A new window to Russia

Analysis-Tanvir Ahmad Khan
Daily Times.

Russia is not returning to a classical version of the Cold War. It is today a post-imperialist authoritarian ‘democracy’ with a well-educated ever-expanding middle class determined to find an honourable place in the comity of nations

Conversations with strategic analysts in Peshawar in the third week of September revealed an earnest preoccupation with the role of Russia in regional developments. Geographical proximity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics that are likely to be the locus of a renewed Russian interest provides an obvious explanation.

Rumours of Russia being gradually sucked into the Afghan wars — so far largely unsubstantiated — also sweep into the historical gateway city. One noticed frequent extrapolation into the current situation with the Taliban of the American attempts to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that turned the fire in Vietnam into a regional inferno. There was also a greater recognition of the fact that the world is witnessing a slow but steady diffusion of power and influence.

I told my interlocutors in the deeply concerned capital of “Pakhtunkhwa” that the sketchy evidence of Russian arms joining supplies from other known sources in the adjacent zone of conflict need not be connected to the Medvedev-Putin order in Russia. During my assignment to Moscow, I became aware of a large network of arms dealers with years of past service in the KGB, the border forces and the regular military engaged in international arms trade. Such networks are quite capable of operating outside Moscow’s official approval.

So far as Afghanistan is concerned, thousands of Russians who served there during the Soviet occupation — the “Afghanis of Russia” — are still trying to come to terms with the pain and humiliation of a failed mission.

While this is politics of war at its outer and wilder fringes, a vastly more important fact is the resurgence of Russia as a power to reckon with. The Russian military intervention that has led South Ossetia and Abkhazia to virtually break away from Georgia needs a fuller comment another day. Nevertheless the allegations of Russian neo-imperialism and Czarist expansion are designed to obscure the Russian side of the story.

Russian history has often witnessed the rise of leaders using autocratic structures and practices to hold together a sprawling multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-faith land in times of troubles. Putin followed Gorbachev and Yeltsin at a time when many Russians felt that western capitalistic giants had duped them into playing a servile role in the political and economic domain alike. Putin did not abolish either democracy or capitalism but imposed a relentless nationalistic discipline on the new institutions embodying them and then, taking advantage of windfall profits from energy sales, re-energised the state and the society.

Russia was, indeed, flattered by a seat at G-8 table and also attracted by the prospect of joining the WTO. It was, however, not mesmerised enough to forget what Putin gradually defined as Russia’s right to ‘spheres of interest’ and zones of ‘privileged interest’. This doctrine has a territorial map implicit in it.

Russia’s erstwhile satellites in Eastern Europe have undergone deep “westernisation” and revived the old concept of Mitteleuropa separating Western Europe from historical Russia. The three Baltic States also drifted away despite sizeable Russian minorities.

The Russians accepted these realities but were profoundly disillusioned when the West tried to seduce Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into joining NATO. Putin drew a red line in front of these former Soviet States in his famous speech in Munich in 2007. Nor would Russia abandon its interests in energy rich Central Asia where too one western-backed “colour revolution” had taken place in Kyrgyzstan.

Russia is not returning to a classical version of the Cold War. It is today a post-imperialist authoritarian ‘democracy’ with a well-educated ever-expanding middle class determined to find an honourable place in the comity of nations. Even the diehard Russian Atlanticists now realise that Russia should throw its weight behind an accelerated transition to a multi-polar world. This means rekindling old friendships — China and India — and investment in new ones in its neighbourhood and in far away Latin America.

Logically, Pakistan should figure high on the list. But there is past baggage and also the primacy of time-tested Indo-Russian strategic partnership. There is not enough space today to plot the chequered course of Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations during the last sixty years. For much of the time they were less than friendly though punctuated by periodic efforts to put them on an even keel.

The last effort dates back to General Musharraf’s visit to Moscow in February 2003. There was optimism about a new beginning as it was followed by many other exchanges. The two sides differ on how the momentum was once again lost. President Zardari’s visit to China affords a valuable opportunity to explore how far the Chinese leadership would help remove the obstacles in the path of Pakistan-Russia cooperation.

On the Pakistani side, the Yaqub Khan syndrome of looking at Russia invariably through the prism of the hostility of the 1954-71 era has to be finally cast aside. Secondly, the Pakistan Foreign Office needs to be convinced that a world of multiple centres of political, economic and military power has already arrived. Despite huge flights of capital to the West, Russia today has 90,000 dollar millionaires and many of them are looking for increased interaction with markets in Asia.

In my experience, our own captains of trade and industry give up too quickly when confronted with difficulties of dealing with their Russian counterparts. Russian reluctance to sell arms to us because of their fear of losing lucrative contracts with India, some involving Israel as well, may continue for some more time. But as highly sophisticated hardware from the United States flows into India in the wake of the nuclear deal, even this reluctance may diminish.

It is also important to go beyond set piece Soviet-style cultural exchanges and encourage free interaction among universities, think tanks, media establishments and non-government civil society organisations. It is a project worth developing in our long-term national interest.

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary and a former ambassador to the Russian Federation. He can be contacted at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

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