Donald Trump is more than a match for Vladimir Putin
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Russian President Vladimir Putin governs as a strongman, but there are significant holes in his armor.  He has three serious problems: he is dependent on American and NATO military activity in Afghanistan to control the Taliban; he has a wolf by the ears with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov; and he has a critical demographic problem which threatens the very identity of the Russian people.

Afghanistan and the Taliban

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Without NATO forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, radical Wahhabist forces will spread northward and take control of central Asian populations and resources. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are rich in oil and gas; gold, uranium, and other precious and strategic metals; and are at the center of the opium, heroin, and black arms trades.  They depend on Moscow to contain their violent Islamist factions, but Moscow is stretched thin. If the Taliban regain control in Afghanistan, the northern tribes, ethnically Tajik and Uzbek, will immediately export jihad to cousins in their resource-rich neighbors.

 

Chechen problem

Chechnya’s rebellions against the central authority of Moscow have resulted in some of the bloodiest events in recent Russian history.  Best known are the 2004 massacre of hundreds of civilians, including 186 schoolchildren, in Beslan; the 2002 seizure of the Dubrovka Theater in which 130 civilians died after rescuers subdued the militants by sleeping gas; and the 1999 apartment bombings in three cities that led to the second Chechen war.  

At the outbreak of that war, the mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, broke with his people and sided with Putin.  He became the president of Chechnya until his 2004 assassination, after which his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, took his place. Ramzan made a bargain with Putin to repress violence in Chechnya in exchange for complete control and autonomy in Chechnya, and influence in other predominantly Muslim republics within the Russian Federation such as Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Dagestan, Ingushetia and others.

Kadyrov’s control is so great that the Islamic republics have become massive no-go zones for ethnic Russians and Russian police, dwarfing the “Muslim ghettos” in European cities that Russian television loves to highlight.  In addition, Kadyrov has reintroduced polygamy, officially outlawed in Russia but recently tolerated among Muslim citizens; banned the production of alcohol; and mandated that women wear the hijab. 

At the same time, Kadyrov is flaunting his power in the rest of Russia.  Chechen hit men carry out assassinations of enemies of Kadyrov, even in Moscow; in a show of professional courtesy, they also target the enemies of Putin.  Adam Delimkhanov, an MP and Kadyrov’s cousin, fought with another MP inside the Duma.  He suffered no consequences, in spite of dropping his gun during the fight. More ominous, the new national guard force, formed to protect the president from “color revolutions” like those that brought down governments in Ukraine and Georgia, is composed largely of Chechens, in a move reminiscent of the Bolshevik practice of using Baltic troops for fear ethnic Russians wouldn’t fire on crowds of other Russians. In 2013, Putin stopped an investigation into the brutal kidnapping, torture and extortion of a wealthy man by members of Kadyrov’s personal bodyguard. Several senior FSB officers resigned, publicly criticizing Putin’s betrayal of Russians, and even of his cherished FSB, in appeasing Kadyrov.

Chechen dominance extends beyond culture and security into tax and budget policies. There is a massive transfer of wealth from the federal state to Chechnya, via Russian development money. Russians are proud of having paid no tribute to anyone since the 15th Century departure of the Golden Horde. But Putin is paying tribute now to the Chechens and Dagestanis in the form of subsidies and tax policy, because he fears them.

“The Third Rome”

Putin enjoys being compared to the Tsars, and promotes Moscow as “the Third Rome.” He cultivates an image as champion of traditional Orthodox Christianity. His government has come under international censure for its harsh repression of homosexuality, which he justifies in the name of protecting traditional Russian and Orthodox values, but his true concern is the sensitivities of the growing Muslim population.  

The net birth rate among ethnic Russians is falling by nearly 1 million per year, while the net growth among Muslims is over 500,000 per year in Chechnya alone. The Moscow Cathedral Mosque, over 100 years old, reopened last year after renovations that enlarged it by twenty times. It now can hold over 10,000 worshippers, but that is a twentieth of last year’s Kurban Bayram (Eid Al Adha) worshippers filling Moscow’s streets.  

Meanwhile, Russia, the traditional protector of Eastern Christians, attacked fellow Orthodox Georgia and Ukraine. This not only exposes Putin’s hypocrisy, but spotlights the shakiness of his military alliances. The members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization have the same demographic problems as Russia. Belarus, in spite of its large land mass, has a small population, as does Armenia, and both countries are tiring of Putin’s leadership.  That leaves him with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. (Uzbekistan suspended membership in 2012 when it allowed American bases to support the Afghan campaign.) Soviet leaders used to worry that rank and file soldiers would revolt, because they were largely Muslim while the officers were Orthodox and Russian. Russian military leaders have the same worry, except it now extends to the officers as well.

Foreign policy sages are fond of pointing out that Russians play chess while Americans play poker, but either game offers a fitting analogy. When Trump sits down with Putin, Trump has far more advantages than has been reported. Trump has shown repeatedly that he plays a very shrewd game: he defeated the establishments of both American political parties, circumvented the mainstream media, and has proven the sages and chattering classes wrong at every turn. Putin, meanwhile, isn’t free in his policy making, but is constrained by demographic factors. He too plays a sharp game, but his disadvantages are systemic: he simply doesn’t have the cards (or the pieces) that Trump has.

Bart Marcois was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration, and was previously a career foreign service officer.


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