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From the Archives: Will There be a ‘Revolution’ in Russian Foreign Policy? (from the Early Putin Era)

Gordon M. Hahn

The following is an article I wrote for Johnson’s Russia List in November 2001, early in the Putin era.

Date: Mon, 05 Nov 2001
From: “Gordon M. Hahn” <hahn@hoover.stanford.edu>
Subject: Gordon Hahn on Russian Foreign Policy Change

Dear David: Here are my own observations on the question: WILL THERE BE A ‘REVOLUTION’ IN RUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY?


US Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared a ‘seachange of historic proportions’ in Russian foreign policy. To be sure, Putin has strongly backed the American-led anti-terrorist coalition, condoning the air-strikes on the Taleban as ‘measured and appropriate.’ He has delivered the cooperation of Russia’s intelligence agencies; the opening of Russian airspace for humanitarian missions; agreement with Central Asian allies on overflights and the use of bases; participation in search and rescue operations; and expanded military supplies to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. To this he has added that “other, more extensive forms of cooperation are possible.” Nearly 60% of the Russian citizens surveyed in late October wished the U.S. victory over Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Only one fourth of respondents did not wish the U.S. success (17% undecided). Outside the region, Putin has ordered the closing of foreign military bases in Vietnam and Cuba and some in Georgia. Talks about talks with Chechen rebels apparently have begun.

On the other hand, in his address to the German Bundestag after his declaration of support for America in its hour of need on 9/11, Putin tried to play the old game of dividing Europe and the U.S., urging the former to seek a larger role in world politics as an independent entity and to do so by drawing closer to Russia’s military-industrial complex. In addition, Russian aircraft seem to have violated Georgian airspace routinely over the last week in the mounting crisis between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia. In short, it remains an open question whether the current crisis will foster a change in Russian foreign policy and a new level of U.S.-Russian comity, partnership, even an alliance beyond the present crisis.

Actual and potential constraints that might confound a seachange in Russian foreign policy are rooted in the remnants of the old regime’s core institutions unreformed during Yeltsin’s limited revolution from above: the military; the security organs; the defense industry complex; communist opposition parties, especially the Communist Party of the RF (KPRF). Constraints rooted in the well as post-Soviet origins include Russian nationalist and statist parties, Muslim nationalist organizations (this regards mostly the issue of continued Russian support of the war against terrorism and relations with Israel) and elites in the Muslim republcs under pressure from them; and an end to the good performance in an otherwise still insufficiently restructure economy.

THE MILITARY — While relations between the military and Putin have been better than between the military and his predecessor, there are several sources of conflict between the president and the military. First, there is the military’s persistent, long-ingrained distrust of the U.S. and the West compounded by residual, if somewhat latent resentment of the civilian leadership for its failure to ‘stand up’ to the post-Cold War expansion of NATO. Second, Putin has made a former KGB/FSB officer the Defense Minister, which does not sit well with the military, and he has strengthened the security organ’s control powers in the army. Third, Putin is pursuing military reform more seriously than Yeltsin did. Hundreds of generals and thousands of officers are due to get the axe next year. Thus, Putin’s immediate expression of support for the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks without consulting the military and subsequent ‘concessions’ such as U.S. forces’ use of military bases in Central Asia and other assistance against bin Laden and his fellow travelers has re-ignited the generals’ anger. The longer the campaign proceeds and the more Putin supports the war without getting anything in return (a change in NATO’s expansion plans, a compromise on NMD), the more likely Putin and his generals will become as alienated from each other as did Yeltsin (even Gorbachev) and his generals.

THE SECURITY ORGANS Along with the military, Russia’s security organs are perhaps the least ‘restructured’ institutions. Here the key players will be the SVR and the KGB. The MVD can be a player in any role it will play in implementing domestic security measures against the terrorist threat in a manner that discriminates against, and thus alienates Muslim nationalist elements opposed to Moscow’s backing for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. Several present-day and former KGB/FSB and SVR officials have made some rather outlandish statements about the causes of and West’s motives in the new ‘Afghan conflict.’ Leonid Shebarshin conjectured that right-wing forces in the U.S. were as likely to have been behind the 9/11 attacks as bin Laden and Al Qaeda, whom Shebarshin thought ‘for a long time someone had preparing for this role’ (as main organizer of global terrorism). Nevertheless, Putin’s good ties with the security forces should be enough to guard him from its full ire.

THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX (VPK) — Putin’s move to consolidate Russia’s nearly 2,000 defense enterprises into a smaller, presumably more efficient and solvent group of some 800, in particular 50 large conglomerates, is bound to raise the hackles of at least some oboronshchiki. The economy’s continued growth is a pillar of strength that will help forestall any coalescence of VPK opposition. However, should the economy retract on the background of Putin’s apparently mounting restructuring campaign against this sector of the old guard and be combined with any turn of an anti-corruption drive toward the VPK, the possibility of an opposition coalescing from this influential sector will grow. In this regard, generous remuneration for Russia’s supply of some $50 million worth of tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Afghan Northern Alliance and perhaps other installments of such assistance would help assuage the VPK’s resistance to Putin’s support of the U.S. in the new war.

KPRF & RUSSIAN NATIONALIST PARTIES Should Putin’s alliance with the U.S. begin to incur costs and prove a mistake for Russia, the communist (especially the KPRF) and Russian nationalist parties are sure to try and take quick advantage. In the regions, where the KPRF has made some modest gains of late, and in the republics, non-Russian opposition movements for the most part Muslim — could become the communists’ allies against a seeming ‘sell out’ of Russian interests to American ones. This would be idologically more accessible to communist rather than Russian nationalist opposition organizations, given the Bolsheviks’ history of allying with national minorities during the first Russian Revolution. The one Russian nationalist party that might be able to take advantage of this shift in the politico-ideological configuration of Russian politics is the new Eurasian Party, which seeks to bridge Russian, non-Russian, Orthodoz and Muslim sentiment into a broad statist and anti-Western, anti-liberal movement. But this new party’s ability to constrain Putin’s foreign policy initiatives is very limited.

PUTIN�S MUSLIM CHALLENGE In the present atmosphere, Islamic nationalists s well as some national republics’ elites and leaders out of fear of the former are more likely (but not necessarily likely yet) to turn on the federal center and destabilize the Russian Federation. Putin’s federal reforms, his support for the US-led war against terrorism, and domestic security measures could provoke Islamic minority backlash. Putin’s support for the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban does not sit well with domestic Wahabbis and other radical or even moderate Muslim nationalist elements active in Russia, including foreign elements such as Al Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. On top of this, Putin’s federal reforms have reduced the range of sovereignty previously enjoyed by the regions, in particular the national republics of Muslim titular ethnic designation. This has provoked a reaction among nationalist forces in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, who are pressuring their republics’ leaders to resist Putin’s efforts to bring regional law into line with the Constitution and federal law and retract the regions’ special rights enshrined in federal regional treaties and agreements signed during the Yeltsin era. The main beneficiaries of these agreements again are the national republics, especially Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

These factors are mixing with heightened domestic security measures on a background of discriminatory actions routinely conducted by Russian law enforcement and Putin’s backing for the U.S. campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Several Russian Muslim leaders have condemned the U.S. attacks on Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the supposedly ‘moderate’ Tatar Public center has reported and Western journalists have now confirmed the appearance of 70 volunteers in Tatarstan for jihad against the U.S. Russians’ fear and prejudice vis-a-vis Chechen ‘blacks’ may be extending to all Muslims in the new atmosphere. A late October opinion survey showed that 35 percent of Russians had a worse attitude toward Islam and Muslims after 9/11 than before 9/11.

All this suggests the growing risk of domestic Russian-Muslim conflict and a Muslim backlash against Moscow and/or moderate regimes in republics like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. It cannot be excluded that Muslim elements will find some limited support from Russia’s communists, including the influential Communist Party of the Russian Federation, whose leader, Gennadii Zyuganov has harshly criticized the American campaign against terror and Putin’s support for the American operations in Afghanistan. Tatarstan’s Mintimer Shaimiev and Bashkortostan’s Murtaza Rakhimov would surely like to criticize the American bombing campaign but they are circumspect and loathe to encourage that line of reasoning given the Muslim nationalist oppositions they might face. Depending on events, they may be forced in the future to take a stronger stand against Russian-Western coalition against Islamic terrorism.


PERMANENT WESTERN PRESENCE IN TADZHIKISTAN AND/OR UZBEKISTAN — Without deeply involving Russia in the region, any long-term or permanent U.S. or NATO presence in the former Soviet Central Asian republics will be fatal to the emerging U.S.-Russian partnership in the war against terrorism, no less any potential Russia-NATO alliance. All the worst fears of Russia’s defense and security establishments will be reinforced and ostensibly justified. Putin will be forced to retreat from his developing new foreign policy tack.

U.S. USE OF ‘MODERATE’ TALIBAN OR PASHTUNS AGAINST THE NORTHERN ALLIANCE BACKED BY RUSSIA, INDIA, AND IRAN There is a real danger that if the Northern Alliance takes Kabul and a general Pashtun insurgency emerges independent of the Taliban that a split could occur in the Russia-West coalition as the war drags on. The U.S. could ‘defect’ and back a strong Pashtun representation in a post-war Afghan coalition government turning the new Russian-American comity over Afghanistan into enmity. Combined with potential constraint noted above, the road could be paved for a new East-West confrontation, with China sitting out to watch the parties weaken themselves in the black hole of Afghanistan.

NO U.S. COMPROMISE ON NATO EXPANSION AND NMDShould the U.S. insist on bringing the Baltic republics into NATO and on a quick withdrawal/abrogation of the ABM Treaty, then it will be easier for Putin’s potential and existing domestic detractors to gain points for their criticism of his decision to back the U.S.

COMMODITY (OIL) PRICE DECLINE — Any end to the good performance in an otherwise still insufficiently restructured economy because of a fall in global energy prices could undermine Putin’s authority. The fall of oil prices to below $20/barrel is already putting next year’s budget in doubt, and a decline below $18 could usher in a recession. This would undercut Putin’s approval ratings, which now sit at a near high of 75 percent, and thus his ability to go against the grain of the noted elite groups’ opinion, which doubts the value of supporting the U.S. in the present crisis.

WHAT CAN THE U.S. DO TO SECURE A SEACHANGE IN RUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY? What can the U.S. do to help induce the desired ‘seachange’ in Russian foreign policy? First, it can implement several measures that should have been undertaken years ago:

(1) The U.S. ought to pledge to cease increasing the number of Russian targets at which U.S. nuclear forces are aimed. This has occurred at least once since the end of the Cold War and is the prime example of how we were looking the wrong way on September 11 bound up in Cold War era thinking a decade after its end.

(2) A delay in the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO or an official NATO declaration before or at the 2002 NATO Summit that Russia is welcome as a NATO member and its entry would be expedited should it fulfill the requirements expected of members, and NATO should sponsor talks between Russia and the Baltic states on confidence-building measures and military cooperation.

(3) NATO member countries should be encouraged and ways ought to be found to facilitate buying Russian-made weaponry.

(4) A program to purchase Russian oil in order to diversify its energy sources. What is happening now could have emerged on a much grander scale already had we taken this step immediately following the end of the Cold War. Arab countries’ control of the oil market is declining dramatically by a fall in demand and increased Russian production (which now exceeds that of Saudi Arabia), according to the latest research. The growing weakness of the OPEC countries reduces the risk of a repeat of the 1973 oil crisis, which brought an American and worldwide recession. If begun earlier and thus developed further, greater American independence from OPEC countries would give us more leverage in securing cooperation from like Saudi Arabia in uprooting and destroying Osama bin Laden’s financial and terrorist network.

(5) An end to the Jackson-Vannik legislation. The discriminatory policies and emigration restrictions against Russian Jews ended under Gorbachev. Jackson-Vannik should have been discarded in the early Yeltsin years. For the last several years, it has been U.S. immigration policies that have obstructed emigration from Russia to the United States for Jews and non-Jews alike, not Russian emigration policy. Additional measures should include some of the following:

(6) Agreement to modify the ABM Treaty to allow all testing and to delay deployment of a broad NMD for 5 years, by which time it will not have been developed at any rate and providing time for a transition to a ‘points system’ based on combined total ‘units’ for defensive and offensive systems;

(7) A deal reducing Russian and American nuclear forces to approximately 1,750 warheads each;

(8) A program to encourage limited cooperation between the Russian and American defense industry complexes on missile defense;

(9) An exponential increase in funding and programs for cooperation and exchanges between the Russian and American militaries;

(10) A doubling of American programs designed to secure Russian nuclear weapons and technology from theft or other proliferation. In return, Russia should make its nuclear cooperation program with Iran transparent to American experts and;

(11) Arranging a write-off of some (half) or all of Russia’s Soviet-era debt, with the U.S. writing off Soviet debt owed to it first and perhaps in its entirety.

Gordon M. Hahn
Hoover Inst.
Stanford U.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn’s most recent book is Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. He has authored three previous, well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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