Archive for the ‘The Long Telegram’ Category

Vladimir Putin, Sergei ShoiguPundits and politicians this last week have been quick to pronounce verdict on the Crimean crisis. Vladimir Putin and the Russians have miscalculated badly and ultimately lost, by turning to force to achieve what their soft power could not, damaging their relationship with the west and uniting Ukrainians in opposition to Russia. Or alternatively, Russia has presented the west with a fait accompli and has won. Their troops cannot be dislodged from Crimea, the Crimean referendum on independence and integration into Russia will almost certainly produce a ‘yes’ vote and Putin appears to have delayed Ukraine’s western integration until its territorial issues are resolved. I have serious doubts that the issue is so clear cut. As I am fond of saying, the Russians play the long game and I think the Crimean situation has a long way to go yet, and it not apparent who will come out of it strengthened or weakened.

What is apparent, as one of the most respected Russian area analysts points out, is that the crisis represents a decisive Russian geopolitical break with the Euro-Atlantic area. Of course for years Russian watchers have been highlighting its growing cooperation with China, especially in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and its obstructive opposition to US and European foreign policy goals such as missile defence and NATO expansion. Overall, however, compared to the Cold War’s level of confrontation, the 1990s and 2000s were marked by vastly increased cooperation. The establishment of the NATO-Russia council in 1991, and participation from 1994 in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, brought Russia and its former adversaries together in a consultative and collaborative framework.  Economic ties also strengthened as Russia was welcomed into the G8 grouping of major industrial nations in 1998 and 2012 finally saw the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, restricting US trade with Russia as a non-market economy. Russia even supported the initial campaign in the war on terror, using its influence in Central Asia to provide NATO forces with basing installations.

The Russian intervention in Ukraine however, represents an end to this period of cooperation, exposing the deep divisions that have grown between the two. Russia’s open use of troops, despite official denials, in a European neighbour, demonstrates how convinced its leadership has become of the futility of attempting to achieve a broader political accommodation with the west. It is Moscow’s considered view that the west (and the US especially) was never serious about integrating Russia into a global security condominium, that it is unmoved by Russian concerns over NATO’s post-Cold War role, and that policies such as missile defence, or support for the opposition in Syria, are designed to weaken Russia’s geopolitical advantages.

Judging by the US rhetorical and punitive response to the Crimean intervention, relations are set for a deep freeze.  With visa bans already in place, economic sanctions reportedly being prepared and broad security cooperation unthinkable in the present atmosphere, it is likely Russian-US relations will become more adversarial in nature, especially over US policy in the former Soviet borderlands and on issues such as arms control and humanitarian intervention. Coordination may still be possible on issues of joint interest, such as international terrorism and drug interdiction, but these will be transactional agreements.

Relations with Europe will doubtless suffer as well, especially with the EU’s eastern members who have long histories of confrontation with Russia and who are still nervous concerning their economic reliance on Russian energy. Overall economic relations with Europe are likely to remain largely unaffected however. A trade relationship worth an annual USD 500bn, and the vital nature of gas deliveries, will encourage major European states like Germany to adopt a hesitant approach to sanctions. Especially as talk of the US shale gas boom’s ability to counterbalance a disruption of Russian gas supplies is still some years away. Other European states such as Britain and France are also demonstrating their hesitancy to disrupt their economic relationship with Russia.

Despite this, however, Russia can be expected to return to its roots as a more Eurasian power than an aspiring Euro-Atlantic actor. Any reduction in gas purchases by Europe will be counter-balanced by increased sales to China. We were already given a preview of the growing energy cooperation between these two powers with the signing of a 38bn m3 gas delivery agreement in September 2013. Both countries are also likely to increase military cooperation and geopolitical coordination over the next several years, facilitated by China’s reliance on Russian military technology and, to an extent, doctrine.  This will necessitate a Russian abandonment of its traditional fear of becoming China’s junior security partner,  in order to balance greater hostility with the US. It is possible this could finally provide the impetus needed to transform the potentially influential, but currently disjointed, SCO into a major security coordinator.

Finally, look for Russia to strengthen security and strategic integration with its former Soviet allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Military cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), already a priority for the Kremlin, will be reinvigorated.  While currently serving as little more than a potential Central Asian anti-terrorism body and a vehicle for deliveries of discounted Russian military equipment to its poorer neighbours, Russia will seek to strengthen the organisation.  This will result in increased aid to the Central Asian, Armenian and Belarusian militaries, and an expansion of the conventional strength of the CSTO by augmenting its standing formations.

It would be futile to speculate on the long-term effects of this reorientation for internal Russian social and political development, but from a global perspective it appears the post-Cold War era, marked by reduced confrontation, nominal cooperation and growing integration as a result of globalisation, is over. In years to come historians may look on it as a missed opportunity.


President Karimov 2

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Uzbekistan has gained a reputation as one of Central Asia’s most authoritarian and oppressive environments; just possibly eclipsed by the quasi-totalitarian regime in neighbouring Turkmenistan.  Led by former President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic Islam Karimov, the democratic process is almost non-existent.  Elections in 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2007 were criticised by the west as fraudulent, opposition parties are banned, media is heavily controlled and draconian security measures ensure a compliant population.  Western government and human rights organisations regularly highlight instances of arbitrary detainment and torture in the Uzbek criminal justice system, especially targeting opposition and civil rights activists.  The most prominent opposition groups, such as the Birdamlik Movement or the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, are forced to operate outside the country and have little popular support.

The impotence of genuine opposition groups means political change is extremely unlikey to originate from outside the ruling elite (Leaving aside for the moment the question of Islamic militancy).  Instead analysts and pundits, both inside and outside Uzbekistan, are beginning to openly speculate about who will eventually succeed Mr Karimov, who has has been in power over 20 years.  Mr Karimov goes to lengths to present himself as healthy and vigorous, which is common behaviour in systems where stability depends upon the concentration of power in one person’s hands.  In March 2013, however, rumours began to emerge on the internet that Mr Karimov had suffered a serious heart attack and was bid-ridden under the supervision of doctors, which coincided with a long absence from the state media.  Mr Karimov is prone to lengthy disappearances from TV and is often said to float rumours of his own ill health in order to gauge the response of his colleagues. But at the age of 75 he cannot count on his own existence endlessly. He must at some point begin planning for a transition.

Karimova UzbekistanConstitutional amendments, passed in March 2011, state that in the case of death or incapacity of the chief executive, the Chairman of the Senate will become interim president.  This would appear to put current Chairman, Ilgizar Matyakubovich Sobirov, in pole position to follow Mr Karimov.  Mr Sobirov is not considered to have the resources or the power base to sustain a challenge for the presidency, however, and so external analysts regularly focus their attention on a more colourful and controversial candidate, Mr Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova.

Aged just 41 Ms Karimova has attracted significant media attention in western countries over the last decade for her work as a singer (under the stage name Googoosha – apparently a pet name of her father’s), fashion designer, and diplomat as Uzbekistan’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva.  Ms Karimova cuts a swath of colour through the grey corridors of power in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and is doubtless viewed by some as a potentially more cosmopolitan and responsive leader than her father.  Apart from her outgoing demeanour and outrageously stylish fashion, she is also more globally connected as evidenced through her twitter account, to which she spends as much time engaging in arguments with human rights campaigners over the conduct of her father’s regime as she does posting pictures of herself doing yoga. I follower her on twitter myself, although I stress this is purely for research purposes… Karimova shoulder stand

Ms Karimov is regularly photographed at film festivals, fashion shows and charity events in the company of celebrities such as Sharon Stone, Elton John and even former US President Bill Clinton.  Last year she even recorded a duet with former French actor Gerard Depardieu on his swing through Central Asia.

Ms Karimova has certainly done nothing to cool speculation that she aspires to the presidency, refusing to deny it in an interview given to Pete Allman of Celebrity Scene News in March 2013.  I perceive an undercurrent of hope in some quarters that she might actually take over from her father. I cannot tell if this is purely because few western commentators know of any other figures that can rival her for international notoriety and certainly none that have her media friendly veneer, or whether there is true hope she will emerge into a democratic force due to her more consistent exposure to the western world.  Either way, it seems impossible to read an article about the political situation in Uzbekistan without the tag-line: “Gulnara Karimova, tipped by some as the favourite to assume the presidency after her father…” But is she really favourite? I found myself wondering what chance Ms Karimova really has to attain Uzbekistan’s highest office.

The easiest way to dismiss her chances would be to disqualify her on gender grounds.  I have seen one analysis suggest that the conservative, Islamic heritage of Uzbekistan would make it difficult for both the elite and the broader public to accept a woman in the country’s top leadership position.  I don’t believe, however, that this could truly prevent her from securing the presidency is she wanted it.  In the first instance, Rosa Otunbayeva proved a surprisingly stable and successful president in neighbouring and similarly Islamic Kyrgyzstan, and second, power in Central Asia comes from the availability of wealth and power to distribute to your followers. And Ms Karimova certainly has plenty of that…

She is reputed to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful businesspersons in the country.  Apart from her own fashion emporium, Dom Stila, she has known interests in crude oil producer Zeromax, shares in a coca cola bottling franchise in Tashkent and extensive telecommunications interests.  Her fortune is estimated at anywhere between USD 500mn and USD 3.5bn, much of it obtained due to her position as so-called “first daughter of the nation”.  It is regularly alleged that she has used state judicial resources to open tax investigations against target companies, and is not above ordering police raids or arrest to intimidate potential rivals.  Investigators in Sweden and Switzerland are also investigating whether Ms Karimova is linked to payments worth USD 230mn made by the Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera since 2007 for access to the Uzbek market.   The power of her father and the state apparatus has given her access to every sector of the economy and formed a powerful base from which to make a play for the presidency.  But her business interests also give her opponents an opening to act against her.

Karimova UNAllegations of her dubious behaviour have long been known to the international business community and foreign officials.  US diplomatic cables from 2005, leaked by the Wikileaks organisation, have described Ms Karimova as “a bully” and that she is seen by Uzbeks as a “greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.” It appears, however, that in recent months she has bitten off more than she can chew by picking a fight with MTS, a Russian telecommunications giant with extensive assets in Uzbekistan.  In July 2013 the Uzbek authorities forced MTS to shut its Uzbek operations, which provide coverage to a third of the population, on the ground of a massive unpaid tax bill of close to USD 600mn, following the disappearance of its regional CEO Bekhzod Akhmedov.  Soon afterwards Lombard Odier, a private Swiss bank, expressed concern that Mr Akhmedov, one of its customers, was allowing his accounts to be used by known associates of Ms Karimova, several of whom are already under investigation for involvement in the TeliaSonera bribery affair.  Suspicions have since emerged that Mr Akhmedov, an old associate of Ms Karimova’s maybe have been working willingly to undermine MTS’s Uzbek subsidiary, Uzdubrobita, on behalf of the so-called first daughter.

If these allegations are true and Ms Karimova is behind the attack on MTS she has chosen a formidable enemy.  Although she herself has a reputation for combative resilience the quarrel could see her make an enemy out of MTS’ owner, Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov.  In what has been a dangerous and competitive post-Soviet era for Russia’s mega rich (look no further than Mikhail Khodorkovsky) Mr Yevtushenkov has survived and prospered.  His Sistema Corporation is the largest publicly listed Russian company with no state holding and he is used to defending it.  As an unnamed source told the Financial Times in early 2013 “[…} this Russian oligarch is different. He eats other Russian oligarchs for breakfast.”  If the spat grows, and given the competitive nature of both Ms Karimova and Mr Yevtushenkov  there is every possibility it will, it could damage the valuable economic relationship between Russian and Uzbekistan.  A former employee summed up the situation nicely when he commented “When she [Ms Karimova] picks fights, she constantly makes mistakes and corners herself, and this makes it harder for her subordinates and Uzbek authorities to defend her.”  The faceless oligarchs and powerful security officials who comprise Uzbekistan’s elite are unlikely to look favourably on her antics and the potential fallout.

Rustam AzimovIt is possible the TeliaSonera and MTS affairs have already prompted Ms Karimova’s rivals for the presidency to move against her.  The consensus amongst analysts are that the three top candidates are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, Deputy PM and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (seen right) and head of the National Security Service Rustam Inoyatov.  The indications that she sees at least one of these figures as a rival were evident in April when she used her twitter account to air and re-tweet allegations that the Mr Azimov has made a fortune through corruption and mismanagement, apparently safe in the knowledge that her father’s patronage would defend her from similar criticism.  But it appears these attacks have stirred her opponents into action.  It is thought that this triumvirate was responsible for her dismissal as Uzbekistan’s representative to the UN in July 2013.  As she is currently under investigation on corruption charges related to TeliaSonera in Switzerland, the loss of her diplomatic immunity could see criminal charges laid and will complicate her access to foreign deposits.  The ease with which this success was achieved seems to have encouraged her opponents to escalate her downfall last week when her Markaz TV, SOFTS and NTT television stations all abruptly stopped transmitting right in the lead up to her fashion festival.  Apart from being a personal humiliation to the first daughter, reports that an order came from above to “clean up the act”, on stations that broadcast extensive footage and advertisements for Ms Karimova’s charities and philanthropic pursuits, is a clear sign of outside interference.

gulnara-karimova_FashionSo, while Ms Karimova undoubtedly harbours some aspirations to occupy the president’s chair, the odds appear to be stacking up against her.  For her to successfully make a bid for the top job in the face of competition several stars would have to align for her.  She would either have to attract considerable popular support and have resources enough take over the patronage networks that have maintained her father, or she would have to have the backing of key sectors of the regime, especially the security services.  Unfortunately for her both US diplomatic cables and anecdotal evidence suggest she is widely disliked in the country because of her extravagant wealth and heavy handed business practices.  There is also no evidence to suggest she has any support amongst the bureaucracy, the finance ministry or security forces (though this author doesn’t doubt conscripts up and down the land don’t admire her willowy figure and talented voice), which are controlled by her rival, Mr Inoyatov.  It is also hard to imagine the elderly and stern Uzbek Generals taking orders from a colourful and flamboyant fashion designer.

Karimova Queen of AsiaThe only factor that keeps her in with a chance for the presidency in the face of what seems to be attacks by her rivals is her proximity to her father.  For years his patronage has shielded her from outside criticism and allowed her to build up a massive business empire.  But it appears that even he can’t defend her from recent schemes designed to diminish her prestige and reduce her influence.  Which adds emphasis to the even more intriguing question of just how healthy and effective Mr Karimov is, that he is unable or unwilling to prevent his daughter losing her UN post or her major media outlets.  In the end Ms Karimova is unlikely to make it to the pinnacle of Uzbek power, but I wouldn’t say she is destined for obscurity.  Her enormous wealth and business influence will give her a powerful platform to fight her enemies as well as a prominent voice in selecting his successor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov votes in favor of a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal during a Security Council meeting amid the 68th U.N. General Assembly in New York

A significant number of American pundits and politicians have been sounding off in the last few weeks about the deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concerning Syria, on 14 September. That agreement, and the process leading up to it, provoked adulation from global media but condemnation from western sources, for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose seizure of an off-hand proposal of Mr Kerry’s appears to have averted western intervention in the two year old conflict.  America’s media in particular, across the whole spectrum excoriated Mr Putin for his defence of Bashar Al Assad, denounced his background and character as a “KGB thug”, and bitterly lamented the fact he had outwitted Barack Obama to gain a “victory” over Syria.  In its view Mr Putin has subjected America to a public humiliation on the international stage.  Although there is something uniquely and annoyingly American about the fact the US looks at a successful plan to mitigate this crisis as a defeat, largely because it wasn’t American in origin.

What kind of victory have the Russians won though, really? Those of you who read my last entry several weeks ago will be aware of the origins of the Kremlin’s opposition to military action against Syria.  Mr Putin appears to believe he has reinforced the principal of non-intervention and derailed assistance to the perceived Islamic extremists in the Syrian opposition. All of this rests on the UN resolution passed in late September.  The delicate balance provided by resolution 2118, however, has the ability to come crashing down with remarkable speed. If the Syrian regime stalls, or fails to comply with the resolution, Russia will be in a very difficult position. Having supported action it will be forced to either reluctantly approve punitive measures against its ally, or risk a much more significant discrediting of the UN, which it is usually at pains to defend as a body deserving respect.

Alternatively, Russia may present evidence that the regime of Bashar Al Assad is not responsible for any delay or inability to disarm. Evidence is often subjective in international relations and no one could really disprove the claim if Russia makes it.  The odds would then rise significantly that western powers would return to the option of a military strike to preserve their, now tarnished, prestige.  It’s not as if the US has pledged to refrain from intervention altogether and although resolution 2118 does not invoke article VII of the UN charter (authorising military force), the US has shown it has few qualms about operating outside the global body. In this case there is little Mr Putin could do to forestall it, having already played the card of disarmament.  Despite warnings from some commentators, Russian warships will not fire on US or European aircraft, the same way US forces were not prepared to intervene to save Mikhail Saakashvili from Russian tanks in 2008.  In short Putin is bluffing and if his bluff is called, Russia’s reputation stands to take a real beating.

Which bring us to the topic of Russia’s real victory.  The real victory here seems to be a PR victory.  This is appropriate for a country in which a favourite political expression is всё ето пиар (Everything is PR).  Mr Putin’s and Russia’s reputation in general has emerged enhanced, although this likely only applies in authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, where the fear of western interference or intervention is strong.  It is doubtful Russia has improved its reputation in western capitals, where they will accuse it of defending a brutal regime, even as they back away from their threats of intervention.  Mr Putin has also re-introduced Russia as an international mediator, although I would argue only in situations where Russia has a direct interest.  Russia is hardly a regular international mediator of consequence, even in situations where it has direct interests on its own borders, such as the odyssey of North Korean nuclear disarmament. Fears by conservative US commentators that this has diminished America in the Middle East and given Russia a diplomatic foothold are wide of the mark.  It’s not as if Russia has enhanced its reputation or leverage with the states vital states of the Arab League that were quietly encouraging western intervention, or with Iran which has experienced its fickle friendship before.

Russia has won a victory, good PR equals enhanced prestige and prestige is said to be everything in international relations.  Good PR, however, depends on how long the impression lasts and can be fleeting especially if you end up in a protracted conflict from which there appears no escape (read Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq). Russia’s prestige victory then is the stay of action until (I’m feeling cynical) the Syrian regime reneges on or, interminably delays, its commitment to destroy its chemical and biological arsenal.  I wonder, however, if this insertion of themselves by the Russians into the process will prove to be a net gain.  Russia has now accepted the outcome of the Syrian situation as their joint responsibility with America and the Syrian regime.

This victory has placed Russian prestige in the hands of Bashar Al Assad and his willingness to destroy his chemical and biological weapons.  He might comply. Indeed, a case could be made that having invested so much in the Syrian regime, Russia has an incentive to ensure it does comply.  But the Syrian regime is locked in a life or death struggle with anti-Assad rebels and its chemical weapons give it a decisive advantage I don’t think it will be eager to give up; at least not until the military advantage has swung distinctly in its favour.  Mr Putin may have won a temporary PR victory, but the consequences from its potential to backfire could do heavier damage to Russia’s prestige in the long run.


This headlines during this week’s G-20 summit would have been hijacked by the situation in Syria regardless of where it was held.  The fact that it was held in Saint Petersburg’s Constantine Palace, focused the media’s attention, not only on the question of how western nations should respond to the reported chemical weapon attack of 21 August, but also on Russia’s staunch opposition to any military operation against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Much has been made of late by the Kremlin’s repeated rejection of western intelligence placing the blame for the attack that killed approximately 1,429 Syrian civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on the government. Although Moscow initially confirmed that it’s intelligence services had also reported the attack and refused to say who it thought had been responsible, its position quickly hardened, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calling first for patience, and then speaking about the dire consequences of any military action.  Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin went a step further, likening the west’s policy toward the Islamic world as akin to a “monkey with a grenade.”  (never underestimate the Russian fondness for a metaphor!).


This week’s summit provided a platform for President Putin to elucidate his position on the crisis to the world. And he chose unflinching support for the regime.  After describing the video released of the attack as a “provocation” by militants to attract outside help, he gave a vague reference to support for Al Assad, saying Russia would offer unspecified “help” in the event of US led strikes.

Much of the popular media analysis of Russia’s opposition to western intervention has come to the conclusion it is primarily financially or strategically motivated.  Syria is undoubtedly of major commercial interest to the Russians, especially in terms of arms sales.  Although Russian energy companies such as Gazprom, Tatneft and Soyuzneftgaz are involved in projects within the country, the most lucrative business is the provision of weaponry, outstanding orders of which are estimated to total USD 4bn.  Following the collapse of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Syria is probably the largest remaining buyer of Russian arms in the Middle East and North Africa.  Analysts have also pointed to Russia’s last remaining military base outside of the former Soviet Union, the naval installation of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  Never mind the fact that the Tartus base is manned by only fifty Russian sailors and consists of two floating piers and a repair bay, and cannot even when at full preparedness cater to any of the Russians navy’s major warships.

As important as both the scale of arms sales and the prospect of losing a strategic base are, I cannot find adequate justification for these as the main reasons behind Russian’s unusually bellicose language in defence of the regime.  After all, Russia stood aside and lost a valuable customer and ally during the Libya campaign of 2011, while the Tartus base really serves more as a resupply station for ships passing through the Suez Canal than a military base for the projection of Russian power.  Rather I believe, the origin of Russian opposition can be found in direct relation to questions of Russian national security, ironic as it seems given Syria’s geographic distance from the Russian border. These security concerns are explored below.

1) The UN and the precedent of unauthorised foreign intervention 

More experienced Russia watchers will be familiar with the Russian insistence that military force can only come from a resolution backed by the UN security council (leaving aside resolution 1973 in Libya, the last time this occurred was the Gulf war of 1991).  The Syrian crisis has been no exception, with Mr Putin repeatedly stating that the council must wait for the report from UN weapons inspectors before deciding on a course of action.  Russia adores referring crises to the UN.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia really only has two levers that allow it to maintain the fiction of its superpower status; its nuclear arsenal and its UN security council veto.

Of course calling for patience until evidence is presented to the UN hasn’t stopped Mr Putin from offering his own conclusion that the gas attack was a rebel false-flag operation. Regardless of whether there is conclusive proof of regime culpability, it is extremely unlikely Russia will authorise force at the UN, because of its strongly held view of the international order and the principle of non-intervention.  Mr Putin and the Siloviki who surround him have a natural fear of western liberal interventionism.  The argument that military force can be used in order to uphold or install democratic processes is a concern for the architects of Russia’s “managed democracy”, where nominally democratic institutions are undermined by a cosmetic opposition and the delivery of dubiously large electoral victories for the Kremlin’s candidates.

Likewise, the long running operation in Chechnya has seen many well documented human rights abuses, from the large scale bombing of Grozny to the zachistka (cleansing) operations involving torture, extra-judicial executions and the disappearance of detainees.  The idea that a US led bombing campaign can be authorised, outside of international law, in order to defend human rights creates a shiver of unease within the Kremlin, mindful of its own human rights abuses. Russia therefore remains firmly committed to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention.

2) Fears concerning Islamic extremism

The Russian experience in Chechnya also helps explain the second factor influencing opposition to a military operation.  Russia has a long, long history of confrontation with the Islamic world. From its battles with the Khanate of Kazan in the 1500’s, to the wars with the Ottoman Empire throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.  Afghanistan in the 1980’s and Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s are simply the latest instalment in a conflict that comes from being at the geographic cross-road between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Russia is also aware of the destabilizing threats bubbling below the surface in the old Soviet republics of Central Asia such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut Tahrir organisation, which seek to create Islamic caliphates in the Ferghana Valley.IMU

While characterized by some commentators as a dubious threat, or dismissed by the casual observer as ancient history, Russia is acutely sensitive to radical Islam. This is not only because of its experiences in the North Caucasus but also because of the millions of Muslims in the Russian regions of Tatarstan and the Volga basin. The political establishment therefore sees the conflict with radical Islam, not through the US narrative as a struggle between freedom and oppression, but as an existential threat to the state.  It is for this reason that Russia was the first country to offer support to the US war on terror following 11 September 2001 and for this reason that Russia has taken the lead in creating new security structures in Central Asia as NATO prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

The Russians are subsequently aghast at the idea that the west may intervene to assist a collection of Islamic and increasingly radicalised rebel groups, reports of which suggest are loyal to the militant ideology of Al Qaeda, such as the Al Nusrah Front.  While Syria is hundreds of kilometres from Russia, the idea of it becoming a failed state in the centre of the Middle East, capable of fostering and exporting trained militants, who will doubtless recall Russia’s staunch support for their erstwhile enemy, makes any support for the rebel groups unacceptable.  Perhaps this explains why Mr Putin was quick to denounce the idea of any support for those “liver eaters” as he so delicately put it.

3) The Russian narrative of the Arab spring

It is doubtful if Russia needs any help tarnishing the credentials of the Arab spring following the collapse of state authority in Yemen, the near balkanization of Libya into gangs of armed militants, and the 2013 coup in Egypt, but it will certainly look to use this crisis to its advantage.  The fear of large scale popular uprisings against an unresponsive and authoritarian system have lurked in the recesses of the minds of Russia’s political elite since Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. During these upheavals Russian friendly governments were replaced by largely pro-western administrations.  If any in the Kremlin had grown complacent about their position the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012 in Russia brought home to them the danger of the precedent on display in the Middle East.  Although the demonstrations in Russia failed to disrupt the regime or force a re- run of the elections, they underscored the need to undermine the idea of popular uprising.

Ironically, what began as a source of inspiration to global political activists has now descended into a demonstration of how the collapse of governing structures can lead to anarchy, mob rule and sectarian violence.  For a Russian elite desperate for an example to showcase the dangers of a loss of stability Syria is a godsend.  But this new chemical weapons crisis has given them a further card to play, something more serious than the violence in Yemen or Egypt.  The conflict in Syria, which has already led to outright civil war and the deaths of over 100,000, has now witnessed an atrocity on a scale not seen since the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s.  If Russia can tie the rebels to the use of chemical weapons it will do enormous damage to the narrative of positive political uprising as well as shore up support for Mr Putin’s administration amongst younger Russians, those who did not experience the lawlessness and disorganisation of the 1990s.  A chance to weaken the enthusiasm of this key and typically energetic constituency cannot be missed.  Therefore, look for continued assertions by the Russian government that the operation in Syria was a rebel atrocity and false-flag operation.


International relations is a complicated game, no one knows this better than the Russians. Despite the popular narrative of the elite’s constant desire to stand in opposition to western powers to demonstrate their grandeur on the world stage the Russian foreign policy and security establishment is remarkably patient and analytical, and rarely moves to confront the west in the style it has chosen on this occasion.  The delivery of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, the despatch of advanced cruisers to the Mediterranean and the warning of “consequences” in the face of foreign intervention is, for them, very strong action.  The times when Russia chooses confrontation are considered very carefully and are not dictated by short term financial gain. Yes the USD 4bn in unfulfilled arms contracts for Syria represents a major source of income when one considers that Russian arms exports last year totalled a record high of USD 15bn. That pales in comparison, however, to say the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports, which supply two thirds of government revenue.  Russia, however, was hardly prepared to risk confrontation with China when the Turkmenistan-China pipeline was opened in 2009, freeing Central Asian Gas from Russia’s near monopoly.  Like any country with foreign interests, Russia advocates for its commercial clients, but will not risk confrontation to defend them.

Nor are these times of confrontation dictated by the potential loss of an ally, even a major regional one like Syria.  Some commentators have pointed in recent weeks to the fact that Syria is Russia’s last ally in the Middle East.  Were it to lose Assad’s regime, all Russian influence in the theatre would disappear. But Russia’s influence in the region evaporated after 1973 and it has never truly rebuilt it. It has little influence in Iran and none in Turkey, Israel or Saudi Arabia. These are the states that will shape the future of the Middle East, and Russia will be firmly shut out. And why should it care about Middle Eastern influence? It has no energy concerns requiring good relations with the Gulf Arabs. It is largely unconcerned by the Palestinian Israeli conflict, lacking a influential domestic Jewish constituency. Its real geopolitical projects are inside the former Soviet Union not in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, as already established, its naval base at Tartus is of negligible value to power projection.  Therefore, as painful as the loss of an ally in the region will be to Russia’s sense as a great power, even this would not be sufficient to provoke it into the danger of confrontation with western powers. As in Libya, and Iraq before it, Russia was prepared to let an ally collapse because the consequences were small to Russia itself.

This time round, however, the threat to the Russian state can be considered to be existential, rather than financial or geopolitical. For North American readers this can be harder to understand and easier to dismiss. Apart from a time centuries ago, nothing has threatened the geographic boundaries of our countries or the stability of our governmental structures.  But for the Russians a generation still exists that remembers the Nazi invasion of 1941. The parents of Russian children still remember the disintegration of their country in 1991 and the collapse of the Communist system under outside pressure.  Young Russian adults today have grown up amid an extremely bitter conflict with nationalists and Islamic extremists in the Caucasus that threatens the unity of their country. These Russians find it easy to understand existential threats.  To the Russian political elite the potential threat of US humanitarian intervention to defend Chechen civilians is real. The threat of extremism flowing north from Syria up into the Caucasus to renew the battles of the 1990s is real. The possibility of US sponsored and Arab inspired popular revolt is real.  It is for these reasons that the Russians are serious about Syria. Don’t expect Russian ships to fire on US aircraft next week, but do believe Russia will not stand by this time like in 2003 and 2011.