Russia, Islam, and the War on Terrorism

By Cohen, Ariel | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Russia, Islam, and the War on Terrorism


Cohen, Ariel, Demokratizatsiya


The terrorist attacks on the United States have forced many countries to confront their own Islamic threats. Russia is one country that faces an uncertain future, surrounded by tough neighbors in an unstable geopolitical environment. As the birthrate of ethnic Russians plummets, the Muslim population is growing,1 and radical Islamic forces are expanding into Russia proper, as well as in its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Central Asia. The challenge for the Russian leadership in the years to come is to develop adequate diplomatic, military, and security tools to halt the rise of the Islamist threat to Russia and its allies. Russia judges that it cannot stem the tide on its own, but its residual mistrust of NATO and the United States, as well as the current incompatibiliy of the military establishments that have been in place since the cold war era, stands in the way of cooperation. Russia will have to cooperate with the rising giant to the east, China, and with the United States and the European Union to secure its place within the crosscurrents of globalization and the Islamic maelstrom.

In the weeks after the attack on the United States, President Vladimir Putin started to address this challenge, taking Russia closer to the United States and the West in the war against terrorism.2 Russia launched a supply operation for the Northern Alliance, a mostly Tajik force that was aligned with the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan. For the first time since World War II, intelligence cooperation between the United States and Russia was exemplary. Moscow was instrumental in securing the agreement of Central Asian leaders to allow U.S. use of military bases in Central Asia. Russia also provided a necessary humanitarian relief operation in the first weeks of the war.3 But the long-term challenge facing the United States and the EU is whether they can reshape policies to seize this opportunity to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community.

Victim of Its Own Success

The Russian two-headed eagle used to soar high in the land of Islam. After the final defeat of the Mongols in 1480, Russian subjugation of Muslim-controlled territories began with expansion against the steppe nomads in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries. It continued with the conquest of the Volga valley under Ivan IV (the Terrible) in the second half of the sixteenth century. In 1552, Ivan took Kazan, the capital of the northern Tatar-Mongol khanate, a remnant of the Mongol Golden Horde that ruled Russia for more than 250 years (1227-1480). "The Mongol yoke" left indelible scars on the Russian national psyche. Ivan then swept down the river and took Astrakhan in the lower Volga, thus establishing the Russian empire, which included Muslims.

Thus, the northern frontier of Islam lies deep in the steppes of the Russian Northern Caucasus and stretches as far north as Kazan, the ancient capital of the Turkic Muslim kingdom in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, an hour-plus plane ride from Moscow. There are no geographical barriers, such as mountains, to stop the spread of radical Islam into Russia.

After a long hiatus to fight Poland and Sweden in the west during the second half of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Russian expansion east and south continued. The Romanovs subjugated the Kazakhs in the steppes east of the Volga, and in the second half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great's ex-lover Prince Alexander Potemkin captured the Crimean Tatar khanate on the Black Sea from its Ottoman vassal rulers. This was followed by a series of exceedingly nasty and protracted frontier wars in the Northern Caucasus from the 1780s through the 1850s. The rebellion by Imam Shamil of Daghestan in the eastern part of Northern Caucasus lasted forty-seven years and included "ethnic cleansing" by the Russians, such as the expulsion of half a million mountaineers to the Ottoman Empire. Russia's slow but steady military conquest of the Central Asian khanates of Khoresm, Khiva, and Boukhara continued through the second half of the nineteenth century. …

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