Letter From the Editors
It is hard to say whether age grants wisdom to the leader of a country. We can observe with more certainty that statesmen learn with time the limits of their power. Joe Biden, America’s oldest president, was already a second-term senator preparing for the SALT‑II negotiations when the Iranian Revolution made political Islam a permanent factor in global politics. Perhaps this perspective gives him a different set of priorities than his three immediate predecessors.
The Russian authors of this week’s feature take a similar long view of the turbulent 20 years since 9/11, placing them, intuitively, between the decades of events leading up to them and the geopolitical tasks of the present. Aleksei Malashenko couches the problem thus: “Why was 9/11 inevitable? Why is terrorism inevitable? Because it is a consequence of the evolution of human society, and the complex relations between civilizations. They coexist. They rub against each other, often painfully. . . . The extreme manifestation of this friction is terrorism.”
Georgy Bovt expands the view of this “friction” beyond civilizational conflict to include the increasing death toll from non-Islamic terrorism, as well as the trillions of dollars that Western states have spent on counterterrorism and additional security costs. In exchange for an endless hemorrhaging of blood and treasure, the governments of these countries (as well as those of Russia and China) have claimed the authority to permanently surveil their citizens’ movements, finances and online activities. This surveillance has reached such proportions that, Bovt says, “you can’t help thinking that had the 9/11 terrorist attack not happened, it would have had to be invented.”
Biden’s apparent impatience with futile quagmires after leaving Afghanistan has given Moscow a tentative hope for what Vladimir Frolov calls a “new détente.” Sergei Lavrov, in particular, welcomed the strategic reorientation laid out by the US president in his Aug. 31 statement on the Afghan withdrawal. Frolov writes that, to Lavrov, “Biden looks like a man who keeps his word, a man you can trust. Unlike his predecessors, he really wants the US to limit itself to strategic defense and focus on ‘nation-building at home.’ ” While there are few details available, the two countries’ militaries have been mulling the prospect of cooperating on Afghan security issues from Russian bases in Central Asia.
If Joe Biden has learned patience and moderated expectations from his years in government, he may be teaching these skills to his young Ukrainian counterpart. The Russian press notes that ahead of his Sept. 1 White House meeting, Vladimir Zelensky had been hoping for his country to obtain major non-NATO ally status or even a NATO Membership Action Plan, as well as hard guarantees for compensation if Russia uses Nord Stream 2 to cut Ukraine out of Europe’s gas supply chain. Instead, Frolov and Mikhail Pogrebinsky agree, Biden limited US support to boilerplate reassurances and just enough cash to avoid negative attention from Congress. “It is no surprise that immediately after the talks, when Zelensky spoke to the press, he gave the sense that that part of the conversation had disappointed him,” Pogrebinsky notes.
In the spirit of refocusing from military to domestic priorities, Sergei Shoigu has an ambitious new plan that presumably does not involve little green men: “to build three to five industrial centers in Siberia with a population of 300,000 to 1 million people.” The plan involves massive infrastructure investment centered on a main artery, the “Siberian Cedar Road,” as well as public-private partnerships to develop the region’s raw materials into high value-added processed goods. The biggest problem, aside from the incredible cost, is how to convince people to move there. Especially since, as Andrei Vaganov writes, Russian demographic experts say the country has crossed a dire threshold with birth rates dropping over 25% since 2015. Will Russia overcome this hurdle and build a Siberian economic miracle? We should know for certain in another 20 years.