Putin's war with radical Islamists
Russia - which usually makes world news only in relation to gas and oil - has recently emerged as an important foreign-policy broker. President Vladimir Putin's government has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Iran and the West and between Hamas and the West.
Dealing with Iran and Hamas, Putin tried to persuade them to abandon radical rhetoric and practices and incorporate themselves into the Western international order. At the same time, he tried to convince Western partners that the Iranians and even Hamas are not the worst of all possible regimes or movements, and with certain encouragements and guarantees could be incorporated into the Western order.
Moreover, their help could be crucial in confronting the real implacable enemy: Islamic extremists.
This aspect of Putin's recent foreign-policy initiative is well known and is apparently related to his attempt to boost Russia's prestige, to reinvent Russia if not as a superpower, at least as an important global player. At the same time, this attempt to incorporate radical nationalists into the political mainstream has not just international but domestic implications. In fact, the two sides of Putin's activities are related.
Chechen state or global jihad
Recently, the Chechen Internet site Kavkaz (www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/) - a sort of semi-official organ of the Chechen resistance that has engaged in a nearly 15-year war with the Russian state - published two long articles from two prominent figures in the movement, Ahmed Zakaev and Movladi Udugov.
Both pieces dealt with the general outline of Chechens' future. Zakaev argued that the present war should be driven by the pre-modern forces of Chechen nationalism and lead to the creation of an independent Chechen state, which should be incorporated into the concert of modern powers, and with a gravitation to the West.
In fact, Zakaev, who is based in England, where he has the status of a political refugee, admitted that the United States, with all its administrative hesitation, understands Chechens' legal rights. Consequently Chechens, with all due respect to Islam, should in general follow international law.
Udugov's views on Chechens' future are different. He advocates a philosophy quite popular among international jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, which has discarded any ideas of carving out a Chechen state in the current world order. What Zakaev sees as the civilized Western world, Udugov argues is the same brutish, corrupt system that one can see in Russia, except the Western predators are perhaps more polished.
Udugov argues that any state in today's global community is an institution of oppression and corruption, and the Chechen state, if it were to be established, would inevitably fall into the same pit. What Chechens should have is not a regular state but an organization that is separate from the rest of the world; one that could be used for launching the global jihad that would finally lead to the establishment of the global khalifah (caliphate) and transcend present-day history.
One might state here that al-Qaeda's model is not just wishful thinking but is a reality, as can be seen in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have created a quasi-state designed exclusively for jihadist purposes (see Pakistan battles the forces within, March 7).
This state, curiously enough, reminds one of the Soviet state in the first few years of its existence; it was in conflict with the entire "capitalist" world - and the Bolsheviks regarded it as a springboard for a global revolution.
Udugov is different from Zakaev not only in his vision of future states but in what he considers the very nature of the forces that will fight the anti-Islamic world. In sharp contrast with Zakaev, though, he discards Chechen nationalism, not only because narrow nationalism makes it harder for Chechens to forge alliances with other ethnic groups, but also because jihad requires a different type of people.
These folks should be united not by blood but by common spiritual bonds of dedicated Muslims. Elaborating on this point, Udugov writes that this is why he feels an attachment to other Chechens, even though he is a collaborator with the Russians. At the same time, he feels himself attached to the story of the Russian boy who forsook alcohol, fornication and other sins and became a dedicated Muslim.
This stress on embracing people of all ethnic backgrounds who are ready to embrace Islam, al-Qaeda, and similar-minded Chechens is hardly unique. The Taliban and al-Qaeda follow the same principle. The story of the "American Taliban" - John Walker Lindh, the American Catholic who on conversion to Islam joined the Taliban and was captured by US troops - is well known, at least in the United States. Less known, but even more interesting, is the story of another American convert. A few years ago a videotape, allegedly circulated by the Taliban or al-Qaeda, showed a man speaking with an American accent promising the US a new and even more devastating repetition of the events of September 11, 2001. It was revealed that the man on the tape was an American Jew - if one could judge from his name - who apparently became a convert and joined the jihadis.
The Russian jihadists
Putin understands well that radical Islamists, whose philosophy and practice replaced the communist movement of the last century, are an implacable mortal enemy of his regime. The call for Islamic unity, so similar to Karl Marx's call for workers of all countries to unite, could unite the Muslim people of the Caucasus and spread to Muslim enclaves in the Russian heartland. The movement could even include ethnic Russians.
Putin also understands that Russian jihadis are a part of the "worldwide revolution" of Islamic radicalism, and that the US is in as much peril as Russia.
While similar to Bush in his approach to confronting jihadism, Putin is apparently wiser than the US president. This is not because of Putin's personal faculties, but the result of leading a collapsing superpower that has tasted the bitter fruits of protracted war and defeat in Afghanistan and now Chechnya.
Al-Qaeda follows the same principle, seeing what Bush cannot see: that military preponderance is useless in the United States' "long war" or "war on terror", which could be too long to endure both for Russia and the West.
This is one of the major reasons that Putin appeals to those he regards as moderate, at least in comparison with the jihadis. Izvestia, one of the leading Russian publications, recently published a positive account of Zakaev. It is also one of the major reasons Putin has been dealing with Hamas and Iran. Yet it is not likely that he will succeed in his endeavors, and the "long war" will continue, bringing results that quite possibly are unforeseeable for any of its players.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.