December 5, 2001

What Russia's Putin wants

What Russia's Putin wants - There has been much speculation about why Vladimir Putin has cozied up to America so dramatically. Here are three of his worries that you haven't heard much about yet:

First, Russia's major long-term major external threat is a Chinese invasion of Siberia. The situation in the East is getting dicier every decade. The Chinese population will expand to about 1.5 billion before stabilizing. The Russian population is 142 million and dropping with no bottom in sight. Illegal immigration from China to Siberia is slowly tipping the balance with Siberia.

The main hope for the Russian economy is discovering more natural resources, but each new oilfield or mine in Siberia is an added inducement for a Kuwait-style invasion by the People's Liberation Army. Putin knows his army is terrible and he doesn't have the money to make it much better. And he wants to cut way back on his nukes to save money, at a time when the Chinese are expanding their nuclear war fighting capabilities. Presumably, he'll keep enough nukes to deter the Chinese, but no head of state sleeps well when the main thing preventing invasion is the presumption that he, personally, will initiate an exchange of ICBMs that will result in the deaths of millions of his own people.

There's got to be a better way.

So, if you are Putin, why not start acting like Russia already has a mutual defense pact with the mighty USA? American has been attacked, so Russia is going to its aid. Putin is hoping to build up the presumption that if Russia is attacked by China, therefore America will go to Russia's aid.

Second, I suspect, Putin wants America favor the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. His major internal threat is from Muslims inside Russia. The defining problem of the Muscovite state over the last half millennium has been the lack of natural borders on the great Eurasian plain. Whereas mountainous Switzerland can remain both small and independent, in the East, size matters. The barriers to expansion are low, but so are the barriers to dissolution. The Russians were content to let Chechnya have its autonomy after the First Chechen War, but constant kidnapping raids by Chechen gangsters into the Muslim but loyal Russian region of Dagestan outraged the Russian people, making possible Putin's Second Chechen War.

Our 1999 attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo terrified the Russians. Here was the U.S. violating the national sovereignty of a Slavic, Eastern Orthodox-run state (remind you of anybody?), breaking an internationally recognized country apart, handing a big chunk of its lawful territory over to the control of Muslim gangsters and facilitating their ethnic cleansing of the native Slav population, all because America didn't like the tactics being used by the legal government to put down an internal rebellion. Tactics that were no worse than what Putin shortly thereafter found necessary in Chechnya (or, for that matter, that Turkey found necessary in Kurdistan.) This example that American foreign policy can be driven more by the volatile emotions of elites rather than by our national interest suggests that Russia needs to appeal to America's emotions by coming to its aid now.

Third, we're likely to see the revival of the ancient rivalry between Moscow and Istanbul. Turkey's GNP is about two fifth's as large as Russia's, so it's no longer all that one-sided. Plus, the Turks are much tougher warriors than most Middle Eastern Muslims (remember Gallipoli?).

You may have seen the interesting WSJ op-ed by a Turkish writer proposing that the U.S. subsidize Turkey in exporting its version of secularism to the Islamic world. What the Turkish writer wanted in return was the U.S. favoring Turkey extending its sphere of influence to the former Soviet but ethnic Turkish states of Central Asia. The U.S. has long seen Turkey as just about the best that you can hope for from a country with an Islamic population. It's not at all inconceivable that we will shift our Middle Eastern aid from such troublesome "allies" as Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to the much more satisfactory Turkey. Putin is trying to head this Turkish threat off by making these Russian puppet governments in Central Asia cooperate with the U.S. so that we support Putin's hegemony over these potentially oil-rich countries.

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