The Great Game.

Under the tsars of the 19th Century, Russia greatly extended its territories.[1]  Some incidents in this expansion caught the attention of Westerners: the “Great Game” played between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan and Persia (now Iran); Japan’s humiliating defeat of Russia in 1905; and the rivalry in the Balkans between Russia and Austria-Hungary that helped bring on the First World War.  Less noticed, at the time and since, Tsarist Russia conquered many small Muslim states in Central Asia.  This gave Russia, and later the Soviet Union, a huge Muslim population.  What was to become of these people if Russia, and later the Soviet Union, broke up?  As with Russia’s original expansion into the region, recent events here have not been much noticed by Western media or much discussed by Western officials.  For both the Russkies and the local peoples, however, the issues are important.

One example comes from the Turkic region.  Back in the First World War, the Ottoman Government had vast visions of a central Asian Empire that encompassed the Turkic people inside the Russian Empire.  Defeat in war and the victory of the Communists in the Russian Civil War put paid to that fantasy.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Turkic peoples created various “stans” as independent states.  Turkey revived its dreams of extending its influence throughout the region.  Turkey spread its influence by fostering cultural, educational (lots of exchange students), and business connections (investment).[2]

However, the particular emphasis—“pro-Muslim Brotherhood, rather than pan-Turkic”—given to this long-term effort by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to rankle.  Russia remains far more important the region than is Turkey.  The attitudes toward Islam are more varied among the Turkic peoples than Mr. Erdogan’s own preference.

So problems had been developing.  Then the Turks—foolishly—shot down a Russkie fighter-jet that had briefly over-flown Turkish territory while attacking Syrian rebels.  The Russkies weren’t too pleased.  They slammed on all sorts of sanctions.  Russian police and immigration officials continually harass Turks working in or visiting business in Russia itself.  Turkic Russians resist burning bridges.

Another example comes from Chechnya.[3]  Russia fought several gory wars to retain possession of the little territory in the North Caucasus, then put in a former rebel, Ramzan Kadyrov, as the ruler.  Since then, the government has “Islamized” Chechnya.  It’s almost impossible to buy alcohol, women wear the hijab, and the mosques are packed.  However, Chechnya’s Islamists are Sufis, rather than Wahhabists.  Saudi Arabian-sponsored Wahhabism is what inspires ISIS and similar movements.  Among those similar movements were the jihadis who initially fought for Chechen independence from Russia.[4]

There are two points worth pondering.

First, Turkey is a member of NATO.  Do the Russians have a right to think of Erdogan’s forward policy among the Turkic people—like tighter links between the European Union (EU) and Georgia or Ukraine—as a hostile act?

Second, have the Russians found a means of defusing radical Islam by embracing an equally intense, but less radical, version?

[1] There is a greater similarity here to the simultaneous expansion of the British Empire and to American “Manifest Destiny” than English-speaking peoples like to admit.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey’s Rift With Russia Frays Ties With Turkic Kin,” WSJ, 24 June 2016.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Under Putin Ally, Chechnya Islamizes,” WSJ, 3 June 2016.

[4] See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamil_Basayev and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_al-Khattab

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