Alexandros Peterson of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has an article at Tech Central Station today about Russia reasserting itself in the former Soviet "near abroad" to resist U.S. pro-democracy initiatives in Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Peterson writes:
This past January 11, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov published a piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Russia Must Be Strong". Ivanov argued that Russia is threatened by "foreign states" meddling in its "internal affairs"...he mentioned that Russia's "top concern is the internal situation in....former Soviet republics, and the regions around them". If Russia's actions in these areas in the past year elaborate Ivanov's statement, it is clear that Russia's main concern is pro-Western sentiment and democratization in areas the Kremlin feels should be under Russian influence.
The Bush administration has asserted that political liberalization in Central Asia and the Caucasus, just north of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, is essential in order to deny Islamist terrorists influence in the region. However, US and NATO efforts to this effect have frequently found themselves in competition with Russian activity in the area.
Peterson's claim is that Russia's sullen bouts of Cold War nostalgia may be hurting U.S. efforts to fight terrorism and Islamic extremism in Central Asia. The problem with Peterson's logic is that it is every bit as outdated as Ivanov's.
First, to address Ivanov's position, China is the only nation-state that may have designs on Russian territory. Yet Beijing does not have to subsidize ordinary Chinese to get them to cross the border into Siberia seeking a better life in a less-polluted and crowded landscape. Thousands of Chinese make these choices everyday on their own. Thus far Russia has not experienced a total loss of control over territories it never administered well to begin with, but the potential is certainly there after another generation of demographic decline.
Second to respond to Peterson, the story of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Empire has not been determined by government ministers (with the possible exceptions of Gaidar, Chubais and the other so-called "reformers" who looted the state) but overwhelmingly by a few very powerful unofficial actors: namely, the oligarchs. After decades of Kremlinology and Cold War analysis of the Soviet machine, even latecomers and relatively young analysts find it hard to accept that the Russian state has been completely hollowed out. The outer trappings of Kremlin control are still visible, but relatively meaningless - the lights are still on, but no one is home. Russia is the first, but perhaps not the last, modern state on the European continent to decay before our eyes. The failing of the Russian state is preceding, but not necessarily causing, the collapse of the Russian nation.
In fairness to Peterson, he is not the only analyst struggling to cope with a world driven by renewed fanaticism. Rationalists trained to look for rational causes for the rise and fall of great powers and their behavior are confounded because, as Solzhenitsyn has said, the roots of Russia's crisis (and that of the West) are spiritual and ideological rather than material. As Yuri Mamchur Sr. asked in his recent address to an audience at Discovery Institute: did the Russian Federation have fewer people the day after the official end of the USSR? Did it have one less bar of gold, one less drop of oil and gas, or lack any other material resource? Yet the statistics of the former Soviet economy proved as meaningless as the paper value of many business start ups in the wild 1990s. After the facade of 70 years of Soviet rule were removed, what was left was every thief for himself and the remnant of Russian culture.
We have cautioned here at RussiaBlog that Russia is never quite as strong or as weak as it appears. But by all counts Russia appears to be a generation ahead of western Europe in terms of its demographic crisis and inability to assert the rule of law in its own territory. If Mr. Ivanov were honest he would identify the threats to Russia's security and prosperity as radical ideologies rather than hostile nations, but even so -- Russia would need not fear these fanatics if it were not on the verge of national suicide.