Moscow’s plan to decoy the West

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin
Vida Press

Russia‘s foreign policy guru Yevgeny Primakov recently published an article in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, titled “Islamic State is a real threat”, calling for the United States of America and Russia to join forces against international terrorism.

While Primakov does not hold any significant post in the Russian government at the moment, the former prime minister, foreign minister and intelligence chief is considered a particularly influential behind-the-scenes figure in Russian foreign policy.

Professor Egdūnas Račius of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas says that Primakov’s suggestion helps Russia kill two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, the ranks of Islamic State fighters include up to 1,000 recruits from Russia, according to the BBC. It means that, sooner or later, Moscow will have to face the threat of terrorism at home. And since similar worries pervade moods in the US, France and the UK, Russia is offering a helping hand.

On the other hand, the issue is a handy way to patch up relations with Western nations and draw attention away from Ukraine, convincing the West it wants Moscow as a friend more than it cares about what it does in Eastern Europe.

Opportunity for Moscow

The threat of Islamic State (IS) is taken very seriously in the US and other countries, as evidenced by Washington’s efforts to gather as big a coalition against the organization as possible. Some 40 states are said to be inclined to join the anti-IS group in one capacity or other.

Russia sees it as a chance not to be missed to show that the West needs Moscow. “In essence, the situation is quite serious and needs the UN Security Council members to join in continuous efforts against Islamic State,” Primakov says in his article, the implication being that, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto rights, Russia can make or break these efforts.

“This is pure calculation,” professor Račius comments on Russia’s apparent good will. First, it helps refocus the debate on the Russia-West relations away from the Ukraine crisis. Second, Russian nationals currently fighting for IS will eventually come back home.

“According to reports, there are almost 1,000 fighters from the Russian Federation in the IS ranks. Most likely, they are from North Caucasus. This presents a challenge to Russia, one that it must address one way or another – alone or in cooperation with the US and other countries. It’s something Russia needs.

“Even so, Russia must be thinking strategically and conclude that the IS threat is more distant than that of Ukraine turning to the West. In other words, after dealing with Ukraine, Moscow wants to address the jihadist challenge,” Račius says.

Tomas Janeliūnas of the International Relations and Political Science Institute at Vilnius University thinks that it would suit Russia very well to draw the attention of Western leaders away from Ukraine and get them to concentrate on the Middle East.

“Islamic State is a way to make the US look away from Ukraine, because it is difficult to concentrate equally on two problems, especially in terms of military action. Moreover, Americans have been preoccupied with the terrorism threat for over a decade. Images of people being decapitated are emotionally shocking, ordinary Americans feel more affected by them than something that’s happening in Ukraine,” Janeliūnas says.

He notes, however, that Russia poses a greater systematic threat to the West than Islamic State. The latter, he says, can destabilize the Middle East, while Russia’s unchecked expansionism can destroy the entire Western security system which centres around NATO collective defence.

“The threat posed by Russia, unlike IS, is not regional. It threatens the hegemonic status of the US and the survival of current international system. Fighting an islamic army of 30,000 is much easier and simpler, so [US President Barack] Obama is right when he says he has all the possibilities to win. Meanwhile resisting Russia requires more resolve and awareness of the threat on the part of ordinary Americans. So far, many still think it is a local, regional issue,” Janliūnas says.

US does not need Moscow’s help to defeat IS

Will the West accept Moscow’s offer with strings attached? Račius thinks that, in all likelihood, it will not.

“Russian help in the fight against Islamic State would cost the United States dearly. Doubtlessly, Moscow would come in with a huge package of conditions. Russia would not only demand from Americans to forget Ukraine, but also to pull back NATO forces as far as possible from its borders. Russia would play the Eastern Europe card, if the US decided to ask for help,” according to professor Račius.

But does Washington need Moscow’s support to fight 30,000 islamists? “To my mind, a new situation is emerging: active military involvement of conservative Arab states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is something we haven’t seen before. The US must be particularly happy about it,” Račius thinks.

The US-led coalition is said to involve some 40 countries, including key allies like the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“I see no reason why the US should show subservience to Russia and beg for anything. I understand why Primakov would want the US to desire friendship [with Russia], but not why the US should do it. It doesn’t seem like the US were losing this war. If, in two or three years, Washington decides it cannot live up to the challenge without Russia’s help, then it would be the time for concessions,” Račius believes.

Different reasons for opposing IS

Professor Terry H. Randolph of Palm Beach State College agrees. He says that the US and Russia resent Islamic State for different reasons and those differences are an obstacle for Moscow-Washington cooperation.

“The US and Russia share an enemy, ISIS, but the US and Russia act against ISIS for completely different reasons, so I believe it would be too optimistic to think that the US and Russia could come into a coalition,” he tells DELFI.

He explains that Russia opposes Islamic State because it wants to preserve Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, whereas the US supports the Free Syrian Army which is fighting against the current government in Damascus. In other words, Washington is pursuing several goals in the Middle East: it wants to support moderate rebels in Syria, who are fighting against al Assad, to weaken Islamic State and to stabilize situation in Iraq.

Washington wants to see strong and stable governments in Iraq and Syria to provide a counterweight to Iran, one of the main sources of nuisance in the region with its nuclear programme. Since al Assad regime is seen in the US as Iran’s client, it is unlikely that Americans will change their take on this point, professor Randolph says.

Moscow-Washington partnership could be possible, if Russia stopped supporting al Assad and convinced Iran to stop its nuclear programme. However, that is even less likely.

“I do not think that the US will make exceptions over Ukraine’s right to self-determination and sovereignty in exchange for Russia’s help in the Middle East. But I’m afraid the real barrier to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine will be Russia’s own resolve whether it wants to risk even more international isolation from the West, sustaining harm to its economy and prestige,” he speculates.

Middle East more important to the US than Ukraine

Professor Randolph admits that, among American priorities, stability in the Middle East trumps Russia’s revisionism, even though that does not mean that Washington is complacent about the threat Russia poses in Ukraine.

Turmoil in the Middle East has a more immediate effect on US national and economic security, he says: if radical extremist organizations can gain control in some states in the region, they will have at their disposal large oil resources and, consequently, massive financial streams to fund terrorist activities in the region and the entire world.

“Meanwhile the Russian aggression poses threat to the world order based on international law and the principle of sovereignty. The threat has less to do with Ukraine than with the risk we would be facing if a country like Russia were allowed to get away with violating international norms of acceptable behaviour,” professor Randolph says.

He adds that, to most Americans, the Russian threat seems very distant compared to that of Islamic State – TV viewers could see islamist fighters decapitate their compatriots. These images helped President Obama rally support for war against Islamic State.

“On the other hand, it was very difficult to convince many Europeans to do something more and resist Russia’s aggression – even after Russian-supported separatists callously downed a plane with so many European citizens,” according to Randolph.

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