TCS Daily


The Consequences of a Strong Russia

By Alexandros Petersen - February 16, 2006 12:00 AM

In his inauguration speech one year ago, President George W. Bush announced a goal for the US and its allies of "ending tyranny in our world". Since the attacks of 9/11, Russia has figured prominently as a nominal partner to the US in the Global War on Terrorism.

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", affirmed Russia's commitment to pre-emption as a military strategy, boasted of Russia's advances in nuclear capability and detailed Russian force transformation plans. Crucially, 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.

Just because Russia no longer represents an organized ideological threat, as manifested in the Soviet Union, does not mean that it is suddenly friendly to Western interests, much less democracy. Russia's actions in the past year have indicated that President Putin does not share Bush's vision. Having courted the West for five years, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov evicted the US military presence in his country after Washington voiced indignation over his bloody suppression of political opponents and civilians in May. Even before US forces had packed, Russia stepped in, offering the Uzbek dictator a comprehensive military partnership plan that included Russian use of Uzbekistani bases, just north of Afghanistan.

Russian military and economic aid, coupled with rhetoric characterizing free press, civil society efforts and opposition parties as CIA-back conspiracies, has also buttressed oppressive regimes in Belarus, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan's sham election in December, which international observers called "far from free and fair", was immediately ratified as democratic by Russian observers. Putin was the first major leader to congratulate President Nursultan Nazarbayev on gaining 91 percent of the vote. Even in the midst of world concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia is helping the Iranians build a nuclear reactor.

Just in the past two months, Russia has shown it is willing not only to embrace unsavory regimes, but to bully those trying to cultivate democracy. On New Year's Day, Russia cut off gas exports to Western-leaning Ukraine, as pressure from Ukrainian civil society grew for Russia to relinquish control of naval facilities it occupies along the Black Sea under no legal basis. On January 22, suspicious, coordinated explosions inside Russia cut off newly-democratic Georgia's gas and electricity supply. In light of these developments, it is not unfair to characterize Russian actions as part of what The Washington Post has called an, "anti-democracy agenda".

Looking closely, one can note a number of battlegrounds between US influence -- military and economic assistance, coupled with pressure and incentives towards democratization -- and Russian influence -- largely security assistance, hand-in-hand with exclusionary conditions and a blind eye towards any regime's unpleasantness. One such battleground is energy-rich Azerbaijan. On January 19, Gen. Chuck Wald, deputy commander of USEUCOM, visited Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to discuss expansion of military cooperation. The US has funded the new "Caspian Guard" program, providing Azerbaijan with capabilities to ensure maritime stability on the Caspian. Less than a week later, on January 24, Russia one-upped the US. Sergei Ivanov traveled to Azerbaijan to meet with President Aliyev for talks. On the top of the agenda: developing "Kasfor", a Russian sponsored program for maritime stability on the Caspian.

Putin's Russia may not yet be, as Fred Hiatt has said, "the leader of the world's pro-tyranny camp", but it seems to be getting there. Russia continues to facilitate tyranny in regions key to efforts in the GWOT: the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. How much is Russia's nominal support for US anti-terrorism endeavors worth?

Detractors will argue that Iran's nuclear designs are at the top of the US agenda, and the US needs Russia's support to pressure Iran, not to mention the Russian vote in the UN Security Council. This is correct. Nevertheless, going into a year that will be marked by Russia's chairmanship of the G8, the US and the pro-democracy nations of the world must see Russia's actions and intentions for what they are. The goal of "ending tyranny in our world" cannot be fulfilled as long as the world's autocrats have Russia to fall back on.

Alexandros Petersen is an analyst with the Military Balance project at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. The views presented are his own.

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3 Comments

The Plank in Whose Eye?
" affirmed Russia's commitment to pre-emption as a military strategy, boasted of Russia's advances in nuclear capability and detailed Russian force transformation plans"

If this is evidence of tyranny then Russia is a laggard in the arts of tyranny. I very much regret the commitment to pre-emptive attack as an option. I fear we will all come to regret the destruction of the rule of international law that is implied here but pre-emption, including of a non-existent "threat", has been the heart of US & NATO policy for many years. Putin is merely accepting a fate accompli of ours. I wish it were not so.

Equally our countries which have bombed hospitals on behalf of bin Laden & ***** openly committed to genocide are hardly in a position to lecture anybody on human rights.

We're hardly 'pro-democracy', we're pro-money
The US will support tyrants like China if there is money in it. Or the Saudis, or Nigeria. We're apologists for tyrants if there is enough money to be made. We're against tyrants if they won't roll over for cash. America will work with undemocratic China because she exploits her workers just like our industries like to. We don't want to work with an elected government in Venezuaela because they are trying to be independent.
When we stop this crap we'll better off.

Strong Russia
Speaking of a "strong Russia" is necessarily a highly subjective exercise. The Soviet Union collapsed from corruption and inefficiency. A major source of this inefficiency was the socialist-totalitarian social/ political/ economic system. As Sharansky pointed out, totalitarian systems expend so much energy on maintaining "controls" that the system works poorly. Russia had a perfect opportunity to build a new capitalist free-market system and create wealth for its people, and they blew it, preferring to reinstitute the corrupt and inefficient and unworkable controls of the past.

The strength of Russia as addressed in this article is totally dependent on the current high price of oil. Oil is notoriously variable in price. The proper action in this situation would be to use the oil profits to invest in the economic, financial, and informational structures for the future, against the day that oil drops in price, or is used up, or is superceded. Instead, Russia is pushing military hardware (Russian military hardware has never been on the winning side in any conflict ever, except arguably Vietnam, and that was a political defeat, not a military defeat). And Russia is deliberately abusing the G8 and WTO organizations it was invited to join as an up-and-coming democratic power.

Russia will have to go through one more collapse before it can begin to effectively address its real problems.

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