Stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, the Russian Federation (as Russia is now officially known) is the world’s largest country. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Russia, with a population of 143 million, is also a giant both militarily and politically: it has around 7,500 nuclear warheads (and is said to have had the world’s largest stock of biological and chemical weapons during the Soviet era); it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council; and it vies with the United States as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. In short, Russia is a power to be reckoned with, and has been for centuries, from the empire created by Peter the Great in the 18th century to the Soviet bloc ruled over by Joseph Stalin and his successors in the 20th century.
That power is also characterised by a capacity for endurance: in the second world war (which the Soviet Union entered in 1941 and termed the Great Patriotic War) the Soviet Union was instrumental in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, and was willing to accept a military and civilian death toll estimated by some historians at around 25 million.
Yet for the rest of the 20th century Russia’s leaders were reluctant to wage war directly. In the Korean war of 1950–53, for example, the Soviet Union provided weapons and aid to its Chinese and North Korean allies, but did not commit troops. The basic reason was the balance of terror that existed in the wonderfully named cold war between the Soviet Union, intent on spreading communism around the world, and the United States, intent on spreading capitalism. Since both were superpowers with thousands of nuclear-armed missiles, both were conscious that any conflict leading to one or the other pressing the nuclear button would mean mutually assured destruction – a prospect that seemed horribly possible in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, until President John Kennedy convinced Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. The existence of what Churchill termed the iron curtain, dividing the communist Soviet bloc from the West, meant that Russian troops could invade Hungary in 1956 to put down the uprising against Soviet control and could invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quell the reform movement – on both occasions without any reaction by NATO.
The consequence of this superpower rivalry of the 20th century was a plethora of wars, rebellions and coups by proxy, be they in Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East. But there is one exception, on the Russian side at least, to this conflict by proxy: the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, intended to preserve communist rule against the increasing threat of the mujahideen insurgents (a mujahid is someone performing jihad, which means struggle but which is often – and not always accurately – translated as holy war).
The rationale for the Soviet intervention was the Brezhnev doctrine, a decision by the then leader that once a country had joined the socialist camp it could never leave it (the Soviet Union had supplied arms to Afghanistan since 1955 and the country had turned to communism in 1978). The occupation was a decade-long disaster – Russia’s Vietnam, as the headline writers like to say. Apart from the toll of death and destruction wreaked on Afghans, 13,310 Soviet troops were killed, 35,478 were wounded and 311 were reported missing by the time Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of troops in February 1989.
In retrospect, the Afghanistan war, coupled with Ronald Reagan’s determination to surpass Russia in defence spending and capability, was clearly a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet it has also been a factor in the Islamist extremism that threatens both Russia and the West today: the victorious mujahideen had been supported with weapons and money by several outside powers, notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, and among their recruits were many foreign Muslims, the most famous of them being a certain Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda.
In the 21st century, Russia’s reaction to the demise of the Soviet Union has become markedly forthright under Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who assumed power in Russia in 1999 after the chaotic era of Boris Yeltsin (the successor to Mikhail Gorbachev and the first president of the Russian Federation). Putin was Russia’s president until 2008, when he was constitutionally obliged to step down after two successive terms in office. But he remained the real power in the land as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev until 2012 – at which date he was again elected president.
Throughout his tenure in the Kremlin, Putin’s ambition has been to restore Russia’s status in the world, famously telling the Russian nation in 2005 (in the official translation):
Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
What that meant in 2008 was an invasion of Georgia in support of the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which had favoured closer links with Russia. In 2014 it meant the threat of military force to help local pro-Russian forces accomplish the annexation of Crimea – a majority of whose population are ethnically Russian – from Ukraine. In the same year pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine could rely on the political – and potentially military – backing of Russia in their effort to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Western governments professed outrage at the plight of Ukraine and the loss of Crimea, not least because in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum the US, the UK and Russia agreed to be joint guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Yet the situation is more complex than the headlines criticising Russian aggression presume. Crimea, for example, became part of the Russian empire in 1783 and remained part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev (hoping to consolidate his power at a time of Communist Party infighting) donated it to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea also contains the port of Sevastopol, a base for Russia’s Black Sea navy giving it access to the Mediterranean. It is also clear that most Crimeans did want to join “mother Russia”, given that in a referendum held in March 2014 and denounced as illegal and one-sided by the Ukraine government some 97% of the vote was for Crimea to become part of Russia.
It may well be true, also, that a majority of the population in the eastern part of Ukraine wish their region to be part of Russia, especially after the Ukrainian parliament in February 2014 voted to annul a law that has allowed 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions to use Russian as a second official language (the parliament’s decision was not signed into law). Putin, with Russian troops poised to cross the border if needed by the pro-Russian rebels, argues that the West is backing a regime in Ukraine that came to power illegally after demonstrations in Kiev forced President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014 to flee into exile. The background to this crisis was a competition for influence between the West, in the shape of the EU, and Russia. Ukraine had been about to sign an association agreement with the EU, but Yanukovych abruptly rejected the EU proposal in favour of a loan from – and closer links with – Russia.
That competition has its roots in the decision during the Clinton presidency in the United States to offer NATO membership – or the prospect of membership – to former members of the Warsaw Pact (the mutual defence pact between the Soviet Union and its satellite states). That membership was eagerly embraced by Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it then was), Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. When other states in the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union were invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace, Russia saw this as an attempt to spread Western power at its expense – hence its invasion of Georgia when an invitation for Georgia to join NATO itself seemed on the cards.
The consequence now is the threat of a renewed cold war, and the possibility – if only by accident – that it might become hot. In 2014 the Baltic states in particular, because of their large Russian minorities, feared Putin’s intentions and clung to the hope that NATO’s mutual defence pact (an attack on one is an attack on all) would not have to be put to the test. So, too, did Poland, with its shared border with Russia and its memories of Soviet rule. Evidence of the changing temperature was the exchange of sanctions between the West and Russia, with the US and the EU imposing financial constraints and travel bans on Russian individuals and with Russia banning food imports from the EU, the US and some other Western countries. Pessimists recalled that the first world war, 100 years earlier, had been the improbable consequence of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
In purely military terms Russia is no match for NATO, or for the US, NATO’s leading force. With 766,000 active military personnel, Russia’s armed forces are only half the size of the US’s and a fifth of the NATO total of 3.37 million. But such numbers would hardly be relevant if NATO’s political will to combat Russia were lacking. Certainly, there was no appetite in the West to intervene in the Georgian conflict on Georgia’s behalf. And certainly, Putin is keen to reinforce and even increase Russia’s military power, hence not just the determination to keep the Sevastopol base in Crimea and the naval facilities at Tartus in Syria (where Russia opposed the West’s desire for regime change) but also a desire, outlined by Russia’s defence minister in early 2014, to establish bases in a number of foreign countries which are not former Soviet republics, from Vietnam and Cuba to the Seychelles and Nicaragua. As Putin is well aware, in Soviet times Russia had a large naval base in Vietnam and a radar facility in Cuba, but both were closed down for financial reasons.
Yet for all Russia’s concern with the West, its most immediate problems are nearer home, with the growth of separatism and Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus region, home to nominally autonomous and predominantly Muslim Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. The break-up of the Soviet Union encouraged separatists to seize their opportunity. In 1991 Chechnya declared itself the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Three chaotic years in Russia later, President Yeltsin sent in Russian troops to reclaim Chechnya; but after 18 months of savage fighting, with the Chechen capital, Grozny, heavily bombarded, the Russian forces withdrew, accepting Chechnya’s de facto independence.
Succeeding Yeltsin in power, Putin had other ideas, launching a second Chechen war in 1999 after Shamil Basayev, a Chechen Islamist opposed to Chechnya’s secular leadership, led his International Islamic Brigade in an invasion of neighbouring Dagestan – the start of what Putin feared could become a regional Islamist revolt. By April 2000 Russia declared a military victory, but combating the continuing insurgency would tie down Russian troops and their Chechen allies for another nine years. Moreover, quelling the twin forces of separatism and Islamism had come at a heavy price. By one account Russia lost more tanks in the first Chechen war than in the battle for Berlin in 1945, and in 2003 the UN described Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth. As to the loss of life, one Chechen official in 2005 said the total number of dead – be they Russian Federation troops, Chechen rebels or civilians – had reached up to 160,000.
A decade after the first Chechen war, despite the enormous loss of life, and despite installing in Grozny a pro-Russian prime minister (first, an ex-separatist, Akhmad Kadyrov, and then, after his assassination, his son Ramzan), Russia can still not regard the North Caucasus region with complacency. Chechnya and its neighbours are poor and corrupt, which means they are fertile ground for Islamist extremism, with an increasing number of the region’s Muslims turning from more moderate Sufism to Salafism, an austere brand of fundamentalist Islam. In 2007, for example, Dokka Umarov, the former president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, announced the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate, with a goal of expelling Russia from the region and creating an Islamic emirate.
Umarov (who is believed to have died, perhaps by poison or perhaps in combat, in 2013) was an advocate of terrorism as a means of putting pressure on Russia. So too was Basayev. Between 1991 and his death in 2006, Basayev was responsible for hijacking an airline, taking a whole hospital hostage and launching suicide bombers in Moscow itself. Perhaps the most notorious of his operations was the seizure by Ingush and Chechen militants of a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004. When the siege, with around 1,200 held hostage, ended three days later, some 334 people were dead, including 186 children. Umarov’s operations included the derailing of an express train in 2009, claiming 28 lives; two suicide attacks in the Moscow subway in 2009, with 40 deaths; and a suicide-bomb attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011 that killed 35.
Will the threat of Islamist violence recede? Perhaps marginally (there were no terrorist incidents to upset the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi), but surely not entirely. Despite brutal counter-terrorism tactics by the state, Russia still recorded 661 terrorist offences in 2013, of which it classified 31 as fully fledged terrorist attacks. Moreover, one feature of Chechen separatism was the number of Chechen fighters who had returned from fighting in Afghanistan, forging links with the Taliban and with the beginnings of al-Qaeda. With the Arab world in turmoil, up to 1,500 jihadists with Russian passports were said to be fighting in Syria and Iraq in early 2015 – and doubtless some will return and attempt to create havoc.