The Forecast I Made about Russia in 2004

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In the previous post, Russia: Geography and Empire, I summarized my thoughts on how geography shaped Russian history, which came out in my popular book War and Peace and War. That book ranges quite widely—from Russia to America, by way of Rome, Arabia, and medieval England and France. In the last chapter, The End of Empire?, I return to Russia, and make a forecast on its prospects to return to the status of a Great Power. I think it would be interesting to revisit my forecast and consider it in light of the subsequent 11 years of history (I wrote the text in 2004 and the book was published next year, in 2005, followed by the current paperback version two years later, in 2007). I reproduce it below. I would be interested in any comments on it, and then, in the next post, I will give you my thoughts on how the prediction fared, and how it may be extended in light of the current geopolitical configuration around Russia.

=================Excerpt: War and Peace and War, pp. 343-345====================

The place to watch as an indicator of what will happen to Russia as a Great Power is Chechnya.

In 1996, after two years of conflict, Russia signed a peace treaty with the Chechen separatists. The so-called Khasavyurt agreement was essentially an admission of Russian defeat that gave Chechnya de-facto independence. The Russians were sick and tired of the conflict, and basically wished Chechnya and the Chechens to go away and leave them alone. However, internal developments within Chechnya made such a course of events impossible. First, the victors started fighting among themselves. The nationalist faction lost to the Islamists, who included many Al Qaida immigrants from outside Chechnya, such as the notorious Jordanian warlord Khattab. Later, after the second war began, several nationalist leaders went over to the Russian side. Islamists were primarily interested in Chechnya as a bridgehead for building an Islamic Caliphate that would stretch from the Black to Caspian Sea and up to middle Volga.

chcen_war

Source

The economics of the newly independent republic could not support the large Chechen population even before the conflict (which was one of the important causes of the war); and what meager economic base existed was greatly damaged by the war. Fund transfers from the outside, both from Russia (bizarrely the Russian government continued to transmit pensions to elderly Chechens!) and from the Islamic foundations from the Arab world and elsewhere, were not enough. Soon bands of armed Chechens began raiding southern Russia for livestock. Others siphoned oil from the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline, until Russians built a spur bypassing Chechnya. Yet others robbed trains. A particularly repulsive business was slavery. Non-Chechens were captured outside the bandit republic and transported to Chechnya. Those who had wealthy relatives were held for ransom, while the majority was put to work in agriculture and construction. Some people were lured into North Caucuses from as far away as St. Petersburg and Moscow with promises of a lucrative job. It is not known how many people were enslaved, but the count is in the many thousands.

Grozny, Chechnya, March 1995. A Russian military column makes its way through the ruined city centre after rebel forces retreated from the city in the face of the Russian bombardment.
Grozny, Chechnya, March 1995.
A Russian military column makes its way through the ruined city centre after rebel forces retreated from the city in the face of the Russian bombardment.

In 1999, as a first step in expanding their bridgehead, the Islamists invaded Daghestan, a North Caucasian republic within the Russian Federation situated to the east of Chechnya. At the same time, the leaders of the new jihad, the Chechen Basayev and the Jordanian Khattab, organized several explosions in Russia that targeted multi-apartment buildings. Four buildings were blown up, including two in Moscow, killing nearly 300 men, women, and children. The Islamists’ intent was apparently to terrify the Russians and break their will to resist. If so, they miscalculated.

The Chechens pushed all the wrong buttons. It is remarkable how closely they made themselves fit the image of that Other, in the struggle against whom the Russian nation was forged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the Tatars. The Chechens were not bow-wielding horse riders, true—they rode Jeeps, and wielded Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. But they were the Muslim threat from the South, and professed a particularly aggressive brand of Islam, the Wahhabism (this is the sect to which Bin Laden belongs). They raided Russians with the purpose of robbing them and they turned Russians into slaves. Several captives of the Chechens managed to escape the mountains, and millions of Russians watched stories about their tribulations on television.

Across the centuries, as we saw in Chapter 2, the collective response by Russians to military pressure was to strike back and conquer the source of trouble. Ermak and his cossacks went across the Urals mountains to stop the Tatar raiding at the source. In fact, Chechnya was conquered by Russia in the nineteenth century precisely for the same reason. Russians did not care to rule impoverished mountains inhabited by barbarous and disagreeable highlanders. But when the Orthodox Christian Kingdom of Georgia, pressed by the Turks, asked to be admitted within the Russian Empire, the Chechens found themselves sitting on top of the communications highway between central Russia and Georgia. It was natural that the tribal highlanders would turn to robbing passing caravans and kidnapping people for ransom.

I am not saying that the Russian reaction in 1999 could have been accurately predicted ahead of time. On one hand, culture is conservative, and a social group tends to respond to certain stimuli the same way they always have, just as Anatol Lieven suggested today’s Americans react the same way towards Arabs as early American settlers did toward native American Indians. It is as if such behaviors are written into cultural genes. A more extreme case is the apparent inability of Southern Italians to cooperate ever since the fall of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, cultures change. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries the Tatars lost their asabiya, while the asabiya of the Russians in contrast increased.

grozny_by_old_grozny-d5y9mfi

Grozny today Source

Here then is why I consider Chechnya such an important indicator of the future trajectory of the Russian state—and an empirical test of the asabiya theory. If the Russians succeed in reincorporating the Chechens within the Russian federation, then my guess is that Russia will regain its status as world empire. If not, and a Caucasian Caliphate expands to the middle Volga, than it will most likely mean the end of Russia as we know it. There is a third possibility—the collapse of the old Muscovite core and the rise of a new imperial nation in the southern borderlands of Russia. Interestingly enough, there has been a rejuvenation of the Cossack subculture since the Soviet Union collapsed. New Cossack movements are particularly active in the southern region of Russia just north of the Caucasus. Will the twenty-first century see another Ermak, crossing the Caucasus with an army of trusty companions, on his way to conquest and riches?

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O.Voron

. “If the Russians succeed in reincorporating the Chechens within the Russian federation, then my guess is that Russia will regain its status as world empire.”
I understand that you were writing this in the early 2000-s when it was not at all clear how Chechnya would turn out for Russia. Since then most Chechens were successfully reincorporated, Chechen islamists were squeezed out and now are members of Taliban and ISIS fighting their wars in other parts of the world. Or living as refugees in Western countries. Tsarnaev brothers come to mind…
The city of Grozny was spectacularly rebuilt. I assume, the picture of the city was taken from their newly built mosque, which they claim to be the tallest in Europe. And so on. Chechnya was Putin’s success, indeed.
But does it mean that Russia is regaining its status as world empire? It does not look like today’s Russia has what it takes to become one. Look at its economy, demographics, state of education and science etc

O.Voron

Even still. I see that your definition of a “great power” is much narrower than mine.
Can Iran be considered a great power then? Or Venezuela under Hugo Chaves? Or Turkey?

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