"We have no plans to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand ... that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, the use of nuclear weapons."
-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky.
This announcement was largely ignored by the American media as it debated what's more important for the next President: the shape of the candidate's genitals or the color. In more wonkish corners, the statement drew concerns and talk of a new Cold War. And yet, Moscow is not trying to threaten the world despite the panic that the word "nuclear" usually provokes. The General's statement is also not particularly extraordinary. Russia's new stance is not a threat to the West, much less the beginning of a new Cold War.
To understand why Vladimir Putin's administration made the statement one needs to go back to the Balkan wars in the 1990s since the “ally” Moscow was talking about was Serbia in the anticipation of the potential unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo Albanians and recognition of the new state by the European Union and the United States.
In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia fell apart along ethnic lines. The most contentious place was Bosnia where the Muslims clashed with Christian Serbs. Both sides committed atrocities, but as has been the policy of the West since the 1930s, the US and EU sided with Muslims. While some countries, at some points (France in the 1950s, US since the 1960s), made an exception for Israel, it has been a consistent pattern of American and West European foreign policy to support Islamic nations – Afghanistan against Russia, Pakistan against India, Turkey over Greece (though the US-Greek relations weren't hostile, Turkey was clearly the preferred friend), Somalia against Ethiopia. The United States even had an arms embargo against Israel and sided with Egypt over not only Jerusalem, but also Britain and France during the 1956 war. It was not the United States that turned away from Muslims and towards the Jewish state, but rather it was the Arabs who abandoned the alliance and sided with Moscow, leaving the U.S. with little choice but to ally itself with Israel. When Egypt decided to switch sides again, Washington promptly issued it over $2 billion in annual aid and forced Jerusalem to give up Sinai.
It was thus hardly surprising that Bill Clinton chose to help Bosnian Muslims over the Serbs. What was unusual was the vilification of the Serbs as the only side that committed atrocities. While it is true that the Serbs committed crimes, it was always doubtless that Bosnians did as well. To the Russians, the breakup of their ally Yugoslavia was an embarrassment, but given that they couldn't even prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was hardly possible for them to preserve the territorial integrity of their friends. Since the administration of General-Secretary Yuri Andropov (1982-1984), Moscow tried to warm its relations with the West, becoming almost subservient to Washington under Boris Yeltsin. It was thus hardly shocking Russia helplessly went along with the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Sensing weakness in Belgrade and Moscow, Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo began agitating for independence by engaging in terror and building alliances with Islamist regimes and organizations. Kosovo is believed by the Serbs to be their Jerusalem, their Mecca. A major reason why the province is now dominated by Muslim Albanians is the Serbs' decision to side with the Allies during WWII, while both Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians established their own Nazi SS divisions. The third largest death camp during World War II was in Yugoslavia, causing the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Serbs (and others). One of the Muslim Nazis who fought in the 13th (Bosnian) SS division known as “Hanjar” was Alija Izetbegovic, who became President of Bosnia. As Izatbegovic matured after WWII, he embraced Islamism and as early as 1970 began agitating in favor of “a struggle for creating a great Islamic federation from Morocco to Indonesia, from the tropical Africa to the Central Asia.” This goal was awfully similar to al-Qaida's struggle (“Jihad”) for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia. And in fact, it is known that he received help from al-Qaida against the Serbs. He also received help from Tehran.
Bill Clinton's grotesque unofficial and indirect alliance with Osama bin Ladin and Iranian Ayatollahs against Orthodox Christians (Russians and Serbs) was presented as a fight for human rights. So much so that even several major left-leaning Jewish organizations chose to help the former Nazi SS volunteer who became the Bosnian President.
But Kosovo was different than Bosnia. It was not autonomous in the same way that Bosnia was. For Belgrade to lose Bosnia was an equivalent of Moscow losing Ukraine, or for Britain to lose Scotland. For Belgrade to lose Kosovo was an equivalent of Moscow losing Chechnya, or for Britain to lose Manchester. As the war in Kosovo raged, Yeltsin faced his own problems that threatened the breakup and even destruction of Russia. Chechnya achieved de facto independence after the Russian army got embarrassed by a band of amateurs. It was now possible that other minorities in Russia would follow Chechnya's example and also demand independence.
When the Warsaw Pact lost Poland, the whole bloc was destroyed. When the USSR allowed independence for the Baltic states, the country fell apart. Allowing Chechen sovereignty seriously threatened Russia's future as a country. Russia is the most ethnically diverse country in the world, and many minority ethnic groups live in regions where they can establish viable nation-states. If Chechnya succeeded, there was no reason to expect others not to at least try to rise up against Moscow – and the economic crash suffered by Russia in the late 1990s did not help matters.
But just as Russia could not allow Chechen independence, it could not allow Kosovo sovereignty for the same reason. Kosovo would be a precedent and an inspiration for minorities trying to break free. Strong, established states such as Britain (Northern Ireland and Scotland) and Spain (Basques and several others) can thwart such challenges. A weak Russia, with a dysfunctional military and a destroyed economy would have a much harder time at it. Additionally, many of the minority groups in Russia, including the largest one Tatars, are Muslim and it would be conceivable that Jihadists then flowing into Kosovo would move on to fight Moscow next to help their co-religionists in the Russian Federation.
In March 1999, after months of exaggeration of Serbian atrocities by the Western media (while the brutality of the terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army was ignored), Washington-led NATO began the air campaign against Serbia. Two and a half months later, many targets were destroyed, but just as in every other case in history, the Air Force alone could not defeat its enemy. There's very little reason for the West to fight Serbia and the American people would not tolerate significant human losses for no apparent benefit. Clinton approached Yeltsin and the two Presidents worked out an agreement where along with NATO forces, the Russian troops would be stationed to protect the Serbs and to prevent Kosovo independence. The Serbs left the province and NATO moved in. But when Russian soldiers arrived, Americans blocked them, and the media portrayed this as the new Prague Spring of 1968 (when the Soviets ruthlessly crushed the Czechoslovakian liberation movement). But this time it was not Kremlin abusing its power – it was the White House. To the Russians, it was the ultimate slap in the face. Already reeling from helplessness, Russians correctly saw this incident as an insult. It was clear that Moscow became a joke that nobody needed to take into consideration. So much so that nations now felt free to break major agreements with total disregard for how the people of the world's largest country would react.
Clinton's decision to slap Russia in the face and embarrass it on the world scene was the most important reason why Vladimir Putin is now in power, and why he has taken a not-always-friendly approach to dealing with the West. Last fall, I spoke with a bright, highly intelligent Russian college student who was critical of many things Putin has done. But he acknowledged Putin to be Russia's best option. “He restored our pride. Russia was an international joke. Nobody treated us as equals before, but now we matter.” President George W. Bush tried to repair some of the damage to the Russo-American relations done by Bill Clinton, such as the statement about looking into Putin's soul for which he was widely ridiculed. But Bush knew that when things truly mattered, Putin helped him. After 9/11, the Russian President allowed the U.S. to establish military bases in Uzbekistan, which Moscow sees as its sphere of influence, commonly known in Russia as “the near abroad”. When Americans establish military bases, they rarely leave (Korea and Germany being two major examples), so by allowing the U.S. to move into Uzbekistan, Putin was essentially ceding territory. In Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was Russia's client-army that meant to serve as the buffer between the south of the former Soviet Union and the Taliban (against which the Russian intelligence repeatedly warned the aloof CIA going back to the early 1990s, even as Clinton withdrew each and every intelligence officer from Afghanistan).
When George W. Bush needed native Afghani help, Putin facilitated contacts between the Northern Alliance and American military and intelligence. Russia's help in Afghanistan was so indispensable that without it the war would've been delayed until after the winter, giving Taliban several months to prepare. It is also indisputable that without the help of the Northern Alliance and Russian human intelligence (which Washington lacked completely because Clinton ended all such operations in the Taliban-led country), the Afghan War would've resulted in thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of additional deaths by NATO forces.
Of course, Russia was concerned about Islamist radicals long before America, and benefited from the destruction of Taliban, which it could not bring about on its own without the aid of the American military might.
But Putin's Russia also became more assertive in promoting its interests, rather than just being America's little lap dog. First, Putin implemented fiscal reforms that improved his country's economy, such as the flat tax of only 13% that doubled tax revenue in just three years by creating an economic boom and eliminating the incentive to cheat. [Russia's flat tax example was later followed by much of Eastern Europe with similar success] More ominously, Putin took on the wealthy so-called “oligarchs” who controlled industries that the President felt he could use to promote Russian interests, often by bullying others, such as when he reduced energy flow to Ukraine and the EU.
During the Ukrainian elections in 2004, Americans tried not only to promote Viktor Yuschenko, but to turn him into a “candidate of the West” to the point where some have even traveled to Kiev. Unlike in Kosovo a half decade earlier, this time Russia fought back with all the vigor of a cornered bear, the same way Washington would fight an attempt to establish a pro-Russian, anti-American regime in Canada. The result was Moscow's first major victory on the international scene in at least 20 years. While Ukraine still elected Victor Yuschenko, but he did not radically alter the country's links to Russia, and was brought into line by Putin when he tried. With wind behind his sales, Putin realized that he is now a major global player. The economy was no longer in shambles. Chechnya was defeated. The nationalist feelings of Russia's other minorities were kept below the surface. It was now Moscow's time to branch out of the borders of the former USSR.
At times Russia is fighting just for the sake of fighting. Like a picked-on school boy who just took a self-defense course, Moscow felt the need to assert itself by poking the West in the eye as a show of strength.
Putin realized that no country will choose to ally with Russia over the United States if they have a choice. He thus made a decision to embrace the enemies of the West such as Iran, Syria and Venezuela. In the United Nations, Russia made things difficult for the United States in order to show that it is a country that must be paid attention to. At the same time, he made Kremlin a key player in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea (and tried to inject Russia into the Israel-Arab peace process).
This Russian alliance with the enemies of the West is unlikely to hold for a long time, however. While some countries, such as Venezuela, are of no long-term importance to Moscow and could be either a friend or an enemy, Iran is Russia's natural enemy. America has no necessary reason to fight with Iran, and in fact, neither does Israel. The present quarrels are with the Ayatollahs currently in power, but when the Shah was in power, he was a close ally of the US, Israel and the West. I maintain contacts at least on some level with members of all the Iranian opposition groups and see no reason why they would be enemies of the West. Most Persians I've met are pleasant, generous and bright, and do not wish ill to Americans. Considering the geographical distance between the United States and Iran, there aren't any natural conflicts between the two countries such as territorial disputes. Russia, on the other hand, has natural conflicts built-in with Iran. For one, Iran is so close to Russia that it would be immediately threatened by Tehran's nuclear weapons, far more so than the far-away America (or even Israel would be if the radical Ayatollahs lose power). Long term, Iranian nukes are a greater threat to Russia than to anyone else.
Kremlin also has a dispute over the oil under the Caspian with Iran, where Moscow is arguing (correctly) that the Caspian is legally defined as the world's largest lake (which would grant Russia the right to most of the Caspian oil) and not a sea, as it is commonly called, which would grant the right to much of the Caspian oil to Iran and Muslim countries in the south of the former Soviet Union. Russia also has been challenged to its south in six Muslim countries where Iran (and Turkey) tried to promote an Islamic alliance dominated by Tehran (or Ankara) at the expense of Russian interests there.
Kremlin pretends to help Tehran inside and outside the United Nations only to play Washington for a fool. Americans are paying Russians to do exactly what they want to do anyway, while at the same time making Moscow seem like a major player on the world scene. Thus, just as in Afghanistan, in Iran too Moscow's interests are in line those of Washington.
Where Moscow's interests diverge with Washington's is once again in Kosovo. But this time Russia is no longer a weak state, with a dysfunctional military and a destroyed economy that face a real threat of disintegration like 10 years ago. Rather than the joke it was in the late 1990s, Putin's Russia of 2008 is a country that matters. It matters in terms of global economy, oil and gas, United Nations, War on Terror and just about every other international issue.
CNN and other Western media likes to portray the Russian people as fools who blindly support Putin and his semi-dictatorial tendencies. But they are not fools. They know that today they are wealthier than ever before in Russian history, and Putin has been their leader responsible for the economic rise. Surely the rise in oil prices helped, but rather than stealing the newly-found wealth (like, for example, Nigerian leaders do) or squandering it on useless government programs that support degenerate behavior (as is done in the West), Putin used it to lower taxes and pay off the debt. Paying back the country's debt is not particularly popular because citizens do not see any immediate benefit, and it would've been far more fashionable for Putin to engage in American-style populism where politicians spike their personal poll numbers by engaging in fiscal child abuse by borrowing and then wasting money that will have to be paid by later generations.
But more than economics, what truly makes Russians support Putin is a restored sense of pride, a sense that their country matters once again for the first time in a generation. Putin's next test is in Kosovo. He must show his people and the international community that Moscow is willing and able to help its allies.
Serbs are a people who are very similar to Russians (both are Orthodox Christians, both are Slavic, and their languages are similar enough to be understood). Moscow is entitled to defend it the same way Washington would defend Great Britain. In declaring itself willing to defend its allies, with nuclear weapons if needed, Moscow did not intend to tell the world that it wants a new Cold War. Russia's defense of Serbia is no difference an American defense of its allies in Western Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. Over the decades, Washington issued similar statements in defense of all these nations.
Ten years ago, Bill Clinton unnecessarily provoked the Russian people by going back on his agreement with Moscow in order to help KLA Islamic terrorists. George W. Bush must not make the same mistake by helping Kosovo's KLA-led government. And liberal Jewish organizations must remember that should they support KLA terrorists in Kosovo, Russia and its allies would be fully justified in aiding Hamas in Gaza as payback. Russia will defend the territorial integrity of Serbia and the West has no reason to support the KLA.
David Storobin is a New York lawyer who received Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Rutgers University School of Law. His Master's Thesis (M.A. - Comparative Politics) deals with the historical causes for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. He's been interviewed on radio and cited in books as a political expert. Mr. Storobin is also a practicing Criminal Defense and Family Law attorney.
This article was published in Global Politician 1/22/2008