Kremlin’s interest in Silk Route 2.0 | Future on the roads of history

The Russians were conceived as people who had to be “helped” and “taught” like a mother would characterize what to do with her newborn child. Browse through the archives of New York Times, Wall Street Journal, pick up old tapes of CNN and other American news channels from the 90s. Majority of the coverage of Russia was centred on a virtually colonial-like narrative.- Siddharth Pathak*

Russia of today, and of yesterday is as much a part of the complex series of dynamics that were woven around the Eurasian trade routes (a la Silk Roads), as much as the current invigorating emergence of Silk Roads are made possible by the existence of the modern day geographical progenitor of the Mongols, in the form of the modern day Russia.

The lands that today’s Russia commands suzerainty over, were fundamental and integral components in the older trade networks, the Silk Roads of yesterday.

The Volga Trade Route | Image Credits: PBS

It is not a coincidence that one of the earliest descriptions of Vikings was recorded by an Arab, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who vividly accounted his descriptions of Viking traders he came across in towns on the Volga river. Vikings were quite integral in the early slave trade that had spawned in Europe in which Europeans sold their women and children to the rich Islamic world. And Vikings were quite prominent in the trade along the Volga river. For a chronological reference, I am referring to the time period around 1000 CE.

Coming to a relatively more recent era, there are detailed accounts and records of Indian traders who lived in the city of Astrakhan, alongside Armenians, Azeris, Iranians, and of course, Russians. Stephen Dale’s account “Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade 1600–1750”, presents a vivid portrayal of the Indian community in Astrakhan. There is a story of an unnamed merchant who forayed to as far as Kazan and Moscow to sell his goods in the 1640s before the Russian Empire banned foreign traders selling material outside of designated areas. Dale also mentions how Indians began cleverly sidestepping these restrictions – they employed Russian agents in other cities, they forayed into banking and bankrolled Tatar traders to sell in areas they were not allowed to sell directly. Some even Russified their names – in the archives from that time, there is an entry of a “Ramdas Dzhasuev” from Multan and a “Talaram Alimchandov” from Sindh.

Why were Indians in Astrakhan? Why were they choosing to stay and in cases of some of the more enamoured ones, even choosing to permanently stay in Astrakhan and end up marrying Russian women? For all the talk of today’s “multiculturalism”, we often implicitly pit as if prior to the modern supposedly “awakened” era, people lived in neatly separated silos.

Russia was greatly shaped by what occurred on the Silk Roads, and not only was she affected and shaped, but transmitted through the complex trade networks her influence on other regions.

And just like then, today’s ambitions of resurrecting the Silk Roads also are woven deeply into the fabric of what the present trajectory of the Russian state has been.

Even though the most enamouring symbol our mind conjures when we think of Silk Roads is the imagery of caravans and trading routes, the wider gestalt of the Silk Roads are much deeper and complex and are greatly affected by the specific experience of the countries that form a part of the array of the routes.

A common thread that underpins the vitality shown by certain countries of trying to reshape a new order, of which the trading routes are a part of, is that they all are displaying a recalcitrant position and are breaking away from the hegemonic grasp of the West over the world. It is in part a result of the incredible transfer of wealth from the West to the East and that according expression of an agency rooted in self interest, in part a response to the abysmal record of nincompoop bureaucrats in making things worse by intervening (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria – in a more just world the neoconservatives who led the horrific failure in Iraq and then proceeded to destabilize Libya and Syria, would have been hung, drawn and quartered, and the fact that they haven’t and in fact are still held as some experts show you the subtle contradiction that’s pushing the proverbial others outside of the West deciding that they consider what London, Washington, Paris has to say as largely irrelevant), in part it is also led by a very deep rooted frustration at constantly being on the end of pathetic patronizing and asymmetry in terms of understanding each other’s worlds.

Since the question concerns Russia specifically, I’ll leave listing specific examples of other countries which display the points above.

Consider Russia. The Soviet Empire broke up, followed by a haphazard attempt to jam through a democratic state. And the Russian people who expected to be the recipient of careful American help to establish a modern nation-state containing similar structures as the one in America were instead treated to the neo-colonial portrayal and patronizing. The Russians were conceived as people who had to be “helped” and “taught” like a mother would characterize what to do with her newborn child. Browse through the archives of New York Times, Wall Street Journal, pick up old tapes of CNN and other American news channels from the 90s. Majority of the coverage of Russia was centred on a virtually colonial-like narrative.

Stephen Cohen, an American scholar of Russia whose been covering Russia since the Khrushchev days actually characterized this entire period as a “crusade”. Failed Crusade is his quite spirited account of the 1990s messianic mission all the facets of America conceived in regards to Russia. And just like the infamous actual Crusades, this outward display of a messianic, humanitarian exterior meshed with an almost barbaric despicable behaviour to the recipients (Russians in this case, in place of the Arabs).

And it was the emergence of Vladimir Putin in 1997, the current Czar who put an end to this egregious loot that was taking place, that began Russia’s journey towards becoming a “recalcitrant power” that Russia was described recently (13 November 2017) in a speech made by Bruno Kahl, the President of BND, the German intelligence services at the Hanns Siedel Foundation.

The Economist captioned Putin’s image as ‘A tsar is born’

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that it was perfectly determinable what was going to occur in 2017 when Putin assumed power 20 years ago. But the experience of the Russian people in 1990s when they suffered economic turmoil comparable to the American experience of the Great Depression, and that this was accompanied by a very self-serving construct of a colonial narrative which in turn was either masking or pushing inanely stupid, and idiotic decisions by bureaucrats in Washington, acted as a catalyst that seeped seeds of doubt on part of Russia.

These suspicions were only self-reinforced by more unchecked reckless acts by the West. While the shitshow was manifesting in Iraq, several infamous “Color Revolutions” were being orchestrated along the peripheries of Russian borders. NATO was courting more countries from the former Warsaw Pact sphere, with some of them even joining the organization. Incrementally, this interference and spread of influence made its way towards Eurasia. In Georgia, with heavy backing from the neoconservative infantile, a man by the name Saakashvili “won” power. He very quickly rose tensions with Russia and then began toying with the idea of Georgia joining NATO.

In 2007 at a conference in Munich, Putin very clearly outlined and bluntly foreshadowed the break of Russia from the shared destiny of the West. In fact for a much more deeper understanding of how the emergence of the new land routes are not just a facile efficiency driven nonsense dribble of just trade, but the manifestation of a wide array of complex socio-political events and experiences, and not just the ones in present but also the past, Putin’s speech in 2007 serves as a ideal framework to understand the themes, the confluences of breakaway forces that birthed the elevation of Silk Roads.

Anyway, few blurbs from Putin’s speech.

It is well known that international security comprises much more than issues relating to military and political stability. It involves the stability of the global economy, overcoming poverty, economic security and developing a dialogue between civilisations.

This universal, indivisible character of security is expressed as the basic principle that “security for one is security for all”. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the first few days that the Second World War was breaking out: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”

Stability is the cornerstone of trade. Through the sheer force of will, and steely determination and more often than not, vicious ruthlessness towards non-compliance, a stable regime is shaped, which then allows the mercantile networks to develop. The early history of the Portuguese traders on the Indian subcontinent are all very, very negative. Early Portuguese traders had a usual tendency to piss off the Indian states in the South. A court historian in the Sultanate of Bijapur adjoining Portuguese controlled Goa even called for a jihad against the barbaric firangis.

But the brutish traders forced upon a realm of relative stability, on which drew other mercantile networks.

So Putin talking about stability is quite central to the development of newer trade routes. You can achieve stability through mutual diplomacy, or the Portuguese method (no offence to any modern Portuguese reading this – if it makes you any happy, crack a stereotypical joke about me and cows and I won’t be offended).

And also the phrase “dialogue between civilizations.” It ties in very well with the long list of reasons that have pushed Russia to depart any ties with the West.

Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. Mr Teltschik mentioned this very gently. And no less people perish in these conflicts – even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!

Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

It is important to keep in mind that these words were spoken by the Russian President not a few years ago, but 10 years ago.

Since the speech was made, you had the whole fracas over Ukraine develop in 2014. Western countries organized a putsch, got virtual neo-nazi parties to power, and did this with the clear goal of trying to break Ukraine away from the Russian sphere of influence.

And this, I speculate, was the final straw that convinced Putin and largely, Russia, that there simply was no possibility in which Russia would be accepted as a respectful, sovereign with its own unique civilization into the ethos of the West. This is evident if you browse through Putin’s speeches. They contain more mentions of “South”, “Asia”, “China” than they did prior to the Ukrainian mess. You can also see this distinct reassertion and a defiance of Western expectations of what Russia ought to do, in quite openly interfering with the outcome what European and American elements would have preferred in Syria. But more of all, you see it in the fact that the discussions and negotiations about Syria’s future are all taking place largely with a very distinct Western absence. Initial discussions were all between China, Russia, Iran, and Syria, and these talks were held in Kazakhstan.

Delegates to the International Meeting on Syrian Settlement in Astana, Kazakhstan hold a news conference | Image Credits: Reuters

You see the vigour powering the want to build the Silk Roads, also manifest in the manner in which Russia is going about using carrots and sticks in the Middle East.

Although this bit was hardly given the coverage it deserved, Russia organized a conference of the various Islamic schools of thought, in Chechnya, in which it was deemed that Salafism and the strain of Wahhabism that is the official religion of Gulf Arab states, were non-Islamic.

In a piece written by someone who I deeply revere Robert Fisk, titled, “For the first time, Saudi Arabia is being attacked by both Sunni and Shia leaders”, Fisk writes, “The Saudis step deeper into trouble almost by the week. Swamped in their ridiculous war in Yemen, they are now reeling from an extraordinary statement issued by around two hundred Sunni Muslim clerics who effectively referred to the Wahhabi belief – practised in Saudi Arabia – as “a dangerous deformation” of Sunni Islam. The prelates included Egypt’s Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb of al-Azhar, the most important centre of theological study in the Islamic world, who only a year ago attacked “corrupt interpretations” of religious texts and who has now signed up to “a return to the schools of great knowledge” outside Saudi Arabia.”

It is not a coincidence that you see the emergence of land-based routes which circumvent the seas and the West controlled dominions entirely, at a time when the countries that form the Silk Roads are becoming increasingly assertive, and are responding more defiantly to some of the more unfortunate incidents they have been on the receiving end of, from the West.

Russia’s reaction, then, in summary, is that Silk Roads are a manifestation of her increasing assertiveness, and the East being brought more closely towards coordination in face of a common boot heel of the haphazard Western decisions.




*Siddharth Pathak is a frequent commentator on International Policies. He also holds a B.A from University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.

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