By Peter Zeihan
From an American perspective, the Eurasian landmass can be both an intimidating and endlessly invigorating place. Intimidating, because it is the only landmass on the planet save that of North America that has sufficient resources to nurture and give rise to a truly global power; invigorating, because the existence of many disparate powers there make the task of preventing a single power from arising relatively easy. The sheer size, internal geographic divides and myriad states and ethnic groups that are native to Eurasia are perhaps the strongest factor guaranteeing U.S. national strength — and on a subconscious level, all U.S. policymakers realize that. Within Eurasia, the perception is, of course, different — and particularly in Russia, at the heart of the entire region. While the interconnections of North America's geographic features — its plains, river systems and coasts — promote development and political unification, Russia's endless tracts of land and sequestered river systems assist with neither. As a massive territory with no easily defensible borders, Russia's geography has dictated major aspects of its political history: It has been, at various points, a conglomeration of fractured principalities (the era of Muscovy and Tartary), a region subjected to sweeping and brutal occupations (the Mongol occupation), and a native centralized tyranny that was able in various ways to subjugate the principalities (the tsarist era and the Soviet period). The result is a culture that equates change with pain, and one that reflexively views the outsider as either a threat or as a parasite. It is a logic that is difficult to counter. On one hand, Russia's major interactions with outside powers — whether Mongol, Polish, German or Islamic — have not left it with sweet memories. On the other, it is obvious that Russia's suffering under outside powers was beneficial to others: For example, the Mongol occupation of Russia spared Europe a similar experience, while the Nazi invasion of Russia set the groundwork for the birth of the American-dominated West we know today. The resulting cultural impact could be best described as a sense of besieged entitlement — and never has it been more evident in Russian policy than since the Soviet collapse. At several points in the past 15 years — NATO's war against Belgrade, the introduction of U.S. forces to Uzbekistan, the EU accession of Finland and Sweden, and Ukraine's recent attempts at realignment, to name only a few — Russia's initial resistance and defiance was followed by stunned disbelief. In retrospect, all of these were events that could be expected as a once-dominant power weakened, but then why was Russian preparation for these battles so nonexistent? Why were Russia's reactions to critical losses limited to anger and rhetoric, as opposed to preparation for the future? The answer goes deeper than simply a lack of options — Russia was, and remains, a powerful country with many tools for making its views known and its will reality. What Russia has lacked, however, is an elite class that is capable of pushing beyond the bounds of what could be described as fatalistic paranoia. Put another way, the Russian leadership has suffered from a superiority complex based on an inferiority complex: Because Russia has suffered greatly, the argument would go, it is both stronger and entitled to a greater role within the global community than it feels it has been afforded. While such a viewpoint can be psychologically comforting, it is frequently less than useful in maneuvering through the grand and often deadly game of geopolitics. And so Russia has fallen back. At least partly as a result of a clouded worldview, it has lost influence and territory: Nicaragua, Syria, Mozambique, Angola, Vietnam, Poland, Latvia, Cuba, Serbia, Mongolia, Georgia, Ukraine. But worst of all, from the standpoint of a Russian, Moscow has yet to demonstrate it is capable of crafting a response consisting of anything more substantive than rhetoric. Russia needs many things if it is to halt this seemingly unending slide. But perhaps the one thing it needs most urgently is a new point of view. And earlier this week, it appeared that changes under way at the Kremlin could be destined to give it just that. On Nov. 14, two unusual Russian politicians — Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov — were appointed as deputy prime ministers. Their rise signals a sharpening of Russian policy both at home and abroad, with the Kremlin beginning to take a clear-eyed view of its positions and policies around the world. A New World View?
To understand the potential direction of Russian policy, it is important first to understand these two men. First, Medvedev. The former presidential chief of staff, now first deputy prime minister, is certainly a pro-Western technocrat. But he is akin to neither the starry-eyed reformers who applied disastrous shock therapy in the 1990s, nor idealistic pro-Westerners in the mold of Grigory Yavlinsky who want to see Western democratic institutions grafted wholesale onto Russia. At 40, Medvedev is just old enough to fully comprehend how far Russia has fallen — having been 24 when the Berlin Wall fell — but just young enough to have a mindset radically different from his predecessors. Most critical is that he admires the West despite the fact that — unlike Putin — he has never worked abroad. His respect is rooted in the accomplishments of the West and what Russia potentially could gain from them, not out of the unrealistic desire of many of Russia's pro-Westerners to actually "join" the West. In contrast with most reformers, Medvedev believes that the state should play a strong role in the economy — particularly in key sectors such as energy. Medvedev was a key, if quiet, figure in the onslaught against Yukos, and he is chairman of the board for Gazprom, Russia's state natural gas monopoly — which just happens to be the world's largest energy company. These are not the stances and actions of someone who believes that capitalism is a magic wand that will fix all of Russia's problems. Ivanov, who was Russia's defense minister before being named deputy prime minister, is similar in his uniqueness. Like Putin, Ivanov spent the bulk of his career in the Federal Security Service (FSB), and both were stationed in Europe for a time. Thus, he, like Medvedev, has a healthy respect for military, economic, political, social and technological capabilities of the West. But where Medvedev sees opportunities in interactions with the West, Ivanov perceives threats. Thus, he is a magnet for the siloviki
— a group of foreign policy, military and intelligence personnel who want to see Russia restored to its former glory. Yet while Russia's nationalists in general and the siloviki in particular consider him their best-known sympathizer, Ivanov is far more pragmatic than the average nationalist. Unlike many of the defense ministers who came before him, he is not concerned about NATO tanks rolling eastward — realizing that the United States, much less the rest of NATO, lacks that capacity. Instead, he worries about the steady expansion of Western influence — which spread first to Central Europe, then the Baltics, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and now Ukraine. Ivanov views the West as more of a cultural and economic threat to Russia than as a military juggernaut. Both Medvedev and Ivanov are pragmatists and patriots — though they obviously still hold their own business interests as well — and thus are more likely to occupy the middle ground that pure reformers or nationalists avoid. Medvedev sees Western-style corporate governance as a sound ideal to impose on Russia's oligarchs — but not at Gazprom, which he sees as a key to future foreign policy. Ivanov sees cooperation with NATO as a necessary evil, but more as a means of building a more efficient Russian military than out of any expectation of swaying NATO policy. And both men see China as an opportunity: It is a customer for Russian energy and weapons, and — by forming a political alliance against the West — a crucial potential partner in security policy. But, unlike the siloviki, they are also more likely to take a comprehensive view of the power to the east, noting the implications of its giant economy and China's recent "Northern Sword" military exercises, staged on Russia's southern border. It has not been lost on either that ethnic Chinese in the border region outnumber the Russians by more than ten to one. In short, both see threats in every opportunity, and opportunities in every threat, making them the first competent, pragmatic, clear-eyed politicians to reach the top of Russia's political heap since the Soviet breakup. Yet neither Medvedev nor Ivanov is a particularly strong candidate to succeed Putin, despite rife speculation on that score in the Russian press. Medvedev is Putin's protégé, Gazprom's chairman, and the Kremlin's grey cardinal, but so far he lacks a sizeable political following from which to independently launch his career. He well could cultivate such a resource in the next three years, but he does not have it yet. Ivanov, meanwhile, is likely not someone to whom Putin would gladly hand the reins. Unlike Medvedev or Ivanov, Putin is an instinctual Westernizer — to the degree that the Russian press has often quipped: Putin Joins West, Russia May Follow. So why advance Ivanov into greater prominence? Two reasons. First, Ivanov has the ability to either unleash or hold back the nationalist tide, a capacity that Putin would be foolish to ignore. Second, should Putin's goal of Westernizing come to naught (something that must have at least crossed his mind as Ukraine
peeled away), Russia would be forced into direct confrontation to the West. If Russia is to be ruled by a nationalist, Putin would prefer that it be ruled by a nationalist who is capable of viewing the world without the preconceptions that have cost Moscow so much. While this shift has significant implications for Russian policy, it is important not to overplay what has occurred. The rise of Medvedev and Ivanov is an important first step in a shift that Putin is trying to engineer — but not the shift in sum. That said, it is clear that the rise of these two men will influence policy in more than simply subtle ways — particularly since their promotions coincided this week with other events of note. Russian Policy: Through a Prism of Pragmatism
Another aspect of Putin's Cabinet reshuffle was the unceremonious sacking of Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin's envoy to the Russian Far East (and point-man for the Kremlin's North Korea policy), without the benefit of a follow-on position. And on the same day, the FSB arrested Igor Reshetin, general director of TsNIIMASH-Export company, and two of his deputies for (illegally) transferring space technology to the Chinese. For the past decade, Russia's Far East policy has been quite simple: China is a natural ally of Russia and as such should be extended economic, political, military and technological favors as a means of solidifying the relationship. This perception, has not, however, been reflected south of the Amur River. While the Kremlin treated China as an ally, Beijing has viewed Russia as an opportunity at best or a nuisance at worst — but certainly not an equal. Wary of political strings Russia tends to attach to deals, China has been focusing on Kazakhstan as a key source of energy supplies, and sending its money there rather than to Russia. Meanwhile, Beijing is unofficially encouraging its citizens to migrate to Siberia, while also buying Russian hardware to upgrade its military capabilities. And China has steadily siphoned influence away in North Korea, leaving Russia largely an outside observer in the six-party nuclear negotiations. None of this would have been possible if Moscow had been taking a more realistic assessment of Beijing's motives and actions. Between Reshetin's arrest, Pulikovsky's dismissal and Ivanov's rise, a full re-evaluation of Russia's Far East policy appears to be in the works — if not the formation of a new policy that will no longer blindly assist China's rise without consideration of the long-term consequences for Russia. Similarly, Russian policies in Central Asia are being re-evaluated, although here — where Moscow's direct influence is much stronger — the actions are bolder. A mutual defense treaty Putin signed in Tashkent on Nov. 14 signals light-years of change from the mutual hostility that characterized the bilateral relationship as little as two years ago. This is partly because of a shift within Uzbekistan itself: President Islam Karimov feels that the United States not only engineered the various color revolutions that have brought about government changes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, but that Uzbekistan was next on Washington's list. Despite its many problems, Uzbekistan is the most powerful Central Asian state, and whoever has the most influence there can shape events throughout the region. Due to a much more proactive Russian stance — influenced in no small part by Ivanov — that player is no longer Beijing or Washington, but Moscow. In fact, not only is the airbase the United States set up in southern Uzbekistan for the Afghan war being dismantled on Tashkent's orders, but the Nov. 14 treaty raised the possibility of a Russian replacement. Russian proactivity in Central Asia is not limited to the military sector or Uzbek geography. On Nov. 14, as so many other key changes were being announced, Gazprom — which, remember, is chaired by Medvedev — entered into a five-year deal that locks down control of all natural gas exported via Kazakhstan. A good chunk of Kazakhstan's oil may soon be flowing to China, but now Gazprom is swallowing all natural gas exported by all Central Asian states. Anyone who wants to purchase Central Asian natural will discover that they actually have to buy it from Gazprom. Which means from Medvedev — and thus, from the Kremlin. This change is likely to flare open some eyes across Europe — particularly in the Baltics and Ukraine, where leaders are used to being able to purchase natural gas from Turkmenistan as a means of increasing their independence from Moscow. Now there is only one player in town, and that player sets all the prices. Russia has threatened for years to charge states that do not play by its rules more for natural gas, a development that would cripple most of them. Now there are no barriers whatsoever to stop Russia from following through as it sees fit. Implications of a Russian Shift
Such policies will, of course, have consequences. China long has taken the existence of an amicably passive Russia as a given. A Russia that is openly suspicious — or even one that asks the occasional nervous question about "Northern Swords" — is one that Beijing needs to figure into its planning in a very different way. Relations with Europe are bound to get sticky as well. For instance, the question of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization likely will move into limbo. The biggest point of contention is the role that Gazprom plays in pricing natural gas — selling supplies domestically at one-fifth the rate of international sales. The Europeans want the indirect subsidies to end. A Russia that uses energy as a tool to pressure rivals — particularly if those rivals are EU members — while maintaining artificially cheap prices at home will generate considerable discomfort in Europe. At this point, it is impossible to trace all of the potential ripples from changes now under way in Moscow. But what is clear is that, with the rise of Medvedev and Ivanov, Russia is gaining two leaders who both understand some of the roots of Russia's current weakness, and who have demonstrated an ability to think outside the traditional Russian box. Their ascendance indicates a creeping re-evaluation of Russia's position. It is a change that will manifest in all of Russia's relations — particularly in areas where the Russian position previously has been driven by hopes or fears rather than cool, pragmatic calculations.