When the Baltic countries entered NATO and the European Union a
couple of years ago, many thought it was the end of the
centuries-old «red line.» Euro-Atlantic organizations had crossed
into the former Russian and Soviet empires. Revolutions in Georgia
and Ukraine; pro-European enthusiasm in Moldova; the reorientation
of Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, to a more pro-Western
stance; Kazakhstan’s quick transformation into a regional power: it
seemed that Russia had lost its exclusive sphere of influence, and
that «geopolitical pluralism» had won out across the former Soviet
Union. It seemed that the empire could never again be rebuilt as it
was just five years after the 1917 Revolution.
The international system at the start of the 21st century is
unstable, however, and what seems irreversible might not prove to
be so. If two or three years ago the prospect of Russia once more
establishing its «historical» borders seemed unrealistic, today it
doesn’t pay to be so unequivocal. And it isn’t just a matter of an
economically strengthened Russia feeling a rush of self-confidence.
If external circumstances conspire, Moscow could be drawn into the
big game of empire building against its will.
Imagine a scenario which, sadly, is all too probable. The United
States ultimately fails in Iraq and is compelled to leave the
country in short order, without worrying about the consequences for
the region. Revenge and the struggle to divide up the country’s
resources would make internecine war inevitable. The country would
most likely break into three parts: the Kurdish state that already
exists de facto; Shiite territory, actually controlled by Tehran;
and the Sunni areas, which could well turn into a version of
Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Both Iran and Turkey would inevitably be drawn into the conflict
as well. The appearance of a Kurdish state would create an enormous
problem for Ankara. Iran would emerge as a local superpower, and
the issue of nuclear restraint would acquire new significance. At
the very least, Saudi Arabia would perceive Iran as a clear threat,
especially given the increased activity of Shiites across the
Middle East. And all of this would be happening in a situation
where the United States no longer enjoyed any prestige in the
region and it had a limited capacity for influencing events
The chaos in Iraq and Iran’s increasing authority would also
affect Central Asia. A sense of uncertainty would certainly engulf
the region; the threat of destabilization would grow, and a surge
of extremist activity would be likely. The previously theoretical
issue of security guarantees would assume greater urgency. Who
apart from a weakened Washington could offer such guarantees?
Moscow. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization,
which also includes Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and
Kazakhstan, Russia is obligated to make such guarantees.
Add to this the growing Taliban resistance in Afghanistan and it
becomes a remake of the situation prior to September 2001. At that
time Moscow was concerned about a Taliban breakthrough into
northern Afghanistan. And it is worth considering the Azeri factor.
Any significant change in the balance of power in Iran would create
problems for the Azeri minority, which could have repercussions for
Azerbaijan itself. Today few take the idea of a «greater
Azerbaijan» seriously, but that could change. It is obvious how
Armenia — a military ally of Russia — would react to such
If events in Iraq spin out of control, Moscow could be forced to
resume a major role in international affairs, not as an «energy
superpower,» but as a participant in the global military balance of
power. There would be a strong temptation for Russia to play the
role of patron to countries that have recently tried to distance
themselves from it and have made advances to its rivals. Moreover,
the ideology of revenge and righting «historical injustices» is a
powerful tool in rallying societies.
The Kremlin’s current attempts to create a national ideology
have been unsuccessful. On the one hand, its intellectual
speculations on the idea of sovereign democracy are
incomprehensible to the public and not terribly convincing. On the
other hand, people feel alienated and tend to focus on solving
their own problems, and for this they have no real need for
ideology. But they will. Politically active people will eventually
recognize the boundless cynicism, greed and ideological bankruptcy
of the current ruling elite, and this will lead to a rejection of
the leadership. Those who succeed the current elite will have to
demonstrate that they are different both morally and in the breadth
of their agenda.
Could this be a new historic opportunity, and could the rebirth
of a truly great power begin with a return into Central Asia? If
so, then the entire political geography of the former Soviet Union
will begin to change before our eyes.
The situation to the west of Russia is also somewhat ambiguous,
after all. Countries that apparently made their geopolitical choice
find themselves in a strange position. Ukraine, which surged toward
the West in 2004, ran into the slammed door of the European Union.
Brussels was simply taken aback by Kiev’s eagerness. And recently
the EU officially announced a freeze on expansion. In so doing, the
EU lost its main lever for influencing neighboring countries — the
promise of membership. It was this promise that transformed Central
and Eastern Europe.
There seems to be more geopolitical pluralism in the former
Soviet states than there actually is. The United States doesn’t
have a very good handle on what is happening, and its hands are
bound by other foreign policy problems. The EU is divided. Russia’s
position could be strengthened not by its own successes, but
exclusively by the difficulties of others.
Despite its growing self-confidence, however, Russia is not
prepared for expansion. If it is driven in this direction by
external factors, expansion will compromise internal development,
as has happened many times in Russian history. The temptation to
engage in geopolitical «charity work» is great; for some reason
this is always more appealing than solving tedious but pressing
problems at home.
Russian officials have already begun to change their tune.
Sergei Rogov, director of the USA and Canada Institute, said last
week that a NATO failure in Afghanistan could open the way for
Russia to return to regional politics. In discussions of the
Caucasus region, some have begun to argue that in the early 1920s
the Red Army brought peace to the region, which couldn’t live in
peace without an external patron.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the victors in the Cold
War set out zealously to carve up its geopolitical legacy. But they
didn’t have the strength to digest it. Now a newly strengthened
Russia is ready to join the battle for what was lost but has yet to
find a new master. It this happens, the development of Russia will
proceed further along the same old historical spiral.