America’s Ukraine bid to keep Russia in check

Developing Just Leadership

Akhmet Makhmoudov

Jumada' al-Akhirah 01, 1435 2014-04-01

Special Reports

by Akhmet Makhmoudov (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1435)

The US and its allies do not care for the people of Ukraine; their interest lies in destabilizing Russia that is becoming increasingly assertive.

Reviewing the rapidly changing events in Ukraine it is necessary to keep in mind that all politics is local; neither the West nor Russia can fully control its proxies on the ground. Thus unanticipated events or consequences can occur at any time. Second, it is important not to get carried away with the narrative of the semi-literate Western corporate media and politicians that insist it is a re-emergence of a strategic rivalry between Russia and the West. Third, when possible, Russia will take decisive action in Ukraine and elsewhere in the post-USSR region to protect its interests. In Russian political lexicon, countries of the former USSR are identified as the “near abroad.” Moscow views these countries as its strategic and privileged sphere of influence. Fourth, the events in Ukraine have more to do with Vladimir Putin as a persona than any overriding national strategy; the current Russian political system is personality-based.

All the above are fairly clear. The fourth point needs elaboration especially for those who have not lived among Russians. The famous 19th-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “To Europe we have come as beggars for a slice of bread; to Asia, however, we come as lords and masters.” Russian society is Westoxicated and traditionally views the West as superior. The collapse of the USSR has created a political and intellectual identity crisis with an ingrained inferiority complex among Russian political and intellectual elite.

Putin is trying to change it but he has little to offer. The reason is that Russia restored some of its power and influence since 1991 primarily because it has collaborated with the West to a certain degree on many strategic issues. Russian regions, cities, intellectuals, oligarchs and average citizens compete in trying to resemble the West as much as possible in every sphere of their life. There is a very mild indigenous Russian strategic political or cultural identity that is present in Russia today.

Taking the above into account, the Russian move against the Western instigated coup in Ukraine is a clear sign of the emergence of a multipolar world order and the decline of US power. Within this new order, Russia will play a major role. Success of that role will depend on how Russia treats its 20 million Muslim population and the newly independent Muslim states that were once part of the Soviet Union. If Moscow adopts a confrontational approach, which now seems more likely, the West will work to consume Russian power in the confrontation with Muslims in the Caucasus, Central Asia and within its current borders. It will essentially be a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Western economic leverage against Russia is strong, but Moscow has its own economic response options as well. Nonetheless, since the people of the former USSR have historically viewed Russia as an aggressor whose brutal occupation they experienced for at least 70 years, Russian soft-power appeal in the region is limited.

Since Islamic revival in Russia and its neighboring countries is a relatively new phenomenon, the West seems a lot more appealing to a large number of people in the Caucasus and Central Asia than Russia. Uzbeks, Azeris, Georgians, Tajiks and others have lived under Russian occupation but have no experience of American or British occupation. Thus, peoples of these lands cannot easily relate to the brutality of Western neo-imperialism as they have not experienced it, but they can relate to “mother” Russia’s brutal presence that almost completely eradicated Muslim identity in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Western economic pressure combined with Western incitement of Muslims within Russia and those living in bordering republics can easily return Russia to its 1991–1995 state of affairs. Moscow understands this, but it seems Putin thinks he can achieve the Eurasian Union concept announced on October 4, 2011 before the West’s economic and political pressure begins to bite. For now, Putin’s calculations seem to bear out. The West is going through a major economic crisis and the US is retreating on all fronts. However, if Moscow acts against any Central Asian state or the South Caucasus in the same manner as it has done in Ukraine or in Georgia (in 2008) it will provide the West an opening to exploit. This situation puts Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia in a precarious position. Turn into a Western tool against Russia and face slow and indirect Western neo-colonization and share the fate of the Syrian “opposition” and the Afghan mujahidin, or stay “neutral” and hope that Russia does not incorporate them into the new “great Russia.”

For now, both scenarios do not appear feasible as the West lacks political determination to activate tough political and economic leverages and Moscow is cautious not to overplay its hand. The existing socio-political environment, however, has all the ingredients that can trigger decisive Russian action in the region of the former USSR and a tough Western response. The arrogant nature of the Western ruling elite will at some point ignite the already volatile situation.

The role of the greatest catalyst for escalation in Crimea can be played by Muslim Tatars who are the indigenous inhabitants of the region and who were deported and almost exterminated by Moscow in 1783, 1917 and 1944. That is why immediately after the Russian military entered Crimea, the Western corporate media started publicizing a statement in the name of Mustafa Jemilev, one of the leaders of the Crimean Tatars, that the Tatars have begun organizing self-defense forces to “resist Russian occupation.”

This turned out to be an unfounded rumor spread by the pro-Western regime in Kiev. Even so, the Russians took this very seriously and began courting the Crimean Tatars by inviting Jemilev to Moscow on March 12. One of the basic reasons Moscow is sensitive to Tatar dissatisfaction in Crimea is because of three million Tatars living within the Russian Federation. The republic of Tatarstan enjoys broad autonomy, a deal Moscow made with Tatars in early-1990s on the condition that Tatars will not pursue full independence from Russia.

According to the US funded propaganda arm, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL), “Jemilev met with the former president of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic, Mintimer Shaimiyev. He also spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in Sochi. But Jemilev says he told Putin that a referendum on the status of Ukraine’s Crimea region is illegitimate and will be boycotted by Crimean Tatars. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, Jemilev said he told Putin that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine to join Russia would violate a 1994 diplomatic memo in which Russia, Britain, and the United States all vowed not to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity… Moscow also dispatched Rustam Minnikhanov, the Tatarstan Republic’s current president, to Crimea twice in two weeks. Minnikhanov stressed the cultural and historic ties between Tatars in Russia and in Crimea and met with Refat Chubarov, Crimea’s chief mufti and the current head of the Mejlis.”

For now the Tatars have chosen not to side with the Russian annexation of Crimea. Even though on March 12 Mustafa Jemilev declared during an interview with Ekho Moskvy that he is satisfied with Putin’s reassurances to him regarding the rights of the Tatar community. Jemilev still insists on Crimea being part of the Ukraine. The position of the Tatars can change at any moment, but taking into account that they boycotted the referendum in Crimea to join Russia and held a massive funeral for Simferopol resident Reshat Ametov who was found dead on March 16, the Tatar opposition combined with Western financial and political backing can create big headaches for the Kremlin. Ametov had disappeared after participating in a March 3 protest against the Russian troop presence in Crimea. If Moscow overestimates its strength and decides to bully the Tatars into submission, the Kremlin may end up opening a Pandora’s Box.

Coincidentally or not, a few days after the Russian move into Crimea, the North Caucasian news site of the takfiri groups in the North Caucasus published an interview with Deputy Amir of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA — Army of Emigrants and Supporters), Abdul Karim Krymsky (or Crimean), currently fighting in Syria. The emergence of a so-called Crimean “deputy Amir” in Syria among the Western backed takfiri groups could be a sign from Washington that it can create another Syria, right at the door steps of Russia. This scenario would be a last resort for the West, as Western Europe would be greatly affected by such a turn of events.

In parallel with this, the West is actively trying to push Turkey into adopting a decisive anti-Russian position. There is a historical basis for this: in 1854 Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire forged an unparalleled alliance after Nicholas I of Russia invaded the Ottomans’ naval fleet in the Black Sea and occupied the Romanian territories of the Ottoman Empire, which then included modern day Ukraine. Also, from the days of the Cold War, Turkey has been a Western tool of choice to implement its agenda in the South Caucasus and Central Asia due to Turkey’s religious, linguistic and cultural ties to the region. Since Turkey imports 58% of Russian gas, which constitutes the largest share of its gas supply, Ankara is unlikely to do much. Further, Erdogan has too many domestic issues to worry about to open a new front for himself.

The West has also started to send “pro-Iranian” signals to Russia. Western regimes are spreading rumors that the West can sign a deal with Islamic Iran within the next few months regarding its peaceful nuclear program and use Iranian oil and gas to cut Russian energy exports to Europe. If that were to happen, it would have a significant negative impact on the Russian economy. However, taking into account Islamic Iran’s principled public policy and that at the peak of the Cold War, Islamic Iran refused to side with either the West or the East, it is highly unlikely that Tehran would allow itself to be used as a Western tool now.

What is more likely is that Western pressure on Russia will force Moscow to chart a compromised political agreement with Iran to keep the West out of the Caucasus and Central Asia. This turn of events would be economically and politically beneficial for the entire region and finally address Tehran’s legitimate geopolitical and security concerns in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. With this in mind, it must also be remembered that when it came to the Islamic civilizational alternative during the Cold War, Moscow and Washington were on the same side. In the 1980s, they both supplied Saddam Hussein with heavy weapons against Islamic Iran.

The most probable policy the West will adopt against Russian incursion in the Crimea is tough economic sanctions against the super-wealthy class of Russians that are backing Putin, hoping to turn them against him. On March 17, US President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russians linked with Putin or officials dealing with Russia’s policy in the Crimea. This approach may work. The Russian elite love Western material comforts and have stashed much of their wealth in the West. Thus, they will press Putin to accommodate Western interests so that the elite can continue to maintain their wealthy lifestyle. Even this option will hurt the West, as Russia has strong economic leverages of its own and this approach can backfire. If Putin sees that his regime is seriously being undermined, he might decide to go for the jugular and take decisive action in the South Caucasus and Central Asia in order to appeal to the patriotic sentiment of the Russians and mobilize their support for his struggle to restore the greatness of Russia.

In either scenario, Muslims will be courted by both sides in order to be used as tools to achieve the latters’ objectives. Nowhere in the former USSR are Muslims strong or decisive enough to take a balanced approach. Unless the existing regimes in one of the Muslim countries of the former USSR significantly weaken in the near future due to domestic upheaval, the future for Muslims of the former USSR looks bleak. Ironically, if this does not happen, Western leverage against Moscow will remain limited. It is an open question as to who will be the next victim of a Western instigated coup in the former USSR in order to get back at Russia for its daring action in Crimea that humiliated the Western imperialist bloc.

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