Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Russia in the post-September world

AS FOR many other parts of the world, 11 September marked a turning point in Russia’s international relations, in particular, with the USA. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington DC, president Vladimir Putin could hardly hide his glee. "Now America will understand what the fight against terrorism is all about", he stated on Russian TV. He clearly meant the continuing brutal war in Chechnya.

Putin made full use of the opportunity to forget the hints he had given not long before about the need for negotiations and, instead, stepped up military attacks. The latest, a brutal army ‘security sweep’ over the New Year holiday, was launched around the town of Argun. One human rights activist commented: "Because Russia has turned out to be a very useful and instrumental ally in fighting international terrorism, the West has completely turned a blind eye to what is happening in Chechnya". He went on to say that in the Argun fighting, Russian troops went on a four-day drunken orgy, shooting any male they saw and burning the bodies in a huge pyre to hide the evidence.

As a further reward for its support, the US appears to be giving Russia a green light to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Russian government wants this to happen within 18 months. WTO membership is seen by Russian businesses as a way of giving raw material producers more access to Western markets. It also represents recognition by the US that the Russian government has now succeeded in ‘liberalising’ its legal framework – that is, has made it even more pro-big business.

In their post-September summits, George W Bush and Putin discussed forging a closer relationship between Russia and Nato. Putin has even raised the idea of Russia joining Nato! Another significant step was apparently taken with the agreement of both sides to reduce their nuclear arsenals, although further talks will be needed for this to happen. Moreover, Bush then subsequently announced on 11 December that the US was pushing ahead regardless with the national missile defence project – ‘Son of Star Wars’ – and therefore intends to pull out of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. (The ABM treaty was signed in 1972 at the height of the ‘cold war’ between the US and what was then the Soviet Union.) This clearly shows that the real relationship is not as "genuine partners united by the common values of democracy, liberty and the rule of law", as proclaimed in one of the summit press releases, but one in which Bush takes the decisions and Putin toes the line.

This is demonstrated by some of the decisions that have been taken behind the scenes since September. Russia has been pressured into closing its military base at Lourdes, south of Havana, ending 40 years of military ties with Cuba and costing the Cuban government $200m in lost rent. And while it has been given a free hand to deal with Chechnya, although not successfully, that is not the case with the small Caucasus state of Georgia. Here, president Eduard Shevardnadze has been told by the US State Department that Russia must withdraw from the breakaway state of Abkhazia. This decision was instrumental in provoking a new upsurge in fighting in the region in October and November. In 1994, Abkhazia won independence from Georgia after a bloody civil war, although the enclave is not internationally recognised. Since then, 2,000 Russian troops have been on ‘peace-keeping’ operations there. The Abkhazian administration accuses the Georgian government of being behind guerrilla attacks and requested Russian help.

Most significantly, there has been a re-division of the ‘spheres of influence’ in the region since September.

In part, the West has been forced to recognise that Russian economic influence dominates over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS – the name given to Russia’s neighbouring states which collectively made up the Soviet Union up to 1990-91). Some estimates claim that up to 80% of newly-privatised Ukrainian industry, for example, is either directly or indirectly controlled by Russia.

In 2001, Russia recorded a growth of 4-5%, with Ukraine and Kazakhstan significantly higher than this. This growth was based on the export of raw materials: although with living standards still only 65% of those in 1992, it has to be seen in context. (At the present rate of growth, Russia will take 40 years to catch up with Portugal!) But with two-thirds of the world in or near recession, Western big business is flooding in to try and gain an inroad into one of the few parts of the world where the economy is still growing. Air routes to Moscow are amongst the very small number which have not suffered a significant drop in traffic since the September attacks.

In other aspects, however, Russia’s influence in the region has been significantly cut. This is clearly seen in the Central Asian Republics. Not only has influence been lost over its main ally in Afghanistan, as the Northern Alliance joined the US camp, Russia has had to accept the use of air space and airbases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by US aircraft. They have also refueled in Armenia and, in a recent visit, US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, promised that sanctions imposed against Azerbaijan as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war will be lifted.

With the possible exception of Armenia, all of these states are dictatorships. Their leaders have used recent events to huddle up to the US in the hope of increasing economic aid. But they are also petrified by the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Whereas in Kabul the Taliban arrested men because they did not wear beards, in Uzbekistan you can be arrested for growing this symbol of a strong belief in Islam!

Of more immediate concern to these regimes is the danger of a huge wave of refugees spreading north from Afghanistan. Until recently, Russian troops patrolled the southern borders of Central Asia. The worry is such that a representative of the Russian military commented that if a wave of refugees began, Russia would have to ask for US help. What was inconceivable before September, the basing of US troops in Russia’s backyard, has become reality.

In the words of defense analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia’s ruling elite, led by Putin, has "abandoned the multi-polar concept of the world and made a long-term decision to westernise Russia". Even the right-wing Russian nationalist, Vladimir Zhironovskii, has warmed to the US, giving full support to the ‘war against terrorism’. But there are many obstacles in their path. In Afghanistan, any break-up of the Northern Alliance could find the US and Russia backing different warlords. Russia has important economic and strategic interests in India, which could clash with US interests in South Asia. And, of course, there is the impending economic crisis in Russia when the effects of the world downturn eventually hit. Today’s apparent stability will be short-lived.

Rob Jones


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