Janus-like, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed two faces toward Islam last week. In a historic and widely reported visit to Riyadh on February 11, Putin announced that “Russia is determined to enhance cooperation with the Islamic world.” As a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, he added, Russia has long experience in fostering cooperation between faiths and ethnicities, adding, “Russia is bent on pursuing this approach in all regions, including the Middle East and the Gulf.”
In an equally historic but little-reported action, on Thursday Putin installed as acting president of Chechnya the strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose private army allegedly murders and abducts enemies of the regime with impunity. The son of a Muslim rebel, the bete noire of human-rights advocates, Kadyrov embodies internal policy toward its Muslim population. It is the same policy that Russia pursued these three centuries past.
Russia does not propose to ally with the Muslim world against the United States. Putin’s initiative should be thought of as a hudna, a brief truce in a long war. With justification, Putin cites Russia’s experience with the Islamic world. It has been enmeshed in imperial ventures on its southern border for 300 years and now stands at the frontier between Islam and the Western world. The new Chechnya offers a likelier model for the new Middle East than the Bush administration’s delusional pursuit of democracy. Russian troops killed between 35,000 and 100,000 civilians in the first Chechen war of 1994-96, and half a million were driven from their homes. Dead and displaced Chechens, that is, comprised roughly half the population. Another 5,000 or so died in the second Chechen war of 1999-2000, when Russian forces leveled the capital city, Grozny.
In Kadyrov Russia has found a local overlord who actually will do what the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin vainly hoped that Yasser Arafat would do: deal swiftly of the local hotheads who get out of line. Putin and his colleagues have bested Israel’s death toll during the Palestinian intifadas by two orders of magnitude. Putting Kadyrov, 30, in charge of what remains of Chechnya adds insult to injury.
Putin’s pragmatism with respect to the human rights of Russian Muslims detracted not a whit from the festivities in Riyadh, because issues of principle have no place whatever in Middle Eastern politics. “I see in Putin a statesman and a man of peace and fairness,” said King Abdullah to the official Saudi Press Agency before the visit. “That’s why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia extends a hand of friendship to Russia.”
Loyalties do not extend beyond clan and family, and the rest is a matter of opportunity, guile and maneuver. That is how business is done in that part of the world. You embrace your worst enemy when you are too weak to fight him, and you annihilate him when opportunity presents itself. When you have winnowed his ranks sufficiently to convince him that he is too weak to fight you, you embrace him once again. It is the sort of dirty work to which Americans are unaccustomed, but for which the Russians have had centuries of practice.
For the moment, Russia and Saudi Arabia have a pressing interest in common, namely avoiding a US (or Israeli) military strike against Iran. Neither is prepared to deal with the consequences. Saudi Arabia fears for the loyalties of its own Shi’ites, and Russia fears for the stability of its southern borders. It might seem that Russia would benefit from hostilities in the Persian Gulf, which would increase the oil price as well as Russia’s own leverage in the international oil market. But the strategic issues override this apparent economic advantage. A nuclear-armed Iran is the last thing Russia wants, but Moscow is not prepared – yet – to confront the consequences of a general destabilization of its soft, Muslim-majority underbelly.
Russia’s position in the world differs in fundamentals from that of the United States and Western Europe. United Nations projections show its population declining from about 150 million in 1989, when communism collapsed, to about 90 million at mid-century, and the median age will rise from 25 to 50 years. Russian women have 13 abortions for every 10 live births, and life expectancy has fallen to 65 years from 70 years in 1985. But Russia’s Muslim majorities continue to grow and will exceed the non-Muslim European population in as little as three to four decades.
Linear projections are one thing, and the will to live is another. On paper, Russia’s position appears hopeless; whereas current trends show a Muslim majority in Europe a century hence, Russia may have a Muslim majority in less than two generations.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Washington should misunderstand Moscow at this juncture in history. Putin has embarked on a monstrous enterprise, next to which Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor seems like a country parson. European Russia is dying, and Muslims will compose a majority of citizens of the Russian Federation by as early as 2040. But the successors of Imperial Russia, the Third Rome after the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453, refuse to slide without a struggle into the digestive tract of the House of Islam. Western Europe may go with a whimper rather than a bang as Muslim immigrants replace the shrinking local population, but the Russians have no such intention. Putin and his comrades will employ all the guile and violence at their command to delay the decline of European Russia. The Europeans are the emasculated remnant of a fallen civilization; for better or worse, the Russians still are real men.
Putin is playing a Great Game in Central Asia, comparable in scope to the long duel with Britain during the 19th century, but with a difference: Russia’s object is no longer imperial, but existential. America’s blundering about its borders in the form of “color revolutions” in the republics of the former Soviet Union is an intolerable form of interference.
I do not mean to explain all of President Putin’s objections to US policy through the lens of Russia’s Islamic problem. At the Munich Conference on Security Policy this month, Putin protested a number of US actions that seem like encirclement to the Russians, including the installation of advanced anti-missile radar on Russia’s borders, and the presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces on Russia’s border. Russia’s concerns in these matters are understandable. But US radar in Poland or the Czech Republic does not present an existential threat to the Russian Federation: the internal encirclement by the burgeoning Muslim population does present an existential threat.
It is instructive to contrast Russia’s policy in Chechnya with America’s catastrophic policy in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Force, duplicity and bargains with the devil are the hallmarks of Russian strategy. Free elections have brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories, entrenched Hezbollah in Lebanon, and set in motion a civil war in Iraq. By contrast, Putin has pacified the most stubborn Muslim population in the world, namely Chechnya, by means that horrified the world. The United States offers democracy to the Muslim world, and is universally hated; Putin destroys an entire Muslim country, and is welcomed as a friend. The question begs itself: who better understands the Islamic world, Vladimir Putin or George W. Bush?
What infuriates Moscow the most is the suspicion that Washington’s Central Asia policy is running on autopilot, with no accountability for consequences. At the outset of the Afghanistan campaign, the Pentagon fostered “lily pad” bases in Central Asia to support the effort against the Taliban. By bureaucratic inertia these have turned into a continuing deployment of personnel into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics. The US State Department extended its mandate to hothouse democratic movements to Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, in the “Tulip Revolution,” supposedly a continuation of the “color revolutions” already accomplished in Georgia and Ukraine.
The “color revolutions” in Central Asia were to US diplomacy what the Borat movie was to Kazakh public relations: an unspeakably incompetent all-around cluster-bungle with no purpose but to check the boxes and secure the promotions of the American officials involved. No one in Washington is accountable for the overall consequences of US actions toward the Russian Federation. In frustration, Putin appealed directly to President Bush in his angry speech to the Munich Conference. I do not believe that Russia truly wants to frustrate US policy in the Persian Gulf, particularly where the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is concerned. Perhaps Putin is stepping on Bush’s sore toe because it is so difficult to get his attention otherwise.
It is maddening to contemplate the denizens of Washington sipping white wine and debating the final triumph of liberal democracy and free markets in the vaunted “end of history.” Russia’s tragedy is beyond their comprehension. For three generations, the communist system rooted out and extirpated any soul intrepid enough to show thought or initiative. By the early 1990s, Russia’s European population was a passive, sullen rabble incapable of asserting its rights; the cleverest and most adventurous emigrated. Demoralization manifested itself in high rates of alcoholism, drug use and venereal disease. Life expectancy fell from 70 years in 1990 to 65 years today. It will take two or three generations before Russians acquire the courage and the sense of civil society to determine their own destiny after the fashion of the Anglo-Saxon countries.
The only leadership left in Russia by the terrible adverse selection process of the communist system was the former secret guardians of the state, men whose unique position required them to live by their wits. The former secret-police official Vladimir Putin is the only sort of man who could rule Russia in the wake of its 20th-century tragedy. There is nothing to like about the man, but there is something to respect. Russia is fighting for its life against the odds, and there is no one left to fight for Russia but the bloody-handed fighters of the old regime.
Safe in their own continent, with a Muslim population of no more than 2 million to 3 million, composed to a great extent of educated immigrants, the Americans are incapable of understanding what Russia now faces. Yet Russia is a natural ally of the United States for the remainder of the 21st century, perhaps the only natural ally the US will have. Europe does not have the stomach to resist its gradual assimilation in the Islamic world. But Russia will resist, and it will do so ruthlessly. America’s cookie-cutter approach to nation-building has been a disaster; Washington stands to learn a great deal from the tragic history of the Russian Empire.