Putin’s Deadly “Great Game”

President Vladimir Putin will visit Ukraine, the scene of his biggest foreign policy blunder, this weekend. Given his myopic actions at home, where he seems increasingly incapable of dealing with any institution that has any degree of autonomy, this seems unlikely.

For example, Putin recently abolished elections in Russia’s provinces. From now on, presidential appointees will rule a country that is as complex and multi-national as the EU or the US. That’s not a recipe for sophisticated thinking.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

Indeed, elected officials in Russia have become an endangered species. The Kremlin black art of manipulating elections by deception and other means – called “political technology” by locals – will now be used only in other countries’ elections in, as these are the only real elections the Kremlin has to worry about, so neutered have Russia’s own votes become. The justification for canceling elections in Russia is the need to fight terrorism – the end that now justifies all means.

How did it happen that every contemporary problem, particularly in Russia, seems to have been reduced to terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist operations? Poverty, racism, and ideological legacies are just as visible now as they were three or thirteen years ago. Terrorism has not exacerbated them. Security forces have not helped resolved them.

On the contrary, the “double terror” induced by terrorism and counter-terrorism distracts public attention from those problems that, as some of us still remember, produced terrorism. Palestine and Chechnya, two sites of pain and terrorist infection, have not healed. Their national independence is now more elusive than it was before the terrorist era began.

The past was, of course, far from perfect, but governments and peoples everywhere appeared more capable of tolerating failure. When battles were lost, talks began. These talks eventually resulted in the formation of respected countries, from Italy in the nineteenth century, to India in the middle of the twentieth century, to Eritrea near that century’s end.

Try to imagine Putin as Russia’s leader in 1920, when Poland gained its independence from Russia, or in 1991, when Georgia did. Would he ever have engaged in peace talks? Nowadays, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist Great Game is decomposing into a vicious circle. Security forces respond to the growth of terrorism. The growth of terrorism responds to the strengthening of security forces.

The heavier the hand, it seems, the stronger the resistance; the stronger the resistance, the heavier the hand. Real issues are buried beneath the crimes of the terrorists and the mistakes of the security forces. With every turn of the circle, both parties, terrorists and security forces, grow closer to each other. Their common interest is continuation of the game.

Opposing parties use the same weapons, develop comparable tactics, and preach increasingly similar ideals. So it goes, until the rules of the game change. But why would they?

In Russian history, there is an analogous situation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, socialist revolutionaries led by Evno Asef embarked on a series of terrorist attacks against state officials. Somewhere along the line, Asef became a double agent. Sometimes he killed an official who was not on good terms with the police. At other times, the police simply did not want to betray their precious agent.

Manipulating each other, the terrorists and the security guys became indistinguishable. Call this the “Asef” effect. Once such an alliance was shaped, nothing but revolution could stop it – in this case, the Bolshevik revolution.

So the game must be stopped, if only for the survival of innocent bystanders – the rest of us. If you do not see humanity in your counterpart, you will not talk to him. You will either use him or kill him. So the “other” is elevated to the very center of high politics. This is the Asef effect in action.

The Bolsheviks did it to the bourgeoisie. The Nazis did it to the Jews. But classical empires learned not to do it to colonized people. Over time, they invented fascinating ways to control their subjects, combining education, bribery, and force. Learning the great art of Orientalism, the classical empires knew how to keep talking while keeping their distance.

Abolishing democracy in Russia’s provinces, including Muslim-populated regions such as Tatarstan and Dagestan, is a deadly act. Civil peace in these areas was one of the few accomplishments of which contemporary Russia could be proud.

So is Putin suicidal? Unfortunately not. He owes his career to Chechnya, as Bush may owe his presidency to Iraq. But Chechnya, obliging as it is, is small, poor, and idiosyncratic. Converting vast areas of Russia into new Chechnyas, Putin and his clique calculate that – sooner rather than later – they will play out their games of terror and security with millions of Muslims in the oil-rich plains of Eurasia.