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By Jack Wright
On 26 October 2017, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) was delighted to welcome Robert Service—Russian historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford—to discuss his latest book Russia and Its Islamic World: From the Mongol Conquest to the Syrian Military Intervention, in an event chaired by Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at HJS.
Service argued the choice by the majority of analysts to separate Russian domestic policy from its foreign policy obfuscates the intentions of Putin and his organization in the Kremlin; as a result, Service indicated an examination of its relationship with the Islamic world (both historically and in the 21st century) is mandatory:
“Russia’s involvement with its Islamic World is shaped by a triangle of factors: the Muslim factor in the Russian Federation, the Muslim factor in the Russian interaction with ex-Soviet central Asia, and the Muslim factor in Russian military and political interventions in the Middle East. None of these factors can be properly understood if it is examined separately from the other two.”
Service maintained the accelerating interaction between Russia and its Islamic world in the modern era is ultimately symptomatic of the recovery and renewed assertion of Russian external confidence and power on the international stage (climaxing with the military intervention in the Syrian civil war). However, he questioned whether or not the maintenance of cordial relations between regional powers in which competition is explicitly sectarian (i.e., Iran and [increasingly] Saudi Arabia), when Putin has revived the Russian Orthodox Church and established a theocracy donning the clerical garb of Eastern Christianity, is sustainable in the medium- to long-term. Amongst the particularly-combustible former Soviet republics of Central Asia, in which Russian oppression of Islamist organizations and suicidal jihadists was rampant after the Cold War, one possible result could be the establishment of an Islamist regime causing serious trouble for Moscow.
Furthermore, there will be a growing temptation for Putin to take gambles, “and it cannot be discounted that he will take one risk too many in the Middle East, Ukraine, or the Baltic states. Having played the nationalist card in Russia’s politics, he cannot now remove it from the pack and throw it aside. Any potential successor would find it difficult to remain in office without continuing the policies of vigorous nationalism. All this involves a danger to world peace that is likely to fester and grow.