Russia and its Islamic World

TIME: 13:00-14:00, 26th October 2017

VENUE:  The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower
21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP


Robert Service
Author of Russia and Its Islamic World,
Academic and Historian

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to the Henry Jackson Society. My name is Dr Andrew Foxall and I oversee I the Eurasia and Russia work of the society. Great to see so many familiar faces in the audience toady. We are joined by Robert Service, a distinguished author Robert Service as he talks about his new book Russia and Its Islamic World, copies of which will be made available to you after this lecture this afternoon.  As I said Bob, you’re most welcome to be with us today and I just before we start I would like to add that Mr Ambassador, you are more than welcome to be with us today.

Robert Service: Well thank you very much for asking me to speak for you today. The Henry Jackson Society is something very special to me as one of my close friends, alas before he died was Robert Conquest, was an advisor to Scoop Jackson and often spoke about the senator very fondly. I wrote this book because I thought that there was a gap in our understanding of Russia and Its Islamic world and in particular because most of what was written, spoken and even thought about that subject, tended to separate the internal from the external. The internal policy of the Russian Federation from its foreign policy and it seemed to me as a practitioner of the historical art that it is self-evident if you look back to the 18th and 19th century the two things always interact with each other the internal and the external and surely, I thought it must be the same today. So, that is why I took this commission to wrote this very very short book summarising the Russian experience with its Islamic world. That’s understood internally and externally and interactively. Putin has often said that Russia is the only great European power with a continuous experience of Islam within its society. He traces the experience back to the mogul (inaudible) in the 13th century when the people who became the Russians were subject to Muslim sovereignty under the Muslims, then they threw that off and they became the monsters and they had to deal with the Muslims and sometimes they engaged in quiet violent acts, forced Christianisation, but most often they sort to avoid revolts by accommodating themselves and letting the Muslim communities of their ever expanding empire, as you know the Russian Empire expanded in the 18th and 19th century it disproportionately pulled in Muslim people under its imperial control. So there is something to be said for Putin’s claim that Russia has this long and accommodative experience of Islam on its own soil. There is something in the case he makes that the Russian Federation is a multi faith state just as the Russian empire was a multi faith state. When the census was taken in the 1890s the categories of the self-definition of the subjects of Nicholas II were religious not national that is not the case today but it is an indication that the empire of old accepted Islam and she certainly accepts it now. This is shown with the reconstruction of the great mosque in the centre of the kremlin and those of us who went to the Russian federation in the early 1990s will remember on Saturday mornings how there was often a Muslim preacher on television in prime time, in the mornings, talking about Islam. In the days when Yeltsin was seeking to empathise the multi-faith basis of his rule the Russian federation has joined the organisation of the Islamic conference. – a world wide conference which meets regularly as an observer country. So Russia has sort to indicate that global basis that it is a friend of Islam not only at home but also globally and most notably in the last few years it has emerged as a severe critic of military intervention by America and its NATO allies in countries that are largely, predominantly Islamic in faith. Iraq and Libya.  The Russian Federation have, by and large been a friend to Iran. It has also sort ties of accommodation with Saudi Arabia so the self-image of modern Russia is one of the friend of Islam. That image was shattered to a large extent in the autumn of 2015 when Russian armed forces in the air and in the sea not yet on the land intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war, to prop up the administration of President Assad. So this idea of Russia being a friend, a peaceful friend of Islam. was shattered by those in the Muslim world who loathed Assad. This was a foreign policy decision of Russia, who felt inclined to support the Assad government and to do differently from the united states which it charged with a series of changes, military operations. The principle of non-interface was still asserted. More important in Russian foreign policy is the principle of legitimacy and of stability. One can see why in 2015 the Russians felt strongly about this in as much as Putin and his security council secretary (name) frequently claimed that the EU and the United States had contrived to create the Ukrainian crisis of late 2013 which in turn provoked Russian military action to annex Crimea. So this is a key theme of Russian policy, to oppose America in particular but also the Europeans have interfered too much in countries, including of course those countries close to great Russia itself and this will no longer be tolerated where Russia has the capacity to oppose it and of course that is related also to the wish that there is no interference in Russia itself. So this principle of non-interference is further more a practical priority. Keep foreigner out, keep the noses of foreigners out. However, this notion does not appear to stop Russia poking his nose into the affairs of others! But that is the vowed principle yet back in 2004 a crack hit squad sent from Moscow went to Doha, an Islamic State and assassinated Yandarbiyev. This happened long before any intervention in Syria and therefore, in other words, Russians say one thing but when it suits their interests, they do another when they don’t and that has been the case since at least 2004 if not previously and what is striking about this build up is that nearly all of the Russian actions against Muslims have been against Sunni Muslims. While the reality demographically of the Russian Federation is that the vast majority of Muslims in the Russian federation are Sunni this is a problem that is not going to fade from our vista very quickly. Russian military action is propping up pro Shia administrations in Syria and killing largely Sunni foreigners and chickens may come home to roost over that sectarian divide. Russia has its own difficulties with Islam. There have been revolts. There was a war fort in 1994, which ended briefly in 1996 but was resumed on the Russian side in 1999 at the behest of Putin who at the time was Prime Minister it is sometimes falls from view that the area we are talking about is an area that (inaudible) which was finally conquered in the late 1860s. and memories are very, very long in that region of the world. And the tradition of revolt is strong. There were revolts, which I will come on to in a moment long after the conquest and long before the revolts of the early 1990s elsewhere in the Russian federation there is a largely peaceful Muslim population Estimates put it at up to 20 million out of 140 million with a rising proportion therein of Muslims as against the rest of the population. So, Russia is becoming more Muslim proportionately as the year go on as the Russian ethnic birth rate has declined in the last 20/30/40 years. Some indication of how Russia intends to deal with its internal problems is indicated by what it did in 2013. Shortly before the winter Olympics when it offered a deal to known local jihadists in the north crocuses to go away. Leave the soil of the Russian Federation and go to Turkey where they could find a green corridor and join the war in Iraq or Syria and this seems to have involved thousands of known jihadist with the knowledge of the local ethic authorises in the north. So therefore the idea was deal with your local Muslim problems by force or deport the problems. Whichever way you choose, just get rid of the what the Russians did here however, was so brutal. The campaigns were so savage that al Qaeda followed by ISIS denounced Putin and declared in turn, a war on the Russian government.  So the way that the Russians have behaved at home has had conquests abroad al Qaeda followed by ISIS regards Putin as a satanic figure.

This way of thinking about things sometimes seems very modern, but one has to bare in mind that back in 1876 the Sultan, declared a Jihad against Russia for attacking the Ottomans. The same happened in 1914. The Sultan at the time, declared a Jihad against the Russian Empire so religion has often become entangled in interstate relations in that part of the world. More over the atheist militant of the communists led to a series of the revolts against the Politburo and the buro through the 1920s and long after the Russian Civil War.  Indeed, I should here mention that the biggest revolt, after that of the revolution against Tsar Nicholas II, far, far bigger than the February revolution of 1917, was the Muslim revolt of 1916. Which was put down with enormous savagery at a time of war. This tradition of revolt continued through the soviet period until Stalin got a grip before the second world war. Thereafter, resistance took the form of underground prayer groups. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian federation has sort to influence what has happened outside its borders in the near abroad by propping up dictatorial reigns who are opposed to jihadism. So they have taken the gamble of assuming the force that they use on their own citizens in the Russian federation can be applied equally efficiently by parallel governments elsewhere in the former USSR against jihadism. The risk of this is that the governments that they are propping up in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and elsewhere in central Asia will prove to be very brittle and it will possibly result in massive future disturbances in those countries as a result. So Russia is really playing with fire with its policies at home, its policies in its near abroad and its policies over the border with its near abroad.

My general conclusion which I will come to now is that Putin made, what I think will turn out to be a disastrous mistake in choosing to oppose the western powers in 2014 to get this tony little patch of land in Crimea. He has paid a terrible price in sanctions. The world economy has exacted an even greater price through the collapse in the oil price and it is now being apartment to anyone at all around the world that the reliance on the economy of a country that prioritise the export of petrochemical products is no way to produce the kind of investment that Russia needs to do what china did in the 1980s and 1990s. But it is fair to say that Russia never had that opportunity that foreign investor and foreign government were cautious and of course this played a part. Russia therefore never had the same chance that China had in 1980s even so there was a strategic choice for Putin to make and I conclude that I think that he made the wrong one. He may have had reason to feel hurt by the western policy. I think he did have reason to feel hurt. However, in life sometimes you just have to take the punches. The problem is that in this process of transition from Yeltsin to Putin the code of the government has become increasingly nationalistic and now that the dogs of nationalism have been let out of the kennel it is going to be very hard to put them back. It is very hard to conceive how a future post Putin administration will be less nationalistic than Putin in some ways even some of the democrats are more wilder in nationalism that he is. (in audible) so I think that it isa very grim picture we are talking about a country that has an apparent stability that has a track record of suddenly exploding. It happened in 1905, 1917. It nearly happened in 1921, again there were tremors in 1929 again in 1953 to 1962. In 1989. It cannot there be ruled out that this complex interaction between internal and external factors that will be chickens that come home to roost.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you Bob. Fascinating talk that I think really did touch upon the complex relationships both within Russia borders and outsides its borders with the Islamic world from as you said, the 13th century through to the present. We have half an hour or for questions I can see some hands going up already and I will come to you in due course. If I may I would like to use the Chairs progrative to ask the first question. You rightly I think highlighted the various declarations of Jihad that have been made against Russia and its various goes over the century. (Inaudible) that to me seems to be the vary dangerous game that Russia seems to be playing at the moment. How it seeks to address some of the issues that it has with its Muslim populations but I want to go further if I may. Russia opposition to Jihad and terrorism and the undertaking that it has taken out do you think that Russia can be a genuine partner for the west against the so-called War On Terrorism, or do you think that the tactics that Russia uses, obviously you mentioned Syria. Do you think that tactics preclude any mindful corporation?

Robert Service: Well, what a tricky question to answer. I think that the room for cooperation on technical aspects of security among the Western agencies of Russia do exist and did exist. In the late 1990s there was a lot of corporation then I think that Russia though has to start behaving differently. I am very far from thinking that Russia hasn’t got a reason to feel hurt by the way that it was handled in the 1990s. it is objectively difficult for a great power to cope with two things at once. One losing a war and two a great economic depression. The last country to undergo was imperial Germany at the end of the 1920s and we all know what followed on rom that. So it is a very difficult situation, after all it is not easy to rule Russia. In the longer term the Russian Islaimist threat will not be dealt with by force alone and far too much force has been used in the North alone and this cannot go on. The Russian Government cannot go on believing that they can simply blast the rebels out of the barrel of a gun. That will be the difficulty for and with Russia. So much trouble is going to come out of Russia out of the North particularly. Crimea after all has a lot of Muslims who have been heavily suppressed since 2014.

The long term effects of that sort of treatment is yet to revel themselves. What I am trying to say then is that we should not be taken in by Russian stability. They do not always know best for themselves and I think that that is true for any country, that sometimes foreigners can see what is happening clearer than the nation itself. We have had enough troubles with Northern Ireland to learn that simply suppressing without talking does not work. You have to be clever about it and I do not think that the Russians have been very clever at all. They have let loose a thug in Chechen and since his father died, Kadyrov has been a real brut. It is thought that he behaves as a law unto himself even outside Chechen.

John Dobson: Hello, I am a former Moscow diplomat. I was there in the 90s when all of this sort of thing happened. My question relates to Chechnya. With the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq there is going to be quite a lot of Jihads returning so this is going to be rather tested. Do you see real problems arising within the next 3 years?

Robert Service: I do indeed. That is exactly what I am driving at. Of all the European countries, Russia was the only nation to deport its Jihadists. I mean we had little girls from Hackney jumping on aeroplanes against their parents’ wishes, but the FSB seems, I have actually got it in my book. There is retry strong circumstantial evidence for this. It actually gave them plane tickets to go to Turkey knowing that there was this so called green corridor there for them to join Jihad elsewhere in the Middle East. This is going to be a problem for them. I can’t see how it can be anything else. They will have to kill them all and they will have to be much more effective than they currently are. I agree with you that we talk so much about Chechnya because it is such a bloody saw but there are many other areas in the North affected. How long is it going to be before grouping arrive like it happened in Bradford here in our own country? Why is Russia going to be able to be immune from these developments? Putin and the intelligence leaders are placing their premium on force. There is little going on, nt enough even in this country but there is less going on in the Russian federation.  We have to take a broad view on this. Jihadism is not new to Russia as it is new to us for example. It has been there in the 19th century, it was there in the 18th century. Russia is not immune. I think that the problem will get worse and we are loving just at the beginning of it.

Question: from your survey of Russia’s historical engagement with the Islamic world do you find that Russia tends to take into account sectarian differences or does it perceive the Islamic world as a more *** community?

Robert Service: Do you know I don’t get much of a feeling that Russia is too bothered at the moment about the risks that I think it is running? I looked at the politburo records for the 1980s and when they discussed religion, they far more discussed Islam that Christianity. Islam was becoming a threating phenomenon to communism and I don’t think that they even mentioned the secretin divisions and I think that is because so many of the Soviet Union’s Muslims are Sunnis not shires and surveys have been done to see if Muslims have been agitated by the pro shire foreign policy however it does not seem at the moment there is much of a reaction. However, these things change.

Question: You described the foreign policy as being pro shire but do you think that it is a matter of which states are willing to work with Russia or do you think that it is a deliberate decision to work with pro shire states after all you men…

Robert Service: I did not mean to imply that it was a deliberate pro Shia orientation. It’s just the way that it has turned out. It is remarkable how the Russians have made friends with (inaudible) he was told that he was wasting his time and that communism was domed. He went back to Moscow and had a good laugh about that. The Iranians I think have been able to name their terms for the friendship. It has been a mural accommodation between Russia and Iran.

Question: Very interesting thesis. You state that Russia is overreacting herself in the Crimea and I just wonder how much that applies to central Asia? I reference in particular to Uzbekistan, where you can’t go for a few miles without being stopped by a patrol or the army and there seems to be very tight control and the real radicals have been thrown out and they have probably joined ISIS, but the people themselves are relatively open almost Bosnian in their faith and I don’t know if there is an underlying infrastructure that could cause a radical change? I may be totally wrong however my feeling is, certainly the people that I have come across is that they are not going to be susceptible to that kind of radicalism.

Robert Service: I think that that is a good point. Basically I think along the same lines. I think that what I am trying to say is that the status quo should not be regarded as permanent. If the countries of former soviet, central Asia become impoverished then the appeal of an over radical Islam will increase. I think that the same could be said in Russia itself. I think that we really need to take the long view with this. Russia has accommodated itself to Islam at home and abroad, but she has done so in a very jagged way and sometime in a counterproductive fashion. The automatic support of dictatorships in Central Asia being a casing point. But of course there is a sort of dictatorship in Moscow, so it would be hard to expect a dictator to advise further dictators to go easy. That is not the rule of historical development. I take your point about that. I think that you are absolutely right to enter a note of caution.

Question: Thank you. Mine is a question on the investment and business angles of (inaudible) they have invested in Egypt recently in the exploit of oil and gas. What do you think it is trying to achieve in allowing Islamic countries to invest?

Robert Service: I think that they are in a very dangerous position economically at the moment and they would welcome investment from anyone of any religious orientation. Putin was the luckiest Russia ruler since the 1970s. The oil and gas systems really highlight the fail of reform in the early 2000. This was seen in the early 200s when Putin was halfway towards reform before he simply gave up. So I think there in an economic calusac.  (inaudible) refuses to have anything to do with the government on the grounds that it is making too many geostrategic mistakes I think, that is man that is not saying that we don’t need democracy. He was saying that we need the rule of law and we need better conditions for foreign direct investment. We need to make other changes other than democratisation. Putin may however go back to some type of half reform like what was taking place in the early 2000s. I mean he is allowed to do any of these things publically. I mean it is not like China. Russia still has debate. That is important. One has to avoid chartering the conditions in Russia the web is not free but is nowhere near as unfree as the Chinese web is.  I would say that they are desperate at the moment. I mean look at their sovereign wealth fund that they built up in the mid-200s, it has simply been reduced to a pitiful level. It was something that they modelled on Norway and through their geostrategic choices it has frittered away. I really don’t think that it is enough for the Russian government to say that West picked on us. The West picks on every country. Western countries pick on each other. It is the way that the world is. One can’t be a great power and have a sort of (inaudible) it is tough being a modern power. Let us never forget that.

Question: First of all, I share your views on Robert Conquest. I had reason to look back again at Harvest of Sorrow one of the first big exposures of collectivisation of Ukraine and to some extent we are today living with those consequences. My question is really on terrorism. To what extent should we be worried that the Putin government goes beyond its borders to pursue terrorism whether it be in the South or the Western Balkans where its fear is perhaps exaggerated by through its concern it acts hastily. I don’t know if you can explore that a little.

Robert Service: I don’t know about Serbia. It is clear that was they were doing before the legislation of the early 2006 indicated that they had no inhabitations about anti-terrorist activity beyond their own borders. Under the laws of 2006 they gave themselves the right to pursue terrorism wherever it works around the world and this was seen in the case of Litvinenko who was seen as an enemy against the Putin administration. He eliminated him. I certainly don’t know enough to say anything clever about Serbia. I mean that it is pretty clear that they have an interest in provoking instability in Europe, weakening Europe as a unified force it not just the Russians that are doing this the British have their own way of doing thin and they tend to supporting the political far right. But about terrorism are you saying that they are supporting terrorist groups in…

Question: No it is that they are supporting it indirectly, so for example if an act oversea. So was their evidence of a group working overseas that had an anti-Russia agenda?

Robert Service: I think that we are in a period, I am not avoiding the question, but I think that one has to look at this in terms of what someone wants from the existing world situation and I think that they want to rules to be rewritten I think that they are saying you have to accept that the rule book will be co-composed by the Russian and that you have written the rules since 1991 and we are now telling you that the rules have to be re-written. I think that it is a very foolish way of conducting, looking after their interest. I think that in that in the long term Russia’s great tension will be against its southern border and it is going to need allies, string allies and that in the long term there is really only one which is the Western alliance. This is the way that I think Putin will be looked at in 20 years’ time it will be that he has missed a chance and some people like myself will conclude that the Russian were so badly handled and then others like myself in twenty years’ time will say no, no, no he had a window of opportunity for choice and he smashed it in which is my position.

Question: Thank you. Just a quick comment on the Green Corridor which you said went from Turkey. I expect that with Turkey’s improved relationship with Russia the corridor is now closed. So was it a one-way ticket to Jihadi heaven? – I wanted to ask you about how you rated the threat within some of the bigger Russian cities. Many people live and work in these cities and there is a lot of illegal smuggling so I would like to hear your views on that and if the Chair would permit me to ask one more question. I would very much like to ask one on Syria and I wonder what you think Russia long term plan is here? Where do you think Russia hopes to be in two or three years?

Robert Service: Well on your first question, the debating side of the Russian administration about economic development has reformer saying that we need more migration in the short term, in the long term we have to educate our peoples so that we have a high-skill economy so there is distaste for this migration and even in the early 1990s. I think it was 1994, the Moscow city authorises introduced a decree which enabled the arrest of people who looked as if they were coming from the north illegally so that has been a problem in Russian politics since the 1990. I tend to think that these communities of migrant Muslim workers could harbour problems for the Russian authorises. On Syria we do not really know what is going to happen next it looks as if the trump administration hasn’t got a plan for direct intervention any more that the Obama administration had so the scope for Russian influence is just as wide now in 2017 as it was in 2016. You could say that if Russian influence grows in Syria then it is a noose round Russia own neck for the economic situation could prove to be dire and the Russian economy is not in a position to sustain the kind of outflow of aid that went on in the 1950s. so I think that the jury is out on what Russia needs to do.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you Bob, I am aware of the fact that we have with regret reached our allotted hour so on behalf of the Henry Jackson Society and our guests I would like to say a really big thank you to you for sharing your views with us on this topic. Thank you Bob.


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