Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.


Updated after Biryulevo: Is Navalny a Revolutionary? If So, Which One?

Navalny-cartoonA few days back, I wrote this note: Is he a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary? Indeed, what do these kinds of distinctions mean? A reformer wants to change and ameliorate the existing system, a revolutionary wants to change it. In that context, it seems hard–at least, if we believe his rhetoric–not to see Navalny as a revolutionary. Following this thought, and in the hope of being able to say something about the man that hasn’t already been said in the umpteen articles, profiles and posts about him, I ruminated in a trilogy of articles for Russia! magazine, about the contrasts and similarities one might be able to see between Navalny and three icons (or devils) of the ‘official’ Russian Revolution: LeninTrotsky and Bukharin. Times change, but the underlying realities of power and the human condition do not. The key issue, ultimately, will be whether his focus will be of tearing down the old order or working with elements within it to change it. After all, a revolution need not be built on an uncompromising campaign of destruction, it can be negotiated–and likewise what may seem like a revolution in its sound and fury may, as the USSR discovered, actually replace one autocracy with another…

Since, then, the events of Biryulevo, in which the murder of a Russian man by a man presumed to be from the Caucasus sparked rolling race riots in Moscow, have also given Navalny the chance to speak out on race issues. It’s long been known that under the cheery liberal demeanor there lurk some attitudes which, to be honest, are much more traditionally and recognizably Russian. Certainly his initial responses, both through re-tweets of racist messages and then tweets of his own did not bode well. On his blog,he then proceeded to blame the riots on the Kremlin above all for encouraging and allowing the influx of workers and migrants from abroad and also from the North Caucasus (and let’s remember that these are Russian citizens; it would be like a mayoral candidate for New York wanting to bar African-Americans from southern states). He then went on to advocate a popular vote on tougher visa regimes for Central Asians, admitting graciously that “not every Central Asian is trafficking heroin” (no, they are more likely to be doing the miserable jobs no one else wants), but still blaming them for drug addition, crime and disorder.

Navalny is a politician. He is also a Russian and prey to many of the same unpleasant prejudices that even otherwise enlightened and humane Russians often do. (The irony is that Putin, while undoubtedly a Russian state nationalist, actually appears–as near as we can tell–to be less of a racist than Navalny. Go figure.) I can see the potential political merits of positioning yourself as the tribune of the angry and disenfranchised Russian lumpenproletariat (and judging by the images, those mobs don’t get much more lumpen). I can also accept that there are issues of crime, alienation and even intimidation connected with living near particular concentrations of migrants. Navalny is not one to encourage pogroms, to be sure, but at the same time, by sympathizing with the rioters, by presenting the paroxysm of violence that ripped southern Moscow as the desperate cry for help by victims, then he is at the very least giving violent racists aid and comfort.

It would be just too, too easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here...

It would be just too, too cheap, glib and easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here…

I wonder if, returning to my revolutionary comparisons, this may prove to be Navalny’s equivalent of Lenin’s decision to seize power in 1917; a moment when political opportunism begets its own original sin. By seizing power in a country so unready for a proletarian movement, Lenin virtually ensured that a Stalin (or at least some kind of authoritarian modernizer) would arise, despite Bukharin’s hopes for NEP. In other words, the political compromises he made then–and to win the Civil War–actually doomed what positive potential there may have been in the Bolshevik movement. If Navalny becomes similarly seduced by the idea that he can rise to power, and do reformist good, by harnessing this embittered, angry racism, then he may well find that he cannot so easily tame these energies. Instead, they may possess him: the hungry ghosts of the Black Hundreds, of General Skobelev (the butcher of Geok-Tepe), of Pamyat, all await the summons…

Russia’s military and its ability to assert its power in the ‘Near Abroad’

Belatedly, I note my latest column in the Moscow News: ‘A true “Medvedev” doctrine,’ on Russia’s current ‘Center’ and ‘Union Shield’ military exercises and what they say about current priorities and threat evaluations. Is (was?) there a ‘Medvedev Doctrine’ that envisages interventions in Central Asia to prop up failing regimes? I hope not and think that ultimately Moscow would rather not, but my concern is that – as in Afghanistan in 1979 – the Kremlin gets sucked in believing (a) that regime change will hurt Russia, (b) that it has not alternative, but in any case (c) that any intervention can be neat, successful and brief. I’d love to be able to reassure myself that fundamental political lessons were learned from the Soviet Afghan war and also the USA’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan…

The Uzbek factor in Kyrgyzstan

I confess I am often distinctly skeptical about the analysis produced by STRATFOR (although they do have some of the prettiest graphics around), but while not agreeing with a fair amount of the piece overall, Peter Zeihan’s The Kyrgyzstan Crisis and the Russian Dilemma does make an interesting and important point about the role of Uzbekistan. Talk of the ‘Uzbek goliath’ is misleading and the suggestion that an Uzbek/Russian military showdown in likely, maybe even imminent, is I would suggest way off beam. However, shorn of some of this sensationalism it does rightly raise the issue of Tashkent’s regional ambitions. Analysis too often regards the ‘stans as (1) victims of circumstance, (2) pawns or booty in geopolitical rivalries between Moscow, Beijing and Washington or (3) eagerly selling themselves to the highest bidder — but almost always essentially on a par with one another, as if there really isn’t a great difference between them. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in their different ways, have ambitions towards regional authority that will be worth watching in the future, though. In the current crisis in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan can fear instability on its border (especially as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan starts to sift back into Central Asia and look for unstable, undercontrolled havens), resent the treatment of ethnic Uzbeks and see opportunities for influence all at the same time…

Explosion of violence in Kyrgyzstan: Moscow wins?

The terrible new outburst of intercommunal violence in Kyrgyzstan is unexpected in detail, if not necessarily in outline. While ousted president Bakiyev’s initial attempts to raise an insurrection in the south flopped (commentators should be wary of the easy characterisation of the south as a ‘Bakiyev stronghold’), it is clear that the new governing coalition is failing to demonstrate one of the key requirements of rule in Kyrgyzstan, the ability to balance clan, ethnic and regional interests.


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