By Peter Zeihan STRATFOR often discusses how Russia is on a bit of a roll. The U.S. distraction in the Middle East has offered Russia a golden opportunity to re-establish its spheres of influence in the region, steadily expanding the Russian zone of control into a shape that is eerily reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. Since 2005, when this process began, Russia has clearly reasserted itself as the dominant power in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine, and has intimidated places like Georgia and Turkmenistan into a sort of silent acquiescence. But we have not spent a great amount of time explaining why this is the case. It is undeniable that Russia is a Great Power, but few things in geopolitics are immutable, and Russia is no exception.
Simply put, Russia does not have the population to sustain the country at its present boundaries. As time grinds on, Russia's capacity for doing so will decrease drastically. Moscow understands all this extremely well, and this is a leading rationale behind current Russian foreign policy: Russia's demographics will never again be as "positive" as they are now, and the Americans are unlikely to be any more distracted than they are now. So Russia is moving quickly and, more important, intelligently. Russia is thus attempting to reach some natural anchor points, e.g., some geographic barriers that would limit the state's exposure to outside powers. The Russians hope they will be able to husband their strength from these anchor points. Moscow's long-term strategy consistently has been to trade space for time ahead of the beginning of the Russian twilight; if the Russians can expand to these anchor points, Moscow hopes it can trade less space for more time. Unfortunately for Moscow, there are not many of these anchor points in Russia's neighborhood. One is the Baltic Sea, a fact that terrifies the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Another is the Carpathian Mountains. This necessitates the de facto absorption not only of Ukraine, but also of Moldova, something that makes Romania lose sleep at night. And then there are the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia — which brings us to the crisis of the moment. (click here to enlarge image) A little more than five years ago, Western nongovernmental organizations (and undoubtedly a handful of intelligence services) joined forces with some of these regional factions in Kyrgyzstan to overthrow the country's pro-Russian ruling elite in what is known as a "color revolution" in the former Soviet Union. Subsequently, Kyrgyzstan — while not exactly pro-Western — dwelled in a political middle ground the Russians found displeasing. In April, Russia proved that it, too, can throw a color revolution and Kyrgyzstan's government switched yet again. Since then, violence has wracked the southern regions of Jalal-Abad, Batken and Osh — strongholds of the previous government. In recent days, nearly 100,000 Kyrgyz residents have fled to Uzbekistan. The interim government of Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva is totally outmatched. It is not so much that her government is in danger of falling — those same mountains that make it nearly impossible for Bishkek to control Osh make it equally difficult for Osh to take over Bishkek – but that the country has de facto split into (at least) two pieces. As such, Otunbayeva — whose government only coalesced due to the Russian intervention — has publicly and directly called upon the Russians to provide troops to help hold the country together. This request cuts to the core weakness in the Russian strategy. Despite much degradation in the period after the Soviet dissolution, Russia's intelligence services remain without peer. In fact, now that they have the direct patronage of the Russian prime minister, they have proportionally more resources and influence than ever. They have proved that they can rewire Ukraine's political world to expunge American influence, manipulate events in the Caucasus to whittle away at Turkey's authority, cause riots in the Baltics to unbalance NATO members, and reverse Kyrgyzstan's color revolution. But they do not have backup. Were this the 19th century, there would already be scads of Russian settlers en route to the Fergana to dilute the control of the locals (although they would certainly be arriving after the Russian army), to construct a local economy dependent upon imported labor and linked to the Russian core, and to establish a new ruling elite. (It is worth noting that the resistance of Central Asians to Russian encroachment meant that the Russians never seriously attempted to make the region into a majority-Russian one. Even so, the Russians still introduced their own demographic to help shape the region more to Moscow's liking.) Instead, Russia's relatively few young families are busy holding the demographic line in Russia proper. For the first time in Russian history, there is no surplus Russian population that can be relocated to the provinces. And without that population, the Russian view of the Fergana — to say nothing of Kyrgyzstan — changes dramatically. The region is remote and densely populated, and reaching it requires transiting three countries. And one of these states would have something to say about that. That state is Uzbekistan.
Russian Geography, Strategy and DemographicsRussia's geography is extremely open, with few geographic barriers to hunker behind. There are no oceans, mountains or deserts to protect Russia from outside influences — or armies — and Russia's forests, which might provide some measure of protection, are on the wrong side of the country. The Russian taiga is in the north and, as such, can only provide refuge for Russians after the country's more economically useful parts have already fallen to invaders (as during the Mongol occupation). Despite its poor geographic hand, Russia has managed to cope via a three-part strategy:
- Lay claim to as large a piece of land as possible.
- Flood it with ethnic Russians to assert reliable control.
- Establish an internal intelligence presence that can monitor and, if need be, suppress the indigenous population.