Saturday, August 23, 2008

Russia and the Middle East

While we try to digest the latest Harper harpoon of competence, Walter Laqueur's post on Middle East Strategy at Harvard is an interesting summation of the import of the Russia vs. Georgia brouhaha.

But Russia is under time pressure for at least three reasons.

First, there is the emotional factor. The temptation to show that Russia has returned to a position of strength is very great. Which Russian leader does not want to enter history as another Peter the Great—not to mention some more recent leaders?

Second, Russia’s strength rests almost entirely on its position as the world’s leading oil and gas supplier. But this will not last forever. Nor will it be possible to prevent technological progress forever—alternative sources of energy will be found.

Above all, there is Russia’s demographic weakness. Its population is constantly shrinking (and becoming de-Russified). The duration of military service had to be halved because there are not enough recruits. Every fourth recruit is at present of Muslim background; in a few years it will be every third. The density of population in Asian Russia is 2.5 per square kilometer—and declining. There is no possible way to stop or reverse this process, and depopulation means inevitably the loss of wide territories—not to the Americans.In these circumstances there is a strong urge not to wait but to act now.

As well, do check out Mark N. Katz's response.

Moscow’s action in Georgia may appear to be a victory in the short-run but prove to be a blunder in the long-run. For there are many Muslim nations in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia that might also like to secede. Moscow may see a sharp difference between those seeking to secede from Georgia on the one hand and from Russia on the other. But it is not at all clear that the peoples of the region do. If South Ossetia and Abkhazia can become independent, then why not Chechnya, Ingushetia, Tatarstan, or other Muslim regions inside Russia?

The Times Literary Supplement has an equally interesting book review: Russian bombs, Georgian fragments A timely new book attempts the impossible: a history of the Caucasus

Some forty mutually unintelligible languages, of which a handful are established literary languages and several others have only a precarious recent literary status, are spoken. Worse for anyone trying to present a coherent narrative, these disparate peoples have very different histories, and only two, the Georgians and Armenians (some would add the Azeris), have a history of statehood consistent enough to be retold as one would retell the history of a West European country.

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