Thursday, 08 October 2020 07:31

Can America Stop a Wider War between Armenia and Azerbaijan?


Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

October 6, 2020


Read at National Interest Website 

The resumption of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens a broader regional conflict that threatens Western interests. While America has paid growing attention to Central Asia, it has forgotten to do the same in the South Caucasus, the Western gateway to Central Asia.

by Svante E. Cornell

For the second time in three months, Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in heavy fighting. To even casual observers of the region, this is nothing new: flareups in this supposedly “frozen” conflict have been commonplace in the past decade. The only problem seems to be that they tend to get worse over time. But reality is much more worrisome. The conflict is all but “frozen.” In the past few years, the entire premise on which the uneasy balance in this conflict rested has essentially been razed, paving the way for a new logic of escalation in which the likelihood of a major war is increasingly obvious.

Much of the coverage of this conflict centers on who started whichever spat. This is largely irrelevant. Much more important are three major changes to the conflict’s underlying logic. The first is the broader erosion of a norms-based international system based on international law and institutions. The second is the merger of the region’s geopolitics with the Middle East. And the third is Armenia’s shift to a revisionist approach to the conflict and negotiations since the 2018 Velvet revolution.

Even prior to these shifts, there was always a major factor of instability in this conflict. The original war in the 1990s saw Armenia, the smaller and poorer of the two countries, coming away with a victory. Exploiting Azerbaijan’s domestic troubles and enjoying Russian support, Armenia did not stay at taking control over the main disputed territory—the mainly Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Instead, Armenian forces conquered much larger areas to the south and east that were compactly settled with Azerbaijanis. As a result, in the name of protecting 150,000 co-ethnics, Armenian forces drove away over 750,000 people from their homes and occupied over a sixth of Azerbaijan’s territory.

This had two effects. First, it changed the international perception of Armenia from that of a victim to that of an aggressor. Second, it ensured that Azerbaijan would never come to terms with the result of the conflict. Instead, revanchism became a prominent element of the Azerbaijani psyche. When Azerbaijan was able to begin producing large volumes of oil a decade later, it spent a significant amount of this windfall on its military. For several years, Azerbaijan’s defense spending exceeded Armenia’s entire budget, and Azerbaijan’s rhetoric intensified accordingly.

But then there were changes in regional geopolitics. The most prominent shift in the past decade is the gradual weakening of international institutions and international law. Great powers that were once bound by certain norms of behavior now essentially do what they can get away with and engage in various adventures on other countries’ territories, increasingly not bothering to disguise it. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, then annexed Crimea, and invaded Ukraine in 2014. China is unilaterally expanding its control over the South China Sea. Iran, ignoring national boundaries, is building an arc of Shi’a militias from Yemen across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is meddling in Yemen’s civil war, and Turkey is arming and training militias in Syria and Lebanon. The list goes on. The point is that the main method used to resolve disputes has shifted from international diplomacy to the covert or overt use of force. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in 2019 recognized this shift, commenting that “today, the ‘might is right’ principle prevails in the world. This is a new reality. We must be ready for it.”

This has huge implications for the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, because Baku had built its entire effort to restore its territorial integrity on appeals to international law, and diplomacy in international institutions—albeit with its growing military capability serving as enhanced motivation to change Armenia’s calculus. Over the past few years, however, Baku has come to conclude this policy has reached a dead end. That forces the Azerbaijani leadership either to accept the loss of its territory—an impossible choice in the face of an increasingly nationalistic and revanchist public opinion—or to do something about it. Had the international mechanism to mediate the conflict been functional, things might have been different. But the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, has done little except shuttling between capitals and holding meetings. The perception that the Minsk Group has degenerated into a process for the sake of process, or an excuse for inaction, is widespread across the region.

The second shift is that in regional geopolitics. For long, the logic of South Caucasus geopolitics was entirely within the post-Soviet logic: Russia’s efforts to dominate the region faced growing Western efforts to open up the corridor to Central Asia across the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. But all this changed in the past decade, with the region’s geopolitics gradually merging with those of the Middle East. This happened for several reasons. The first was America’s gradual disengagement, which began in the late George W. Bush administration but deepened during the Obama era. The second was Russia’s decision to exploit the vacuum Obama created, by making a bid for a key role in the affairs of the Middle East, particularly in Syria. This resulted in a situation where Russia, Turkey and Iran emerged as the key brokers in regional hotspots in the South Caucasus and Syria. Similarly, Turkey and Russia found themselves supporting warring sides in the Libyan conflict.

As a result, the interactions among those powers in Middle Eastern theaters began to affect Armenia and Azerbaijan directly. This was clear already in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria—and Moscow responded by beefing up its military presence in bases in Armenia near the Turkish border. But as Turkey and Russia have once again fallen out over Syria and Libya, the impact on the region has become even more pronounced. When fighting erupted in July, it happened on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border—far north of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but very close to the pipeline infrastructure carrying Azerbaijani oil and gas to Turkey. Both Ankara and Baku interpreted this as a Russian-inspired threat against them both. This, in turn, triggered an unprecedented Turkish endorsement of Azerbaijan, including the rapid deployment of Turkish forces for military exercises in Azerbaijan. Turkey, a NATO member, now suggests it may get directly involved in a conflict against Armenia, a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty.

The third and final shift is in Armenia’s approach to the conflict. When Nikol Pashinyan came to power following a Velvet Revolution in 2018, Azerbaijan tacitly welcomed the transition and markedly refrained from taking advantage of Armenia’s internal turmoil on the frontline. Aliyev welcomed the arrival to power, for the first time in twenty years, of an Armenian leadership that did not have its roots in Nagorno-Karabakh even though both Pashinyan’s predecessors hailed from there. Baku seemed to expect that once Pashinyan consolidated power, he would be amenable to work toward a compromise solution to the conflict.

What happened was quite the opposite. Under Pashinyan, Armenia’s position has hardened. In 2019, Pashinyan repudiated the “Madrid Principles,” which have served the basis for negotiations since 2007. Yerevan also sought to change the very format of negotiations, demanding the involvement of the local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh in the talks. This appeared to be an effort to advance the fiction that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are not a united front, flying in the face of the 2015 conclusion of the European Court of Human Rights that Armenia exercises effective control over the territory. Incidentally, it contradicted Pashinyan’s own 2019 statement that Karabakh “is Armenia, and that’s it,” which seemingly removed any space for discussion of the territory’s status. Not staying at that, Armenians began to speak of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as “liberated” territories. This was another shift because Armenia had previously indicated it held these territories—historically populated by Azerbaijanis—as bargaining chips that would be returned in a peace deal that would settle the conflict. Defense Minister David Tonoyan’s statement that Armenia rebuked the land-for-peace idea to a strategy pursuing “new wars for new territories” did not help matters. Finally, Armenia’s efforts to resettle ethnic Armenians from Syria and Libya into the occupied territories were a clear effort to create new facts on the ground.

Of course, Azerbaijan has not been passive or blameless. With every year of failed negotiations, Azerbaijani rhetoric threatening a military solution has grown more prominent. In 2016, Azerbaijan actually reasserted control over smaller areas of the occupied territories, in the first meaningful shift of territorial possession since 1994. This certainly appears to have had a powerful effect on Armenian planners and contributed to the more bellicose Armenian rhetoric. Furthermore, the lack of direct contact except occasional top-level meetings ensures that each side interprets the other side’s words in the most ominous way possible, leading to frequent misunderstandings. What is eminently clear is that it is the failure of international efforts to make the negotiations even remotely meaningful that has pushed both sides in an unconstructive direction.

All of these factors have undermined the fragile balance preventing a resumption of full-scale war in the conflict. But strangely, Western powers have seemed to ignore the conflict and the South Caucasus. Over the past two years, the European Union and the United States both released thoughtful and assertive new strategies for Central Asia. That was a welcome step given positive developments in that region and its obvious growing importance in a time when the U.S. government sees “strategic competition” with Eurasian great powers as the key challenge to U.S. national security. What is mystifying is that both the United States and EU appeared to ignore that the South Caucasus is their gateway to Central Asia. Without that gateway, their ambitions of strengthening their presence in the heart of the Eurasian continent may well be moot.

A reason for this inaction is, perhaps, that there are no easy solutions. Getting involved in the South Caucasus implies involvement in highly contentious conflicts—including those in Georgia—that overwhelmed Western powers might prefer to ignore. It also means challenging conventional wisdom. While Westerners have welcomed the domestic reform efforts of Armenia’s new government, which are very real, they seem to have forgotten that a more democratic government does not mean a more peaceful one. In fact, as political scientists like Jack Snyder have long shown, countries in transition to democracy are at the greatest risk of involving themselves in armed conflict, given the government’s need to respond to nationalist sentiments. The fact that Russia and Iran have cooperated in supplying Armenia with weaponry in the midst of the fighting should also give western leaders pause about the structure of power relationships in the region, and the interest of those powers in destabilizing the east-west corridor connecting Europe with Central Asia.

By contrast, getting involved in the South Caucasus will imply the difficult task of managing recalcitrant partners like Turkey. While Turkey has turned increasingly anti-Western in recent years, the crises in Libya and in the Caucasus have clearly shown that more often than not, Turkish interests align with the West and not with Russia. Turkish leaders may not yet fully realize this, upset as they are over Western support for Kurdish groups in Syria aligned with the anti-Turkish PKK terrorist organization. Still, the recent flareup provides an opportunity to work to restore cooperation with Ankara to safeguard the common interest in the security of the South Caucasus as a transit corridor.

The ongoing fighting is a reminder to America and Europe that they ignore security in the South Caucasus at their own peril. Much is at stake, and the conflict’s path of escalation can only be reversed by rebuilding a credible international mediation effort that aspires not only to maintain the status quo but to actually resolve this conflict once and for all. That can only be done by the Western powers and will require a broader re-engagement of the South Caucasus. If that does not happen, then the current flareup risks being only a precursor to much larger wars.

Svante E. Cornell is the director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.

Read 17507 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 October 2020 07:48





  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...