From Walter Laqueur
Some have said that the Kremlin is unpredictable. I always found the Soviet (Russian) leadership more predictable than the White House.
According to Vladimir Putin, the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the 20th century. If so, one ought to undo (or reduce) the damage, and Moscow is now in a position to do so.
In his view, this does not necessarily mean physical occupation. The Central Asian governments need Russian political and economic help in facing many internal problems; they have every interest to keep close relations with the Kremlin. The same is true with regard to Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Baltic republics on the other hand are weak but indigestible; military occupation is ruled out, the game is not worth the candle. Ukraine and Moldova will be more careful not to antagonize Russia following the events in Georgia.
What of the “near abroad,” the former East European satellites? They too will understand, with a little applied pressure such as military threats, that they belong to the Russian sphere of influence and that it was a mistake to join NATO, which won’t be of any help to them. What of Western Europe? It would perhaps be too much to say that it does not exist, but it certainly does not amount to much. In the absence of a common European foreign and defense policy and above all a common energy policy (which could make them less dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies), one need not bother about the E.U. Their dependence on Russian energy supplies will grow as the North Sea resources will be exhausted in the not-too-distant future.
What does Russian domination mean? Not the imposition of the Soviet model as in the Cold War. The present Soviet example (the petrostate) hardly lends itself for export. But the Kremlin will certainly insist on control of the foreign policy of the states in its sphere of influence, as well as (for instance) censorship and some other measures of control.
Ideally, the restoration of the Russian sphere of domination (or at least influence) should proceed gradually, even slowly. It was Stalin’s mistake after World War Two that he proceeded hastily, which generated resistance, including the emergence of NATO.
But Russia is under time pressure for at least three reasons. First, there is the emotional factor. The temptation to show that Russia has returned to a position of strength is very great. Which Russian leader does not want to enter history as another Peter the Great—not to mention some more recent leaders? Second, Russia’s strength rests almost entirely on its position as the world’s leading oil and gas supplier. But this will not last forever. Nor will it be possible to prevent technological progress forever—alternative sources of energy will be found.
Above all, there is Russia’s demographic weakness. Its population is constantly shrinking (and becoming de-Russified). The duration of military service had to be halved because there are not enough recruits. Every fourth recruit is at present of Muslim background; in a few years it will be every third. The density of population in Asian Russia is 2.5 per square kilometer—and declining. There is no possible way to stop or reverse this process, and depopulation means inevitably the loss of wide territories—not to the Americans.
In these circumstances there is a strong urge not to wait but to act now.
What will be the impact of these trends on the Middle East? Ideally, it would be wise to wait with any major action in the area until Russian domination in its closer neighborhood is established. But if opportunities for a Russian return to the Middle East arise, they should be used.
There are no illusions about finding allies in the region. As one of the last Tsars (Alexander III) said (and as Putin repeated after him), Russia has only two reliable allies: its army and artillery. Among the police and army ideologues there has been of late the idea to give up Panslav dreams, since the Slav brothers can be trusted even less than the rest, and to consider instead a strategic alliance with Turkic peoples. But these are largely fantasies.
The main aim will be to weaken America’s position in the Middle East. In this respect, there are differences of opinion in the Kremlin. Some ex-generals have come on record to the effect that a war with America is inevitable in a perspective of 10-15 years. The influence of these radical military men should not be overrated. But it is certainly true that the belief that America is Russia’s worst and most dangerous enemy is quite common (see for instance the recent Russkaia Doktrina). The downfall of the Soviet empire is thought to be mainly if not entirely America’s fault; Washington, it is believed, is trying to hurt Russia all the time in every possible way. This paranoiac attitude is deeply rooted (in contrast to China) and it will be an uphill struggle in the years to come to persuade the Russian leadership that this is not the case.
Moscow has threatened to supply greater help to Iran and Syria, which would certainly annoy America and perhaps hurt it. But Russia does not want to do this at the price of creating political and military problems for itself in the years to come. Russian distrust does not stop at its southern borders.
The attack on South Ossetia provided Russia with an unique opportunity; it was motivated by a militant Georgian nationalism which failed to understand that small and weak countries, unlike big and powerful ones, are not in a position to keep separatist regions indefinitely under their control. Such opportunities will not frequently return, and other opportunities will have to be created by the Kremlin—probably by exploiting existing conflicts such as those in the Middle East. This could open the door to serious miscalculations.
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