What Russia wants: lessons from the 19th century
At the time the faultlines between Russian and British imperial interests ran from the Balkans through the Crimea and the Caucasus to Central Asia and Afghanistan. That is remarkably similar to some of the faultlines creating upheavals today.
Angered by western support for the independence of Kosovo in the Balkans, Russia is at loggerheads with NATO over Georgia in the Caucasus. The row over Georgia has raised fears Russia may halt vital transit of NATO cargoes to Afghanistan — though this has been denied by Moscow — threatening the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Such is the geographical sweep of the world’s problems, that British commentator Simon Jenkins even suggested we may be drifting towards a new global war.
So what are the lessons of history? And what can we learn about what Russia’s motives really are in the current crisis?
According to Lawrence James’s history of the British Raj, the Russians in the 19th century were experts at applying in war and diplomacy a technique adapted from a chess manoeuvre known as a “Maskirovka”. This aims to deceive your opponent into expecting an attack in one place in order to gain strategic advantage elsewhere. In particular, he says, they tried to trick the British into fearing a Russian invasion of India to divert their attention so that Russia itself could focus on securing its European flank.
The Russians considered this gambit during the Crimean war when Britain and its allies fought Russia for control of the Black Sea (the scene of tensions today between U.S. and Russian ships off the Georgian coast) — eventually driving the Russians out of the port of Sebastopol in 1855 (now known as Sevastopol in Ukraine and leased to Moscow as the base of its Black Sea fleet). It seems history has a way of repeating itself when it comes to choosing its faultlines.
They tried it 20 years later, prompting Britain to invade Afghanistan in 1878 to secure a buffer state between Russia and India. It was Britain’s second attempt to take over Afghanistan and like its earlier invasion from British India ended in humiliation and defeat. But then history has repeated itself so often when it comes to unsuccessful invasions of Afghanistan that it’s a wonder that any foreign army would choose to set foot in the country ever again.
Reading between the lines of James’s account, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that western powers — from the old British empire to the United States of today — have so consistently underestimated Russia’s sense of vulnerability on its European flank that they have misread the signals on other fronts to the point of making foolish counter-moves of their own. Indeed James says one of the few rulers of British India not to have fallen for Maskirovka adopted a policy of “masterly inactivity”.
Perhaps time to take a long hard look at what matters to Russia, and to work out what it is trying to achieve, rather than interpreting its every move as a potential step towards a new Cold War?