During the Cold War Washington and Moscow constructed the barricades that made for what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “a world split apart.”
Today, there are still many issues on which the U.S. and the West stand on opposite sides of the barricade from Russia. Now, however, the twilight socialist-capitalist ideological struggle is absent. The only ideological aspect to new divergence (and competition of interests) is external to the immediate Russia-West relationship––and is “religious” not economic.
Specifically, it consists of the Islamist theo-ideology and the growing polarization between Sunnis and Shiites across the Muslim world. While the U.S. and the West tend to come down on the side of the Sunnis, Moscow tends to side with Shiite Iran, its allies in Syria, and the Shiite opposition in Bahrain. This trap is complicating efforts to coordinate Western and Russian policy on the revolutionary situation in the Muslim world in addition to the related global jihadi revolutionary alliance.
Iran and more recently Syria have become foci in this divergence of views. Originally, and for several reasons, Moscow was less than sanguine about revolutions in both Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab countries like Egypt and Libya. First, they have been hesitant about Western-led “humanitarian interventions” because they tend to enhance Western power––often at the expense of Moscow’s power. Equally important in Moscow’s calculus, however, is that Shiite and secular regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt, Qadaffi’s Libya, and Assad’s Baathist Syria are seen as bulwarks against Sunni Islamism, which would become more emboldened with the resources of state or states’ power behind them.
Moscow is concerned that humanitarian intervention and ‘Arab spring’ revolutions targeting these regimes could create a jihadist blowback. Russia’s North Caucasus is plagued by a growing jihadi terrorist insurgency (the so-called Caucasus Emirate) with links to the global jihadi revolutionary movement represented by Al Qa`ida, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, and other groups. To a lesser extent even more moderate Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and Russia’s neighboring Central Asia are experiencing jihadist and Islamist violence. In such circumstances, Moscow is wary about moves that could undermine these regimes and make matters worse in the Muslim world. Believe it or not, matters could be and are likely to get much worse there in coming years.
Instructive from Moscow’s point of view is the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and its impending withdrawal which risks a possible revival of the Taliban regime with an upsurge in jihadi activity in the above mentioned regions of, and around Russia. Islamist regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya paint an even darker picture. With these, and perhaps further developments, the Caucasus Emirate’s prospects for success become less bleak and Moscow’s security challenges multiply and become more complex. Even in pre-Arab ‘spring’ circumstances, much financial, material, and personnel support made its way from Sunni-populated countries to the Caucasus Emirate mujahedin. Despite vailed threats, Iran is unlikely to be able to have any leverage, no less the same leverage that Sunni Islamist regimes can have over Sunni Islamists and jihadists.
Therefore, the Sunni states’ efforts to parlay the opposition in Syria into an overthrow of Shiite Iran’s key ally, along with Moscow’s reluctance to support Western and Sunni efforts to at least mediate the conflict (if not engineer a Sunni takeover) have led to rising tensions between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Now, with Moscow’s initial opposition to UN resolutions on Syria, much of the impetus created by Moscow’s Arab gambit has dissipated. Riyadh is charging Russia with opposing itself to the Sunni world, allying itself with an Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi-Hizbullah axis, rejecting Syria’s Sunni majority, and adopting the Assad regime and its positions. For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué on March 2nd accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in Syria and announced plans to refer the matter to UN institutions responsible for fighting terrorism [H. Varulkar, “Rising Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Russia on Backdrop of Syrian Crisis,” Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 820, Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), April 2012].
In response to Sunni and Western criticism that Russia has sided with the Shia world versus a supposed Sunni demand for democracy, Moscow began to charge the West with backing Sunni leaders, most notably in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Russian media and even some officials were critical of continuing U.S. and Saudi support for Bahrain’s monarchy in the face of Shiite protests during the so-called Arab spring.
Russian state media has reminded everyone that the House of Saud was using U.S.-supplied weapons when it stepped in to help Bahrain put down Shiite demonstrations last year and noted Washington’s extension of military supply agreements with Bahrain after the crisis. In short, Moscow was attempting to expose Western and Sunni (in particular Saudi hypocrisy) in which the latter has opposed weapons sales to Syria but make them to Bahrain and have supported or at least ignored their suppression in Sunni monarchies like Bahrain and Yemen.
Of course, much of the Western and Sunni criticism of Russia’s position on Iran and Syria is overstated. Moscow has voted along with its fellow UN Security Council members on several resolutions dealing with Syria, and it has played a much more constructive role on Iran’s nuclear weapons program than is generally understood.
Recently, Russia’s second-largest bank, VneshTorgBank (VTB) quietly closed the bank accounts of the Iranian embassy in Moscow in compliance with recent U.S. laws (Avi Jorisch, “How Moscow Is Helping to Solve the Iran Problem,” Moscow Times, 12 April 2012). Prior to that Russia has joined in other sanction efforts against Iran, horsetrading for some softening albeit in the bargain. Moscow signed the UN Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010 that imposed harsher sanctions on Iran after it refused to comply with previous UN resolutions regarding its nuclear weapons program. It also supported the blacklisting of Iran by Financial Action Task Force, of which Russia is a member, as a “high risk and noncooperative jurisdiction,” which will help to enforce these and any future sanctions against Teheran.
Similarly, Moscow’s suspicions regarding Western and Sunni intentions are overdrawn. The Kremlin is beginning to understand that Assad’s overreaction to the early protests pushed the situation out of control and provides the basis for Western and Sunni involvement in the crisis. In addition, Moscow recriminations regarding Western and Sunni support for authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen are equally as hypocritical given Moscow’s comfort with similar regimes in Central Asia, Iran, Belarus, and elsewhere.
Moscow’s Shiite gambit, albeit limited, is a risky venture. By siding with Shiite Iran and its main ally, Assad’s Syria, against the Sunni Arab world, it invites a much greater involvement of Sunnis in the North Caucasus and the rest of Russia. Afterall, it was the involvement of the Sunni Al Qa`ida and its and Saudi Arabia’s various philanthropic organizations that helped plant the seed of Sunni jihadism in the North Caucasus by providing fighters, trainers, theo-ideologists, funding, weapons, and theo-ideological framework in the mid-1990s. That seed gradually blossomed into a full-fledged Sunni jihadi terrorist insurgency by the early 200s, producing the Caucasus Emirate in 2007. Indeed, some of the Saudi media invoked Chechnya and the North Caucasus in criticizing Russia’s Syria policy. Jasser 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Jasser, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, wrote: “These are the same claims the Russians made in supporting the Serbian rule in Yugoslavia and in justifying the murder of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which only ended with NATO's military intervention. The Russians do not want the Muslims to rule their own countries and to break free of the minority governments that sustain themselves through killing and oppression – as the Russians themselves do in Chechnya and the Caucasus, where the Muslim majority is subject to a Russian minority that rules it with fire and the force of arms” (Varulkar, “Rising Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Russia on Backdrop of Syrian Crisis”).
Now Moscow risks standing on the other side of the barricades from not just Sunni jihadists but more traditional Sunnis as well. The latter, like Russia’s traditional Hanafis and Qadiriya Sufis, despite their own shortcomings, remain a more moderate bulwark against the global jihadi revolutionary alliance. The Russian perception that all jihadists are Wahhabis is also a barrier, given the Wahhabi influence among Arabian Peninsula Sunnis. Moscow would do well to remember that Salafi trends are strong among Sunnis (and some Shiites) far from Riyadh and across the Muslim world. Sunni Salafis from (or educated in) Pakistan, Egypt, the Maghreb, Africa proper, and Central Asia, have helped to spread jihadism in the North Caucasus.
Although Iranian willingness to support the Caucasus Emirate’s Sunni mujahedin cannot be entirely excluded, it remains unclear whether they would possess sufficient leverage in the region given the small number of Shiites in the North Caucasus. In addition, Teheran would be risking the ire of predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan, which could turn the tables on Iran and foment Azeri separatism in Iran.
Moscow’s diplomatic offensive among Sunni states, in particular Saudi Arabia, from a few years ago, seemed to hold greater promise. To be sure, the monarchies are doomed and appear incapable of engineering a transition to either democracy or to an authoritarianism sufficiently soft to undercut Islamists during the first wave of regime transformation in the Muslim world. This will put Moscow, the West, and Israel in the crosshairs of some truly horrendous Islamist regimes. Therefore, the longer secular and monarchical regimes can hold off the Islamists, the better. This gives time and hope for a moderately revolutionary outcome.
Unfortunately, the myriad of cross-cutting interests and values that messily make each country’s foreign policy, complicates – if it does not ultimately confound – the formation and execution of a coordinated multilateral (West, Russia, and others) policy. One is needed to deal with such multifaceted and unpredictable political phenomena as societal and regime transformations, revolutions, religious extremism, and terrorism.
Moscow’s recent compromises on Syria and Iran, plus the high level of U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war against jihadism globally, offers some hope that all anti-jihadi forces will ultimately operate on the same side of the barricade.