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Orlando Sentinel

Increasingly, Russia seeks to regain ground in Eurasia

By Ilan Berman

Orlando Sentinel, June 15, 2001

When President George W. Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia on Saturday, he will have his first encounter with the new face of imperial Russia.

Slowly but surely, under Putin's direction, Russia has begun to return to the Caucasus and Central Asia and is reviving its efforts to dominate much of its former empire.

The new, assertive tone of Russian policy has everything to do with ideology. Over the past couple of years, a previously obscure doctrine has increasingly gathered force in Russian politics. Long relegated solely to ultranationalists and a handful of "new right" thinkers, the early-20th-century concept of Eurasianism, which advocates the cultural and geopolitical struggle between the West and a distinct Russia-led "Eurasian" subcontinent, rapidly is becoming mainstream.

A great deal of Eurasianism's newfound appeal is because of its main ideologue and, arguably, Russia's premier strategist, Alexander Dugin. Despite his checkered past (a former member of the radical Pamyat organization and later of the racist Conservative Revolution), Dugin now serves as an adviser to a number of senior Russian parliamentarians. Indeed, his updated version of Eurasianism, which stresses opposition to the "Atlantic" powers (principally the United States and the United Kingdom) and emphasizes alliance-building as a tool for political and economic dominance, has increasingly taken root in Russian thinking.

Nothing illustrates this as much as the runaway popularity of Dugin's newly established Eurasia movement. The fledgling political initiative, far from being another failed far-right offshoot, boasts the broadest spectrum of political/religious affiliations under one umbrella in more than a decade. In addition to prominent politicians and former KGB operatives, the movement has become home to members of the spiritual leadership of the Russian Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist and Jewish communities, as well.

Not surprisingly, Derzhavnost, the idea of Russia as a Great Power, is steadily growing among Russians demoralized by their country's humiliating international decline. At its core, as Dugin puts it, is the idea that Russia "cannot exist outside of its essence as an empire, by its geographical situation, historical path and fate of the state."

Moscow's recent maneuvers in Central Asia reflect Eurasianism's growing ideological weight. There, through a combination of constructive engagement and coercion, Russia has managed to re-establish much of its Cold War dominance. In the Caspian basin, it has steadily gained in influence, employing strong-arm tactics and diplomatic pressures in its largely unnoticed and overwhelmingly successful bid to control Caspian oil. No clearer example is needed than Kazakhstan's recent strong-arm tactics toward American oil exploration, an indicator of Moscow's growing influence in Astana. Isolated and vulnerable, Azerbaijan and Georgia have also begun to tilt toward Russia, with Baku signing an official declaration in January of 2001, ceding sovereignty over foreign policy to its larger, bullying neighbor.

Yet not all the blame rests with Moscow. Washington's lethargy in promoting pluralism in the post-Soviet space, and reassuring those former Soviet Republics that are grappling with both Russian subversion and Islamic extremism, has played a large role in the revival of Russian influence there.

In May, the Kremlin, along with the governments of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan, agreed to the creation of a regional "rapid reaction force" to counter Islamist insurgency in the area. The task force, to be formed from Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Kazakh military battalions, will operate under Russian command, effectively putting Moscow at the helm of a regional security architecture of loyal CIS allies, and likely excluding the United States from future regional security planning altogether.

And most recently -- in a move straight out of Dugin's playbook -- President Putin on June 1st officially launched his much-vaunted Eurasian Economic Community, which unifies many of the Central Asian republics in an oil-rich, Moscow-dominated economic alternative to the European Union.

Should Eurasianism become fully entrenched in Russia, Washington will have a front-row seat at the demise of the once-promising Russian-American "strategic partnership." Its corrosiveness is visible in the fact that the new administration faces a broadening Russian consensus that believes, as Dugin does, that "Eurasia and our space, the heartland, remain the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution." In fact, the summit meeting Saturday is intended to prevent precisely this development.

But President Bush would do well to remember that while Dugin's dreams of Eurasian empire may be a tall order, Putin clearly takes them seriously enough to try to put them into practice.

Ilan Berman is a Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. The council is a think tank, with emphasis on national security and Russian issues.

Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel