Russia's Strategic Direction

IN A PREVIOUS article entitled “Lessons From Chechnya,” published in Whiskey & Gunpowder on Oct. 23, I discussed the history of Russia’s war in Chechnya, and some of the implications for both Russia and the West. In the context of analyzing a war that has lasted for more than a decade, I described the initial calamity that befell Russian forces as they attempted to enter Grozny on Dec. 31, 1994. I referred to a Russian newspaper of the time that ran a headline summing up the caliber of disaster, calling the event the “Tsushima of the Caucasus.” Let’s start there.

Tsushima and Its Progeny

I have written extensively about the original Battle of Tsushima, fought at sea between the respective navies of Russia and Japan on May 27, 1905. One of the implications of that epic naval engagement was that the severe Russian military loss, to the up and rising Japanese, inspired other nations and cultures around the world with the idea that “the West,” or certainly the imperial, occupying Western powers as symbolized by Russia, could be defeated.

That is, Tsushima was not just a spot on a map where a battle had occurred. Tsushima became an idea with great power. The victory of the Japanese at Tsushima was the direct inspiration for the founding of local resistance movements from the Philippines (against the Americans) to Indochina (against the French), from India (against the British) to Egypt (against the Turks — not quite the West, but close enough). And this is not the complete list. It is no mere coincidence in time that a revolution in Persia started to gain traction in June 1905, just a month after Tsushima, as the Persian people revolted against a leader who they perceived to be a puppet of the now-weakened Russian masters.

And so it is appropriate to wonder about the effects of the “modern Tsushima,” or the “Tsushima of the Caucasus,” at Grozny in 1994, where both a modern Russian armored unit and motorized rifle regiment were all but annihilated. Just as Osama bin Laden has referred on occasion to the U.S. leaving Somalia after suffering casualties there in October 1993, so does some of the cultural myth behind the current concept of Islamic jihad trace its origins to 1994 and the Russian debacle at Grozny.

The Origins of Our Modern War

In my previous article, I referred to a recent article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta by a well-regarded, well-connected Russian commentator, Sergei Karaganov. The title of Karaganov’s article was “The Battle Was Won, but the War Is Being Lost.” The occasion for Karaganov’s article was a retrospective on the five years since the events in the United States of Sept. 11, but his scope was wider than just recalling what occurred on that day. His thesis is that the U.S. has essentially lost the “political war” against militant Islam, and that the U.S. leadership never took the trouble to understand the origin of anti-Western attitudes in the Muslim world. This is not exactly a novel charge, but what makes Karaganov’s article interesting is his very much Russian-oriented take on things.

I believe that Karaganov has many good points to make (see below), although in my earlier article I took him to task for his rather rosy view of the situation embodied by Russian forces and national interests in Chechnya. It is a bit early for another Victory Day parade. I suggested that perhaps the Russians have failed as well in their war, certainly in not understanding the origins of Chechen animosity towards Russia, and the Chechen eagerness to fight to the death resisting Russian rule.

First, I noted that the Chechens bear a festering and deep-seated hatred of Russia as a result of not just 200 years of Russian rule, but also for the Stalin-era deportation that almost wiped their kind from the face of the Earth. And second, even in the face of the general trend of world economic development, Chechen society is a traditional one in which religion and warrior skills are part of the way of life. Religion and the concomitant warrior culture are two things that no outsider will ever change in that part of the world. Thus, I believe that Russia is far from the end of its own struggle with militant Islam, as embodied in the history of its war in Chechnya. Where will Russia go from here? And can Russia get there? With the foregoing in mind, let’s take a look at what else Karaganov has to say.

Tactical Victories

Karaganov noted in his article:

“Americans also won two tactical victories. With [Russia’s] help and Iran’s, they routed the Taliban, who had been moving inexorably into the southern republics of the former Soviet Union. Al-Qaida lost many of its bases, but it did not expire, and it was not eliminated. Washington’s other tactical victory was its ability to avert a repetition of the tragic events of Sept. 11 [so far] with the help of internal security measures that seriously undermined the appeal of the American society. The special services, separately and sometimes in concert, managed to prevent many terrorist acts in Russia and other European countries, but many terrible terrorist acts nevertheless were committed.”

There are numerous loaded comments in this paragraph. Apparently, the Russians are pleased that the U.S., in essence, assisted them by routing the Taliban “who had been moving inexorably into the southern republics of the former Soviet Union.” By attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. opened the proverbial “second front” against the enemies of Russia. This has measurably reduced the pressure on Russian forces along their southern line of demarcation with the Islamic world, and given the Russians some measure of time and breathing room.

Karaganov continues:

“This is not the main thing, however. The Americans decided that terrorism had to be combated by forcing democracy on people and clambered into Iraq. They have already lost the political war. [Iraq] is mired in civil war and has become a huge training ground for future terrorists of every hue. When the Americans leave, and this event is not that distant, this entire international group of terrorists will start spreading out in all directions. I am afraid they will be moving in our direction too. This proved something that had already seemed obvious enough. Networks like al-Qaida cannot be destroyed by broad-scale military operations. In fact, this seems to promote their growth.”

On the one hand, in his article, Karaganov heaps praise on the Russian military approach to putting down the Islamic rebellion of Chechnya. But in this paragraph, he also cautions that “Networks like al-Qaida cannot be destroyed by broad-scale military operations.” Confusing? Well, yes, but it is a confusing world. Karaganov’s argument is actually not all that distant from a well-regarded, rapidly evolving and rising school of strategic thought within the U.S. military sphere. That U.S. school of thought speaks in terms of realpolitik, and of fighting a highly focused “counterinsurgency war” against Islamic fanaticism, but such labels may be too narrow to convey the whole developing theme. This rapidly gets into a complex discussion that is not quite the subject of this article, so for now, let’s get back to Karaganov and his views from Moscow:

“Almost nothing has been done in the last few years to foster sensible and extensive dialogue between civilizations or to promote participation in the gentle modernization of the Middle East Muslim states and elite, which are lagging behind the progressive countries.

“The West — or, to put it more precisely, the American leadership — never took the trouble to understand that most of the anti-Western and anti-Christian attitudes do not stem from differing values or from cultural and religious differences. Bin Laden does not have many negative things to say about Western culture. These attitudes are largely a result of the West’s unfair treatment of the countries of that region. This impression, compounded by the region’s underdevelopment, the causes of which I have enumerated more than once in this newspaper, has given rise to an increasingly common and increasingly serious Muslim ‘Weimar syndrome.'”

A Muslim Weimar Syndrome

A Muslim “Weimar syndrome”? This gets into a profoundly important exploration of how Islam can cope with Western modernity, and, of course, vice versa. Can both schools of thought truly coexist, even as Soviet communism and Western capitalism stared at each other across the barbed wire fences for half a century? Karaganov is too glib about this point, in my view, and he overlooks the singularly most obvious aspect of the growing conflict in Russia’s south, as well as in much of the world, which is the nature of fundamentalist Islam itself.

The columnist who writes under the name Spengler, at Asia Times, has discussed this critical point at length. Spengler has noted:

“Western policy toward the Muslim world appears stupid and clumsy because its theological foundations are flawed. It is not what it is, nor what it was, but rather what it does that defines a religion: How does a faith address the paramount concern of human mortality, and what action does it require of its adherents?”

By this, Spengler means, “Jihad does for Muslims precisely what communion does for Christians. It is not a doctrine, but a sacrament, that is, a holy act that transforms the actor.” Or elsewhere:

“Jihad also is a form of human sacrifice. He who serves Allah so faithfully as to die in the violent propagation of Islam goes straight to paradise, there to enjoy virgins or raisins, depending on the translation. But Allah is not the revealed god of loving kindness or…a god of reason, that is, of cold calculation. Islam admits no expiatory sacrifice. Everyone must carry his own spear.”

Islam on the Offense

Jihad as communion? And “Everyone must carry his own spear”? If Spengler is correct, how does the characteristic Western mind even begin to grasp the import of what is going on in this world? The West has not had to deal with “religious wars” within its own culture for several centuries, and has not had to deal with religious wars between civilizations for almost a thousand years. Even the Pacific theater of the Second World War and the fight against Japan was over old-fashioned access to resources and expansion of political and economic power. Not even the most wild-eyed Japanese ever claimed that Japan was expanding across the Pacific and throughout Asia to bring the blessings of Shinto to the infidels.

The West deals with warfare in terms of what are called, euphemistically, “battles of ideas.” But in Chechnya, the Middle East, and elsewhere, we in the West appear to be confronting a war in the form of a “battle of ideas with faith.” That is, Western ideas, of which there are a multitude (and not at all internally consistent), are in contest with fundamentalist Islamic faith, that particular faith being an all-but monolithic “idea” in and of itself. Such concepts are as alien to the Western mind as would be finding life on the moons of Saturn, such as little bugs swimming in super-cold pools of liquid ethane. But I do not want to stray too far from the theme of this article. So enough of Spengler and his religious discussions for the moment. Let’s get back to the Russian Karaganov and his views:

“The mounting anti-Western sentiment cannot be blamed solely on the West, however. Bin Laden’s rapidly multiplying followers are not only defending themselves and avenging themselves. They are also taking offensive action. Their goal is the eradication of Western influence and, in general, all outside military-political influence in the Middle East, the elimination of the relatively moderate Islamic regimes, and the triumph of radical political Islam.

“The worst thing of all is that the West, realizing that it is losing either because of the United States’ outrageous blunders or because of the essential inactivity of Europe, is now on the defensive even on the ideological front. There is no need to justify stupid cartoons in a Danish newspaper or Pope Benedict’s recent statement about ‘aggressive Islam,’ which was not exactly politically correct. There have been apologies, official ones at that, for the stupidity and the poorly worded phrases, in view of the organized pogroms they supposedly have sparked.

“These conciliatory efforts by the aggressor are whetting the appetites of the militant Islamists and convincing them that the West can be beaten (furthermore, they see [Russia] as part of the West, although a weaker and less malicious part). The aggressive and unsuccessful inculcation of democracy, which evoked protests and ridicule, combined with the ideological appeasement of absurd demands, especially in view of all the insults and threats religious leaders and officials in the Middle East are hurling at the West, Christianity, and Judaism, seems positively infantile in the political sense.

So it appears that Karaganov and Spengler, the Russian political realist and the very much Western theologian, are saying near the same thing, but on different planes. In his article, Karaganov goes on to provide a number of policy prescriptions for Russia to follow, and these appear remarkably to match up with what the Russian government is actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps we can make some money on this, so here they are, with my comments inserted for whatever they may be worth:

Five Steps for Russia

“What should Russia do in this situation, now that this volatile mixture of democratic and Islamic messianism, aggression, and appeasement has driven the world to the verge of a war between these civilizations? First, we must not become a battlefield in this war, regardless of how earnestly we are being encouraged to do this.”

But Russia already is a battlefield in this war. Will the Russians be able to back away? It was no less an authority than Trotsky who said that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

“Second, we must develop the structures for cooperation and security in Central Asia and the Middle East as quickly as possible with countries which still have some credibility because they have not made too many mistakes. Above all, these include India and China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization could fill the vacuum of trust and security and avert the war between civilizations.”

Note that this kind of alliance formation will tend to force Russia to distance itself from its relations with the U.S., such as they are, and to some extent with Russia’s relations with certain of the nations of Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Japan. We can see evidence of this in Russia’s decisions to constrain exports of natural gas to Western Europe and the U.S., and its recent efforts to take over the Sakhalin energy projects that would otherwise benefit Japan and other U.S. allies in East Asia. Russia may very well become part of a separate, although in many respects parallel, investment world, distanced by design from U.S. and many Western relationships.

“Third, we must fight as much as possible against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East with every possible partner, but not at our expense. We do not want Iran to be a nuclear power, but we do not want a hostile relationship with Iran and we cannot afford to have Iran as an enemy.”

“But not at our expense,” he says. Russia will allow others to do the dirty work, if at all possible. So in the end, the Russians will learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, unless, of course, some other power puts an end to Iranian nuclear ambitions. And just which power might that be? Of interest, Israel’s President Olmert was recently in Moscow where he referred to exactly such a prejudicial outcome for Iranian nuclear ambitions, with President Putin standing quite close by.

“Fourth, if the proliferation of nuclear weapons begins, and they start falling into the hands of irresponsible groups or terrorists, which easily could happen as a result of, for example, the predicted sociopolitical upheavals in Pakistan, we must be ready to take the most resolute steps. Public officials renounce the use of nuclear weapons in any situation, but I think we cannot exclude even this possibility.”

There is really no need to explain this comment. It speaks for itself. And I would expect to hear nothing less from any Russian worth even one drop of his vodka.

“The fifth and final thing we must do is to make 10 times the effort to de-escalate the conflict, to expand the dialogue between civilizations, and to avoid involvement in this conflict. We must take a stance of armed neutrality. Everyone knows that it can never be absolute, however. We have to avoid situations forcing us to make a choice. We already made this choice once in Chechnya. It would be too bad if we were to be forced to make this choice again by the stupidity, messianism, fanaticism, or political escapism of others.”

This last comment speaks for itself as well. Russia seeks “armed neutrality” and wants to “avoid situations forcing [them] to make a choice.” Russia will, in all likelihood, focus on internal development and attempt to keep the rest of the world’s problems as distant as possible from the Motherland. Russia is the world’s leading producer of petroleum, and a leading source of natural gas. Russia is rich in resources, and has a nation to rebuild after several generations of communism and in the face of the current population collapse. Russia will also choose its alliances carefully, although this does not mean that the Russians will not also do things that perturb, if not frustrate and infuriate, the leadership of the West, and certainly the U.S.

Can the Russians accomplish their goals over the long haul? We shall just have to wait and see. But who can fault the Russians for pursuing what they perceive as being in their own best interests? Czar Alexander once said that the only true allies that Russia has in the world are its army and its navy. This Russian approach to defending itself and pursuing its own self-interest was actually much the same economic, political, and military policy of the U.S. in an earlier era, before the nation got pulled into the black hole of being a so-called “world power.”

The Russian nation has been around for over 1,000 years. To their great credit, the Russians appear to be seeking a strategy with which to proceed into the future, perhaps for the next 1,000 years. The Russian strategy may or may not work as intended, and the Russians will in all likelihood have to alter it as events unfold. But the Russians are good at things like this. Russians play the game of chess, in which every move has some offensive, as well as defensive, purpose. We in the West, and certainly in the U.S., should pay attention to what the Russians are doing, and maybe even take a few hints from them.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 24, 2006