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The Russian Enigma

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on January 4th, 2005

To call Russia an “enigma,” while accurate enough, is a journalistic cliché, drawn from Winston Churchill’s celebrated phrase “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Properly speaking, Churchill, in wartime, was referring not to Russia at all but to the mighty Soviet Union, almost nine million square miles in area—three quarters of the size of the United States, China, and Canada combined.

Today that “unbreakable union” (to quote its national anthem) had been gone for thirteen years, as of last Christmas, replaced by the Russian Federation, somewhat smaller at  6,592,800 square miles, but still formidable and more enigmatic than ever. How she develops in the next ten to twenty years, however, will nevertheless be a key to questions ranging from the success of European integration to peace in East Asia. We Americans should therefore be paying close attention—which of course we are not.

I say  Russia is now  more enigmatic than ever because our usual recourse,  history,  at first glance at least, has little to tell us. For the question is not how do Moscow or her neighbors handle expansion, but rather how do they deal with a contraction, unlikely to be reversed, that creates a novel situation.

Loss of empire can be humiliating and disorientating: just look at Britain or France, both relegated to the second tier of powers after World War II. It has undoubtedly shaken the Russians more than anyone, for who could ever have imagined that the Red Flag would really be lowered over the Kremlin? But as Britain attempted to show, loss of empire can also present an opportunity: namely, the chance to be genuine friends with states that one previously held in servitude. Russia has the same opportunity, for good relations with her are among the highest priorities of her neighbors and former subjects.

But as was demonstrated by her attempted intervention in the Ukrainian election, some at least in Moscow do not see things that way, and dream instead (like the European states after World War II) of reconstructing something along the lines of the old USSR, both geographically and, at least to the extent that it is authoritarian and not democratic, politically as well.

Other actions, however, undercut this analysis. Moscow has cultivated far better ties with the West than the USSR ever enjoyed, and by and large has been welcomed. She has moved closer to Japan by choosing the more sensible option of an energy pipeline terminating at the Russian Pacific port of Nakhodka over the Chinese alternative, and offering to return some—but not all—of the northern Japanese islands seized at the end of World War II. She has entered the world economy.

So what are the possibilities?

A straight line projection based on current trends in Russia will find the country, in twenty years time, with a smaller population than she has today and a burdensome ratio of old to young citizens. Her economy will be far from having realized its potential, not only  because of lack of labor, but also because increasing Kremlin centralization and intervention will have lowered her growth rate from the very respectable numbers of the past few years. Under such conditions, maintaining authoritarian control will become more and more difficult over a territory that is still only a little smaller than the United States plus China and which still stretches from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Pacific.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union lacked genuinely troublesome neighbors. Russia, by contrast, has issues with nearly every state on its periphery, and many of these states are becoming assertive. In Siberia meeting Chinese, or Korean refugees (and slave laborers) is not unusual. The border with the Turkic world, once inside, is now mostly outside Russia, but the potential problems remain.

What we are describing in this first scenario sounds a bit like a shrunken Soviet Union, and although Mr Putin might not put it that way, the description is not inaccurate. The state is demographically stagnant, economically increasingly shackled, beleaguered by problems within and without—and problems that cannot be solved by military force, even were that force available, which it is not.

Now recall what happened to the USSR. Mr Gorbachev attempted to reform it, but while allowing for democracy, decided that his own job at the top should not be elective. Accumulating internal problems and the legacy of a failed war returned to roost on the Kremlin wall, and in short order the USSR had collapsed, although without bloodshed and by semi-consensual processes, into something called the Commonwealth of Independent States—propelled, not least, by people in the streets of Moscow.

To the extent they were shrunken Soviet Unions, however, the members of the CIS continued to suffer from the problems that had brought down the larger entity. Nowhere did real democracy take hold. Belarus is synonymous with dictatorship, Turkmenistan with the cult of personality. Russia itself is freer than at any time since 1917 but still uneasily hesitating at the sign pointing the way to full democracy, and Ukraine . . .

Well, Ukraine showed that just as the central power of the USSR could lose power, so too could the Soviet-looking post-Soviet regimes in the CIS. Ukraine had become a sovereign nation and gained freedom undreamed of in Soviet times, but she was still oppressed by the thuggish rule of Soviet officials continuing in office, and their new collaborators, many thugs and economic criminals. So, in Ukraine, began what may well be the second wave of post-Soviet change in the CIS.

Given the Ukrainian example, in fact, it is not at all difficult to imagine an “orange revolution” in Belarus or in one of the Central Asian States, or even in Russia herself—each, of course, having its own coloration, in former Soviet Central Asia probably green, the color of Islam.

So the first point as we try to solve Churchill’s riddle of Russia and her future, is to understand that domestic developments will be fundamental—and that none of the post Soviet states has yet reached anything like a sustainable form and structure. But because the new structures are freer and more open to public opinion and dissent, they make the task of internal change easier, and thus its occurrence more likely.

Or to sum up: the rest of the world should be thinking carefully about the various courses of change now open to Russia and her former Soviet neighbors, and how each would affect their interests and the world.

Few things are more unwelcome to foreign policy bureaucrats worldwide, as well as to pundits, than “instability.” That is why the first President Bush had no idea what to do as the old USSR began to wobble—nor did any of his colleagues. That is why the current President Bush has evidently decided not to pay too much attention to Ukraine—though what has happened there is pivotal for Eurasia—lest relations with Moscow suffer. What the administration—and the Europeans—should be asking is: what do we do if and when in the Russia of 2005 or later,  a new Father Gapon (as in 1905) leads protesters against the current weak autocracy, the attempt at forcible suppression fails, and things begin to unwind.

This is the riddle on which we all should be working.

To conclude, let us recall Churchill’s quote in full. It responded to the question of Russia’s future course. And it claimed to find a key:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests.”

But what, one asked then, were Soviet interests, and did the post-war really serve them (the regime perished half a century later, after all, while even places like Greece kept going)?

What are Russian national interests today? Are they being served now? How might they be otherwise served?

A future column will consider these questions.

IASC vice-president Arthur Waldron first visited the then USSR more than thirty years ago, and spent a semester at the then Leningrad State University. He most recently returned as part of a track two delegation sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council.

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