Even Summary: Russia in Global Affairs

By Katherine Baughman

On January 18th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies together with Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies hosted a panel discussion on Russian foreign policy following the launch of a special issue of Strategic Analysis entitled “Russia in Global Affairs.” Six of the authors who contributed to this issue were in attendance: Maxim Bratersky, Leonid Grigoriev and Andrei Skryba, professors at the Higher School of Economics; Alexander Lukin, head of the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics; Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics; and Ambassador Mark Entin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Alexander Lukin began by outlining the nature of the journal in which this special issue was published as well as the particular topics of focus of each article within the issue. He spoke to the significance of Strategic Analysis as an English language publication operating in India, rather than a Western journal published in a country with more strained diplomatic relations with Russia. He then described his school of thought and that of his colleagues at the Higher School of Economics and Russia in Global Affairs as generally centrist —in other worlds, neither inordinately pro-Western, nor pro-Putin in its outlook.

After this brief introduction, Lukin immediately opened up the discussion to questions from those in attendance concerning the wide range of topics addressed in this special issue of Strategic Analysis. The first question regarding how Russia justifies its support of minority rule in Syria was addressed with an explanation of the Russian perception of terrorism as being rooted not in authoritarianism, but rather in the chaos that arises in the absence of a strong state. The panel defined Russia’s goal in Syria as preventing regime change in order to allow for a self-initiated, unimposed political reconciliation, and assured the audience that Russian military involvement would be scaled back once a non-military solution became feasible. The assertion that the situation in Syria could be described as “minority rule” was a point of contention for the panelists.

In discussing the Russian Federation’s involvement in Latin America since the fall of the Soviet Union, the panelists emphasized a transition to economic considerations and cooperation in the region. BRICS summits and Rosneft’s recent cooperation with Venezuela were cited as evidence of this trend, and educational exchange was mentioned as another area of successful Russian-Latin American interaction.

In regard to the question of how this recent pivot to Asia differs from similar cycles and pivots observed throughout Russian history, the panel identified five key points: 1) that China and Russia now operate on the basis of shared values and a common multipolar geopolitical vision; 2) the West is now strengthening these ties in its alienation of Russia and China; 3) the Asia Pacific is now a universally-acknowledged global center of power; 4) China, Russia’s largest trading partner, now is the largest economy in the world; and 5) Russian policy toward China no longer depends on Russia-West relations. According to the panel, these factors make this pivot more likely to be successful than those that came before.

The next round of questions brought an inquiry as to Russia’s goals in the global context: whether and how, in an era where world power status is decided by economic rather than military might, Russia aims to be considered as a first-tier power, and whether it is possible for Russia to become a part of a “global civilization.” Most of the panelists came to a consensus on the fact that though Russia aims to be an independent center in a multipolar world, it cannot be considered a great economic power due to its resource-driven and crisis-stricken economy. However, the contention was made that military power is not in fact irrelevant today, and that current world conflicts necessitate its importance in determining global influence. Whether or not Russia could become part of a global civilization, the panelists claimed, depended on one’s understanding of that term: while Russia is part of a global market and a globalized culture, it is not a part of Western global political civilization, nor does it strive to be.

Next, in answer to a question posed by an attendee on the topic, one panelist asserted that Russia must halt any violation of Finnish, Swedish and other Scandinavian countries’ airspace: though Russia has little leeway for maneuver in its foreign policy, he said, this is an area where it must alter its approach. However, he suggested that calling attention to a perceived security threat serves as a useful pretext for Scandinavian NATO member states to be granted the elevated NATO military presence they have long sought.

On an entirely different subject, Russia’s presence at the recent Paris Peace Conference was characterized by the panelists as a natural result of diplomatic inertia. They posited that a political resolution of the Syrian conflict and U.S.-Russian agreement on the containment of Iran must necessarily preclude Russia’s active involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis, in which it currently plays a passive role.

Lastly, the panelists addressed a query as to the extent to which domestic policy — and, specifically, President Vladimir Putin’s personal role in policy formulation — should inform our understanding of Russian foreign policy. They put forth the contention that neither the idea of “hostile encirclement” nor the personal worldview of President Putin serve as the source of policy in Russia. Russian policy as they view it is rather rooted in the desires, values and feelings of the Russians themselves. In the panelists’ estimation, the popularity of Putin’s policies — including that of the current anti-Western bent— stems from their correspondence to the mood of the people outside of the major Western Russian cities who make up the majority of the population. In other words, the will of the people, not domestic politics, determine Russian foreign policy.

In its wide scope and in the involved debate that it engendered, this panel discussion provided a unique and important perspective on the issues affecting Russian foreign policy.

Katherine Baughman is a first-year student in the MAERES program. She completed her BA at Middlebury College and interned with CSIS before beginning the MAERES program. She is currently a Graduate Fellow at CERES and is participating in the Center for Global Interests’ Rising Experts Program.

Event Summary: Central Asian Fighters in Syria

Kate Baughman (MAERES ’18) attended an event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University entitled “Central Asian Fighters in Syria: Classification, Factors, Scale Assessment” on Monday, September 19. 

On September 19th, Yerlan Karin, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, spoke about his organization’s findings on Central Asian fighters in radical Islamist groups in Syria at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He began by outlining the sources of information used in the investigation, namely official data disseminated by Central Asian governments, foreign research, radical Islamist groups’ websites and social media, and most intriguingly, interviews with Kazakh fighters who had been imprisoned for terrorism upon their return from Syria. Official data can be suspect, Karin said, as authorities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are reluctant to admit the presence of their citizens among these groups in Syria, while leaders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan tend to exaggerate figures in order to emphasize the need for increased defensive measures.

Compared to past conflicts in Afghanistan, Karin argued, the radical Islamist cause in Syria is much more conducive to Central Asian involvement. Logistical factors such as sophisticated weapon supply structures, organized training systems and relatively quick and simple travel to the Syrian border have attracted unprecedented levels of Central Asian would-be jihadists. What’s more, many Central Asian governments have debated the merits of restricting the movements of these fighters, preferring that potential terrorists perish abroad rather than create problems at home. Karin argued that these authorities are mistaken in their thinking, as the absence of radicals in Central Asia does not preclude the potential of their presence in Syria to inspire terrorist acts at home.

According to Karin, there are marked differences between the presence and role of Central Asians and those of other ethnic and national origins within radical Islamist groups in Syria. ISIS and Al-Qaeda view Central Asia as recruiting grounds, not as a theater for jihad itself. Central Asians are often more ideologically invested than other groups, and as such are promoted to higher positions in greater proportions. Many Central Asians also attempt to create ethnic substructures within ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The exclusively Uzbek “Jamaat of Imam Bukhari” is one example of this type of subgroup. Lastly, unlike fighters from other regions, Central Asians often bring their wives, children and other family members with them to Syria. This last trend creates a unique set of problems, as the death of fighters in battle leaves many of these family members stranded abroad. Many of the Central Asian women and children left widowed or fatherless by the conflict are then funneled into Islamist training camps in order to become the next generation of fighters.

Interviews with former fighters in Kazakh prisons shed light on the varying motivations and circumstances that lead Central Asian men to leave for Syria to fight. Karin identified three categories of Central Asian men that go on to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria. The first two, which he terms “hostages” and “deceived believers,” are the most common types of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria. Hostages are driven abroad due to monetary or legal troubles, most often falling under the influence of radical groups while working in Russia as migrant laborers. Deceived believers are those who flee to Syria expecting to find a fully-developed and unified Islamic society. This is often followed by disillusionment with infighting among Islamist groups in Syria, and many deceived believers attempt to leave for home within weeks or months of their arrival. The last category of fighters, “fanatics,” are well aware of the circumstances of the war in Syria and are committed to participation in the cause regardless of these factors. With very little resources dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning fighters and their families, the increasing numbers of desperate and disillusioned former extremists attempting to return home to Central Asia are already posing problems for governments in the region.

In its unique, multi-vector approach, the investigation outlined by Yerlan Karin provides an important perspective on the motivations, experiences and characteristics of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria.