February 24, 2006

Russia and the “War of Civilizations”

Johnson's Russia List


Russia demonstrates a renewed activism in the Middle East and a larger Muslim world. Aside from ambitious economic projects and weapons sales to India, Iran, Syria, and Palestine, the Kremlin has proposed two important and much debated initiatives. The first one seeks to address growing suspicions of Iran’s intent to obtain a nuclear bomb and to encourage Teheran to send its spent nuclear fuel to Russia. The second initiative is to open political dialogue with leaders of Hamas, who have recently won Palestinian elections, but continue to refuse to renounce violence against Israel or recognize its right to exist as an independent state. Although Russia has had regular relations with Muslim nations and even sought to join the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Kremlin’s initiatives is a bold new development. Successfully implemented, they may put Russia in a position to strongly influence the future of regional and world politics. A nuclear Iran is sure to change the security dynamics of the Middle East, and Hamas’ participation in peace negotiations with Israel will clearly turn the process into something very different from the Oslo-shaped one.

Russia has also strongly condemned the recent publication in Denmark and some other European nations of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad as an “inadmissible” provocation against Muslims. Several officials shared the assessment of the situation by Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as a “global crisis” with a potential to escalate beyond the control of governments, while laying a partial responsibility for such development on the Danish government. In President Putin’s words, “if a state cannot prevent the publication of things like this, it should at least apologize for them.”

What drives Russia’s new turn to the East, has become a subject of wide-ranging discussions. Many observers pointed out inconsistencies in Russia’s position. How can it pressure Iran if the two have so many commercial and geopolitical ties? Is it admissible to shake hands with Hamas, if Russia is a member of the Quartet and a signatory to the Road Map? Why is it that Russia does not recognize Hamas a terrorist organization if the Kremlin fights Chechen’s terrorists to the bitter end refuses to enter any negotiations with them? Is Moscow seeking to challenge the West’s global supremacy, and is it developing Eurasian, rather than European, strategic orientation? Finding coherent answers to these questions is all the more difficult that the Kremlin itself has been tight lipped about its true motives. Putin offered a mere couple of paragraphs explaining his decision to invite Hamas to Moscow, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry is yet to substantiate and elaborate on President’s vision.

The new Eastern foreign policy has roots in both global and domestic developments. Globally, the Kremlin has been reevaluating its relations with the United States. Many of Russia’s post-9/11 expectations have not materialized. Military cooperation in Central Asia and Afghanistan is being replaced by rivalry over controlling security space and energy resources. Instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, which is quickly becoming a new save haven for terrorists, the U.S. launched a war in Iraq. It also soon became apparent that the Washington’s strategy of changing regimes and expanding liberty is not limited to the Middle East. The so-called Rose revolution in Georgia in November 2003 replaced the old regime by popular protest over a rigged parliamentary election and emboldened Washington to apply the strategy in the former Soviet region as well. While the military option was excluded, the emphasis was still on providing opposition with relevant training and financial resources for challenging the old regimes in power. Moscow has responded by building stronger ties with China, condemning the colored revolutions in its periphery, and taking domestic precautions against possible encroachments on national sovereignty. It seems that the Kremlin no longer views Russia-US cooperation in the region as primarily beneficial, and it thinks that American presence here invites terrorism, not eradicates it.

Russia’s perception of American role in the former Soviet region as destructive broadly corresponds with perceptions by many Muslims across the world, who view the U.S. war on terror as a war on them. What began as a counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan with a relatively broad international support is increasingly turning into a “war of civilizations,” or an America’s crusade against Muslims and their style of living. Instead of engaging moderate Islamists, the U.S. policies tend to isolate them and give the cards to radicals. For instance, the new radical Islamist regime in Iran is a product of the isolationist stance adopted toward the nation by the United States over two decades. American leaders failed to engage moderate politicians like former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, who were clear in their intentions to put the 1979 hostage crisis behind them and normalize the relationship with the United States. With aggressive foreign policies pursued by Washington, it was only a matter of time before a large and culturally independent nation like Iran would empower its own hard-liners to respond to America’s hard-line policies. The Hamas case is similar, as both the United States and Europe pursued isolationist policies and even tried to pressure Palestinian voters by threatening to cut financial aid in case of Hamas victory. Europe recently added fuel to the fire by refusing to assume any responsibility for global protests of Muslims over publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The fact that the United States condemned the publication could not change its already established image of imperialist power seeking to offend Muslims. Actions, not words, shape perceptions, and it is perception that constitutes reality.

Implications of the “war of civilizations” for Russia’s well-being are fundamental. For a country with 20 to 25 millions population of Muslims, an involvement in such a war would mean inviting fire to its own home. Russia’s domestic inter-cultural ties are far from balanced. A growing influence of radical Islamist ideologies, a rising immigration from Muslim ex-Soviet republics, and inability of some local authorities to build ties with Muslim believers create a politically explosive environment. Although the situation in Chechnya is much more stable today, Islamic radicals are succeeding in spreading violence and extremist ideology across the larger North Caucasus.

This context helps to make sense of Russia’s Eastern initiatives. They are not anti-Western and do not mean the Kremlin’s return to the rhetorics of Eurasianist multipolarity and containment of the West. However, these initiatives do indicate recognition that the “war of civilizations” between Western nations and Islam is intensifying, as well as understanding that Russia has no business of participating in that war. Just like it was a tragic mistake to get involved in World War I in 1914, it would be a tragedy to have a fully hardened Western-Islamic front today and to see Russia joining it. Russia’s willingness to engage Iran and Hamas seeks to compensate for blunders of Western policies in the region, such as calls to boycott elections in Iran or clumsy attempts to pressure Palestinian voters, and to find a way out of a progressing inter-civilizational confrontation. Implicitly, the new Kremlin’s initiatives also recognize that the threat of Islamic radicalism in Russia cannot be successfully confronted without reaching out to the Muslim world. Whether or not reports of Hamas’ financial support for Chechen radicals are true, Russia is demonstrating that it has no plans to be a part of a new world war, but that it is willing to do everything in its power to negotiate the war’s end.

Those worried about Russia’s new turn to the East should not loose their sleep­­Russia remains a European nation albeit with strong roots outside the West. This does not mean, however, that Samuel Huntington-inspired hopes of Russia joining the “civilized” West against the Eastern “barbarians” have any foundations. Russians are more likely to side with voices advocating a dialogue of civilizations. Politicians, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Mohammed Khatami, attempted to articulate humanistic and culturally pluralistic perspectives, but failed to muster support from the “only superpower.” Today calls for an “inter-civilizational alliance” are heard again, as Russia, Turkey, and Spain are trying to formulate an alternative to an inter-civilizational war. Until such calls are heard, strengthening a dialogue across cultures remains possible