Russia is back — but in a different way

Any analysis of Putin’s priorities should begin with his geopolitical interests

Shahid Javed Burki December 27, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Russia is back on the front pages of Western newspapers but not in the way it was expected to appear on the global scene 30 years ago. Then, in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe and Central Asia moved away from communism, there was an expectation that it would quickly join the West. That was the hope that led the group of the world’s seven richest countries — the G7 — to invite Russia to join them. The G7 became G8. That association did not last for long since Vladimir Putin’s Russia refused to play by the rules expected of developed Western states. Moscow defied those by invading Georgia and breaking up Ukraine by annexing the Crimean Peninsula. To respect internationally accepted borders was a rule all countries were expected to follow. Moscow’s defiance resulted in the expulsion of Russia from G8.

In a book published in 1993, sociologist Francis Fukuyama predicted that after years of ideological conflict that had resulted in two World Wars, the end of European Communism meant the end of history. In the work that carried that title, the author predicted that Western-style representative democracy would prevail over other systems. Initial steps taken by Moscow in the pre-Putin era suggested that Moscow may be moving in that direction. But that did not happen. Putin initially followed the Constitution and stepped down from the presidency after serving the stipulated terms in office. He came back and changed the governing document that would keep him in power for as long as there was no serious opposition to his rule. That’s one reason he has been totally intolerant of people and movements that threaten his rule.

Any analysis of Putin’s priorities should begin with his geopolitical interests. The Middle East is an area of high priority for him. The principal drivers of the Russian President’s policies in the region are geopolitical. At the top of his list is the need for containing and diminishing Islamist extremism and radicalism that might expand into Russia and its immediate neighbourhood. Present-day Russian Federation includes several predominantly Muslim republics, from Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucus to Tartarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga River basin. Muslims now account for 12% of the country’s total population. With higher rates of fertility compared to the country’s average, the Muslim share is increasing. Immigrants from the Muslim majority countries that were once part of the USSR have arrived in large numbers, many illegally. According to a review of the Russian situation by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, several immigrant groups had “pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Radical ideology is spreading across Russia; and since the 1990s, terrorism is a constant threat all over the country, particularly in the major cities”. Trenin traces Russian interest in the Middle East to its policies that go back some centuries. “Russian foreign policy was focused on displacing the Ottoman Empire from the Black Sea and the Balkans. Persia was de facto divided between Russia and Britain into their respective zones of influence. St Peterburg’s designs on Constantinople and the Turkish Straits were the main reasons for Russia joining World War I.”

There were other Russian interests in the Middle East. Some were related to military considerations and some reflected Moscow’s economic considerations. Putin was nervous about his country’s dependence on oil and gas. He was interested in developing other exports and including military hardware and nuclear power stations. He incurred Washington’s displeasure by agreeing to sell to Turkey an advanced radar system to Turkey the Russian S-400 surface to air missile system. Despite pressure to cancel the deal on the part of the Trump administration, the scheduled delivery of the system was brought forward from the first quarter of 2020 to July 2019.

Under its long-serving President, Russia is not even pretending to create a Western-style system of governance. The latest example of Putin’s approach towards the opposition is the attempt to assassinate Alexei A Navalny, a long-time rival. The details of the incident became public when Navalny was able to dupe an official of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, FSB. According to one account, “the FSB, a successor agency to KGB that Mr Putin ran before becoming president, has become a dominant behind-the-scenes force in Russian politics and business. The call Mr Navalny released on December 14 added to the trove of evidence suggesting that the agency had organized — and botched — an assassination attempt against the country’s most prominent politician.” The call was made from Germany where Navalny remained for medical care but has vowed to return to Russia once recovered.

The other front-page news concerned the widespread hacking of the United States government agencies by what were identified as Russian agents. It was not clear what type of information they were interested in collecting by penetrating computer systems in the US. True to form, President Trump who, in the last days of his tenure as president, refused to comment on the revelation. But President-elect Joe Biden in a news conference excoriated the Trump administration for its failure to prioritise cyber-security over the past four years. The Russian “assault happened on Donald Trump’s watch when he wasn’t watching”, said Biden and blamed the departing President for what he called “irrational downplaying of the seriousness of this attack”. Why was Russia carrying out this campaign?

There are two features of the Russian approach — high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. The Russians were spreading falsehoods to the American people in order to reduce their trust in their own government. According to David E Sanger of The New York Times, “this hacking was the most sophisticated known theft of the American government data by Moscow since a two-year spree in 2014 and 2015 in which Russian intelligence agencies gained access to the unclassified email systems at the White House, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It took years to undo the damage.” It was not clear why Trump was prepared to go along with Putin and his government. He had passed over without comment or action a number of Russian actions including the findings by American military intelligence that they had offered the Taliban in Afghanistan to pay them for killing US servicemen.

The point of this analysis is to suggest that Russia’s return to global prominence is not as a contributor to global peace and development but as a major disrupter. While not physically close to Pakistan, Moscow’s approach in international affairs can and probably will affect Pakistan’s neighbourhood. It has, for instance, re-appeared in Afghanistan in ways that are disturbing that long-troubled country’s attempt to make political progress. It is negatively influencing the Afghan attempt to fashion a society out of diversity. Russia has close relations with some of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours that were once part of the USSR. Tajiks and Uzbeks are not fully reconciled to creating a political system in which the central government operating out of Kabul has the final word in governance. They are being encouraged by Moscow.


Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2020.

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