Russia Is Not Prepared to Restore the Empire

29 november 2006

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: 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.

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 there.

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 developments.

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.

| The Moscow Times

Last updated 29 november 2006, 12:05

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