By Logan Wilde*
Few would argue that Russia’s recent display of military assertiveness, in both its hybrid confrontation in Ukraine and recent intervention in Syria, is antithetical to its proposed self-image as a regional power. This is largely the basis of Emil Aslan Souleimanov’s article explaining how Russia is using the threat of the Islamic State to attempt to reinstate political-military hegemony throughout the former Soviet states. But Souleimanov missed the broader aspect of Vladimir Putin’s true motivations in the Middle East and throughout the Caucasus: countering perceived U.S. and NATO hegemony in the region and beyond.
The 2008 skirmish in Georgia marked the first use of Russian military power to engage an independent Post-Soviet state since the fall of the USSR. The weak reaction by the United States only highlighted the efficacy of the strategy, which came to be known as the Medvedev Doctrine, where the Russian president proclaimed that “protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country. Our foreign policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.” (Friedman, 2008) This ambitious military strategy rested on the reality that Russia was suffering from an economic downturn due to low oil prices and the political threat of NATO expansion to its borders. It is not a coincidence that Russia’s involvement in Georgia and Ukraine symbolically coincided with each country’s stated intent to join the NATO Membership Action Plan.
Souleimanov gets into Russia’s consistent effort to link the United States to any political or military objective it deems worthy of pursuing: besides the obvious connections to NATO, the Russian media (heavily controlled by the government as to message) assumes that “the Islamic State is a U.S. project to redraw the political map of the Middle East, or that it is used by Washington to either boost America’s supremacy in this part of the world or destabilize Russia’s Muslim-dominated areas in the North Caucasus, as well as Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia.” (Souleimanov, 2015) Paradoxically, this link also requires that Putin necessarily downplays the immediate threat that the Islamic State poses to Russia, which Souleimanov correctly points out. Instead, Putin speculates that North Caucasian fighters participating in the Syrian war will return to their homeland and continue the fight on native Russian soil against Russians. This is one of his primary reasons for military intervention in Syria.
Members of Russia’s political and intellectual elite are now arguing that the Islamic State could in fact pose an immediate threat to Russia’s political and military interests in the Central Asian region. This narrative helps to justify Russia’s strong military presence in the region, itself a response to a substantial U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan. Russian analysts point to “Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan as the region’s most vulnerable states in the event of a concentrated attack perpetrated by ISIS or its local allies.” (Souleimanov, 2015) Although Souleimanov correctly identifies that this is actually an unlikely threat, he does not do enough to explain this conclusion. All of these states are at least semi-authoritarian and while they do not have large militaries, they do rely on Soviet-style military agreements. They also have substantial police forces that are trained to identify and respond to any insurgent or terrorist crises, while regularly employing torture and extra-legal tactics to silence opposition. (Human Rights Watch, 2016) In other words, this region is fundamentally hostile to an influx of Islamic State members. Unlike in war-torn Yemen or Syria, the states in this region have absolute control over their respective populations and therefore represent a significant barrier for most jihadist groups. This at least partly explains why home-grown Islamist groups have been fairly weak throughout Central Asia for the past generation.
Souleimanov also suggests that Russia may be complicit in allowing its citizens to travel to Syria to fight alongside jihadists. There is little reason for Russian police to prevent these individuals from leaving. In addition to Souleimanov’s explanation that Russian authorities are counting on many of these individuals being killed in combat while in Syria, they also serve to further destabilize—and therefore undermine—U.S. intentions in Syria itself. It was also these same individuals that gave Russia the initial justification to enter into Syria, keeping in line with its doctrine to “protect its citizens.” Partnering with Assad was merely another strategic maneuver to display Russia’s independence from U.S. goals in the region, despite both the U.S. and Russia having a similar objective of defeating the Islamic State. As Russia withdraws from Syria it will remain focused on tracking the Russian-born jihadists that are intent on returning to their homeland to continue their fight once the Syrian battlefield has grown stale.
Russia’s declining political and economic influence throughout the region has forced its hand in its attempt to establish itself as a regional power comparable to China or India. Unfortunately, as Souleimanov points out, the “Central Asian elites have grown increasingly suspicious of Moscow’s expansionism, its hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine, and its rhetoric of protecting Russians abroad.” (2015) This presents a problem for Russia, which has few potential solid partners beyond its former Soviet states. Embarrassingly, the only parties that officially recognized Russia’s claim to Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 were Hamas and Nicaragua—not even the Central Asian states were willing to ally with Russia on such an openly anti-NATO maneuver. (Matthews, 2008) The most palpable example of Russia’s focus on military strategy is its use to maintain its influence in the Arctic region, an area that is bound to see vastly increased economic activity as the region begins to melt and reveals access points to vast reserves of hydrocarbons. (Mitchell, 2014) This level of military quasi-aggressiveness on the international stage is unique to Russia. Even China’s military posture to preserve its influence in the South China Sea is not nearly as robust. (Rizzo, Lendon, Levine, & Ullah, 2016)
Without the economic clout of China or the political standing of India, Moscow is forced to rely on modernizing and utilizing its military as a means to counter Western influence. With Syria as a showcase, Russia has taken its first step in establishing itself as a dominant military force once more that is capable of defending the region from Western—or as the Russian populace understands it, Islamic State—influence. But Russia must establish a foreign policy that does more than attempt to undermine U.S. and NATO activity in the region if it hopes to truthfully achieve the level of regional influence that China and India enjoy. After all, it is China’s trade with the United States and India’s strong political ties with Washington that have allowed them to grow. Russia must embrace a similar strategy if it wishes to compete in a similar fashion on the international stage. It may have a legitimate strategic reason for all of its military posturing, but ultimately its biggest global successes and most powerful regional influence will be in showing how well it is able to partner with others as opposed to going it alone.
About the author:
*Logan Wilde is currently pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University. He has more than thirteen years of experience working in the intelligence community, primarily focusing on the Middle East and Central Asia regions.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy