying to divine American intentions in the region. Washington, however, is sending contradictory signals. Last October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured Central Asian leaders that it was "safe to be associated" with the United States, since the administration was prepared to be engaged for the long term. This view was reiterated from the Democratic side of the aisle by Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle during his visit to Tashkent in January, when he declared that "our presence and our relationship with . . . the countries in the region is one that we look upon in long terms." And yet, barely a month later, on February 11, Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones stated that "we don't want U.S. bases in Central Asia" since "our goal with the Russians is to make sure that they understand we are not trying to compete with them in Central Asia, we're not trying to take over Central Asia from them." If, as Secretary Powell has observed, the "way we are approaching Central Asia is symbolic of the way we are approaching the [U.S.-Russia] relationship as a whole", then America's inconsistent behavior thus far is disconcerting news indeed.

Disregarding Blok's advice to "keep our distance and . . . observe the deadly conflict raging on the field", Vladimir Putin pledged full and enthusiastic support for the anti-terrorism coalition that Washington assembled after September 11. The Russian political elite was initially ecstatic, for it assumed that the United States would task Russia, as a "regional superpower", to keep order in Eurasia. Instead, the United States has opted for direct aid to the post-Soviet republics-including the deployment of its own military forces into Eurasia-rather than asking, and funding, Russia to act as America's proxy.

Georgia is a particularly sore case in point. For years, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze rebuffed Moscow's requests for joint military operations to secure the Pankisi gorge, or for Russian troops to operate on Georgian territory to combat Chechen rebels. After 9/11, Moscow assumed that, as Washington's partner in the war on terrorism, the United States would support Russia's demands vis-ˆ-vis Georgia. On February 18, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called for a Russian-led counter-terrorist operation against suspected terrorist training camps in the Pankisi gorge. Three days later, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, said that the likelihood of any American involvement in such an operation would be "very small", and reiterated Moscow's position that "Russia and Georgia should jointly eradicate this terrorist center in the Pankisi gorge." Then came the announcement that the United States would dispatch a mission to train and equip Georgian forces, which the Russians claim took them unawares. This forced the Russians to backpedal. On February 27, the Speaker of the Duma, Gennady Seleznev, tried to spin American aid to Georgia as an extension of the "international antiterrorist coalition." He reiterated, however, that any "decision on what should be done in the Pankisi gorge can and must be made only within the framework of tripartite consultations between Georgia, Russia and the United States of America."

So far, however, the administration has shown no inclination to involve Russia at all, even in a symbolic fashion, in its Caucasian deployment-though the Russian complaint about the lack of prior U.S. consultation is much exaggerated. The U.S. posture has led two prominent members of the Duma, Dmitry Rogozin (chair of the International Affairs Committee) and Boris Pastukhov (chair of the CIS Affairs Committee) to warn that the administration's unwillingness to involve Russia in the plans for the deployment of U.S. advisors in Georgia would have "a negative impact on bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism."

Some in Russia-and not only in Russia-have concluded that the Bush team views "partnership" with Russia along the lines outlined by Zbigniew Brzezinski in these pages two years ago: namely, that the United States must help Russia divest itself of imperial baggage so that it can be join Western institutions as a major, if not a predominant, actor. The continuing eastward expansion of NATO as well as other post-September 11 developments-from the basing of American forces in Central Asia to the announcement of new aid packages for the post-Soviet states of the region-look to many in Moscow like Brzezinski's recommendation in action: the incipient American "encirclement" of Russia via deployments in the south and NATO expansion to their west.

If this is the case, then why has Putin reacted so dispassionately to this turn of events? It is not simply to cultivate goodwill in the West-although he keeps a portrait of Peter the Great in his office-and it is not only for the enjoyment that annoying his own chattering classes brings. Rather, it is because, in his calculation, the entry of the United States into Central Asia and the Caucasus, far from representing a defeat or a threat, actually constitutes a no-lose situation for Russia.

Take the "train-and-equip" mission to Georgia. The Bush Administration has reportedly given private assurances to the Russian government that U.S. assistance will not be diverted by the Georgians to compel a military solution to the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which maintain close links to Russia. If the mission is successful-and the Georgians clear the Pankisi gorge-a major transit point for the Chechen rebels will be shut down and rear recuperation areas will be lost to them. If the Georgians fail to act, however, the United States, having verified the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in the region, risks damage to its credibility in the war on terrorism. The United States would then have to contemplate a frontline combat role for itself, something it is loath to do, or compel Tbilisi to permit Russian forces to deal with the threat. For Putin, at least, U.S. involvement in Georgia is not, in his words, a "tragedy" for Russia.

Putin apparently views George W. Bush (in terms of his administration, not on a personal level) as an overbearing yet wealthy uncle whose tedious holiday visits can be endured because he presents a lucrative gift at the end of the day. Consider this: the United States did in a matter of weeks what years of Russian aid to the Northern Alliance was unable to do-decapitate the Taliban regime. Washington removed a major threat to the stability and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Russia cannot afford to state-build in Eurasia, while the United States can offer one country, Uzbekistan, long-term financial aid, loans and investments that could easily reach $8 billion-a sum equal to Russia's entire annual military budget. Therefore, while the United States takes on the lion's share of the costs to revamp Eurasia's security architecture, "we are increasing our security, saving the lives of our soldiers, and gaining time for our own rearmament", declared Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky.

Putin is gambling that U.S. guarantees, such as the one extended to Uzbek president Islam Karimov during his visit to Washington this past March, will be of short duration, especially as the threat from Al-Qaeda recedes and the United States seeks to extricate itself from the region. Even though the United States can easily outbid Russia, Washington's concerns about how its assistance might be misused-either by authoritarian regimes seeking to crack down on opposition movements, or by corrupt local officials to improve the quality of the protection they extend to criminal organizations-means that tensions between Washington and its new "partners" are inevitable. The United States will not endure them if the reward for doing so is already paid out.

For the locals, post-9/11 developments are simply one more set of steps in the "Eurasian shuffle", as regional leaders dance between Moscow and Washington to secure maximum advantage. Karimov himself is most adept at this waltz. When it appeared that the United States was prepared to play a more active role in Central Asia, especially in the energy sector, he declared, in 1995: "The presence of the United States in Central Asia is a guarantee of stability in [this] part of the world." When no large-scale Western investment materialized, and when Washington intensified its criticisms of his unreconstructed authoritarianism, Karimov made the pilgrimage to the Kremlin, where, in May of last year, he pronounced: "We favor Russia's presence in Central Asia. This is a fundamental guarantee of security and stability in the region." Karimov may be America's new best friend but when the relationship with the United States cools (whether over human rights, lack of democratization or corruption), Moscow will be waiting to receive the prodigal back into the common Eurasian home.

Even if the United States intends to establish a long-term presence in the region, the naval base at Guantanamo Bay is a telling example of how a military presence in an area can have virtually no impact at all on events in the host country. Given the U.S. penchant for "freezing" conflicts indefinitely rather than expending its own treasure and energy to craft final solutions, Russia can retain its forward "enclaves" in the region (such as peacekeepers in Abkhazia or Tajikistan, or the base at Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia) to counterbalance any American presence.

Moreover, the lack of substantial Western investment in the region, other than in the hydrocarbons sector in certain areas, allows Russia to retain a considerable degree of economic and political leverage in the new Eurasia. The Russian economy remains underdeveloped by Western standards, but Russia is an El Dorado for millions of legal and illegal guest workers who send remittances back to their families in the Caucasus and Central Asia. After years of decline caused by the Soviet breakup, trade between Russia and its former Soviet republics grew by more than 40 percent in 2000, totaling over $25 billion. Finally, several years of continuous growth in the Russian economy-not to mention the enormous profits obtained by Russian corporations, especially in the energy sector-have enabled Russian firms to buy up assets, at bargain prices, in other Eurasian countries (as well as in eastern Europe) where Western investors still fear to tread. An influential Ukrainian newspaper thus opined, "Moscow will not go anywhere. The old debts and old links that determine mutual dependence will stay."

Putin has thus revealed himself as the consummate pragmatist. While the United States fixes its gaze on the open-ended, idealistic task of rooting out global terrorism (and dispenses its largesse in pursuit of that lofty goal), Russia has kept its eye firmly on the more earthy objective of resurrecting its power and influence among its neighbors. One result of the Russo-American "partnership" in the war on terrorism is likely to be a revived and strengthened Russia as the dominant power in Eurasia, and this will cost Russia not a single kopeck in the coin of its institutional advance toward Europe. Putin can thus be both "Peter" (opening Russia to Western investment and technology, and further integrating Russia into Western institutions) and "Genghis" (rebuilding the groundwork for a Russian-dominated Eurasia)-if we let him.

Essay Types: Essay