Russia’s secret policeman wants to be Eurasia’s gendarme. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to enlist Europe and the United States in an international crusade against militant insurgencies and Islamic terrorism that will soon gather momentum as the civil war in Afghanistan intensifies with the advent of spring. Europe and America should be cautious about joining forces with Russia. This endeavor seems
destined for failure. Instead of curbing terrorist activity, the most likely outcomes are that Russia will be diverted from critical reforms and an already unstable situation in Eurasia will be exacerbated.
Putin hopes to secure support for Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya by evoking an arc of terrorism stretching from Central Asia to the Balkans. In April, in Paris, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the Balkan Contact Group that “complicity between the Chechen terrorists, those of the Balkans and those from Afghanistan is blinding.” Putin reiterated this in talks in St. Petersburg with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He insisted that Europe and Russia combine efforts “to prevent the spread of negative trends over the European continent.”
In Central Asia, Putin has already succeeded in making common cause with the United States against the Taliban. Russia and America entered into an unprecedented alliance in supporting United Nations sanctions against Afghanistan in December 2000. Moscow now wants Washington to endorse U.N. sanctions against Pakistan for its assistance to the Taliban.
The Russian and American militaries are holding consultations on Central Asia, and Russia is creating a rapid deployment force to counter Islamic militant activity in the region. This force would bolster the numbers of Russian troops already operating on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and leave Russian forces handling major counter-insurgency operations on two fronts—beyond its borders in Central Asia, and within its borders in Chechnya.
A Russian military campaign against terrorism in Eurasia, backed by Europe and the United States, would be misguided on two principal counts.
First, Chechnya and Central Asia will together become the graveyard of Russian reform. In Russia’s long and turbulent history, periods of reform have repeatedly foundered in the suppression of rebellion at home and ruinous military campaigns abroad. Two centuries ago, between 1825-1855, Czar Nicholas I attempted a similar feat in trying to fend off revolutionary movements in Russia and Europe. Nicholas presented himself as the “Gendarme of Europe” to assist fellow monarchies in fighting subversion, while at home, he created a police state and stifled economic development. Thirty vital years were lost before Russia was able to move forward again, and the country has been playing catch-up ever since.
The success of Russia’s economic reform is still in Western interests, and Putin made this his priority in his annual address on the state of Russia at the beginning of April. Fighting terrorism from Afghanistan to the Balkans will divert political attention and scarce financial resources away from this task. The war in Chechnya cost Russia an estimated $2.2 billion in 2000 out of an overall state budget of $30 billion in expenditures. Moscow could afford this in 2000, as it ran a budget surplus thanks to high oil and gas prices that swelled state revenues. But there are no guarantees for the future, especially if world energy prices fall.
Finally, the emergence of Islamic militant groups is not the root cause of instability in Eurasia. The real causes are abject and worsening poverty, and the fragility of political institutions. In Chechnya, Russia’s own misrule over almost two centuries, combined with the economic and social dislocation of the collapse of the USSR were primary factors in shaping the conflict. Putin himself admitted in his April address that if this crisis is ever to be fully addressed, Russia must resolve Chechnya’s economic and social problems.
Likewise, in Central Asia, although the threat from terrorism is real, the base of support for Islamic militants has been swelled by the governments’ failures to improve living standards and brutal crackdowns on the secular opposition as well as on ordinary Muslims. In the 19th century, misery was a major cause of revolution in Russia and Europe. Today, misery feeds terrorism in Eurasia.
A Russian-led military crusade and sanctions will not be a sufficient response to this problem. Instead of supporting Putin’s aim to be the gendarme of Eurasia, Europe and America should work with Russia to find a long-term, more nuanced strategic approach to instability in Eurasia that emphasizes the imperatives of economic and political development as well as fighting and disarming terrorists.