Of all the illusions surrounding U.S.–Russian relations, none is more dangerous than the notion that Russia can be a partner in the war on terrorism. Yet U.S. President-elect Donald Trump appears to be willing to make a massive bet on Russia’s good intentions. In a recent interview with Time, Trump said that working with Russia to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) can help the United States save both lives and money. “Why not get along with Russia?” he asked. “They’re effective and smart.”
But Islamist extremism is an ideology. It cannot be defeated only militarily. It needs to be discredited, which makes the tactics and principles that guide the struggle against it of paramount importance. It is for this reason that a partnership with Russia in the war on terrorism will be courting a crisis far worse than the one that already exists.
If in the West the individual is seen as an end in himself, in Russia he is raw material for the fulfilling of whatever political schemes are conceived by the state and its leaders. It is this difference in psychology that leads Russia in a national security situation to behave in ways that are incompatible with U.S. values or goals—specifically to use indiscriminate violence against civilians, to cooperate with terrorists, and to act to undermine U.S. moral influence all over the world.
In Syria, Russia’s penchant for using violence against civilians has been amply demonstrated. It deliberately targets markets, hospitals, and homes. As a result, according to the London-based monitoring group Airwars, there have been 3,600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombings since Russia entered the war just over a year ago, a figure that the director of the project, Chris Woods, described as an “absolute minimum.” The group estimates that the civilian deaths caused by Russian bombings exceed those caused by the U.S.-led coalition by an eight-to-one ratio. According to the Syria Network for Human Rights, another monitoring organization, in January 2016 alone, Russian air strikes killed 679 civilians, including 94 children and 73 women. This exceeded even the number of civilians killed by the Syrian Army, which is also guilty of indiscriminate bombing. For purposes of comparison, the total number of civilians killed by ISIS in the same month was 98, and the number killed by the al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra Front was 42.
Indiscriminate killing by Russian forces is not restricted to Syria; it is long-standing Russian practice. During the First Chechen War of the 1990s, when initial hopes of destroying the Chechen resistance “in two hours” disappeared in January 1995, the Russian Army began the block-by-block leveling of an inhabited city with the help of intense artillery fire and carpet bombing. By the time the Russian army occupied Grozny on March 7, it was estimated that 27,000 civilians had been killed, most of them ethnic Russians.
The bombing of Grozny occurred under former Russin President Boris Yeltsin, but the Russian disregard for civilian casualties is arguably even worse under President Vladimir Putin. On September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists seized a school in Beslan, a city in North Ossetia, taking more than a thousand teachers, parents, and children hostage. The Putin regime refused negotiations that could have ended the crisis, and on September 3, 2004, despite the absence of hostile action, special forces attacked the gymnasium of the school with flamethrowers and grenade launchers. The attack caused an inferno and the collapse of the roof of the building. For more than two hours, the Russian general in charge forbade anyone to extinguish the fire. In the end, 332 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Most had been burned alive.
Given Russia’s record on this issue, it should have come as no surprise that, as confirmed by a report of the Dutch Safety Board, the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine by a missile fired from a Russian-made BUK antiaircraft battery. With complete disregard for the danger to innocent air passengers, the Putin regime had transferred a weapons system capable of shooting down planes flying at over 30,000 feet to an irregular separatist army fighting in an area traversed by one of the busiest commercial air corridors in the world.
A DOUBLE GAME ON TERRORISM
In addition to disregard for civilians, Russia has a long history of using terrorists for its own purposes, including while ostensibly cooperating with the United States.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, was arrested in Dagestan in 1996 while en route to Chechnya to survey the possibility that it could be used as a safe haven for Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the terrorist organization that he headed which became famous for its role in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. At the time of his arrest, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. He was also recognizable, having been shown in a massive cage on Egyptian television during his trial in connection with the assassination of Sadat. He arrived in Russia on a phony passport and claimed to be working for an Azeri trading company. The FSB sent his laptop to Moscow for forensic analysis. Yet the Russians claimed to have never known his true identity. Zawahiri ended up spending six months in jail, after which he got his laptop back, spent another ten days meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, and then left Russia for Afghanistan, where he joined Osama bin Laden and began to plan the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Another case involving possible Russian cooperation with terrorism was that of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. In March 2011, the FSB sent a warning to the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the attack, stating that he was a follower of Islamist extremism. Despite repeated requests, however, the Russians provided no further information. In January 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia on a Russian visa and spent six months in Dagestan, where two of his extremist contacts were killed in battles with Russian forces. Despite this, Tsarnaev was neither questioned nor detained in Russia and returned to the United States through passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Russia made no further effort to contact U.S. intelligence to warn of the increasing danger. At a press conference on October 27, 2016, at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Putin suggested that this was not an accident. He said that he had personally instructed the FSB to warn the United States about Tsarnaev but U.S. officials had told the Russians not to interfere. So he told the FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov, not to raise the issue with the United States anymore. The information from Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia was never shared, and a few months later, the Tsarnaevs committed the terrorist act at the Boston Marathon.
With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, there is evidence that Russia is facilitating the transfer of dangerous radicals from the North Caucasus to the war zone, where they fight for the Islamic State (ISIS). Elena Milashina, a reporter for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, made a study of the Dagestani village of Novosasitili, where, since 2011, nearly one percent of the total population—22 out of 2,500 residents—has gone to Syria. This is possible because of a “green corridor” created by the authorities. Akhyad Abdullaev, the head of the village, told Milashina that a “negotiator” serves as an intermediary between the militants and the FSB, which provides passports and helps make travel arrangements for the militants.
Among those showing up in ISIS-controlled territory are radical preachers from Dagestan. According to Joanna Paraszczuk, a blogger with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who covers the ISIS fighters from Russia, one of these is Nadir Abu Khalid, who was supposedly under house arrest in Dagestan before he suddenly appeared in Iraq. “What we have right now,” Paraszczuk said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “is a growing number of Dagestani preachers who are forming the core group of [ISIS] recruiters in Iraq.” In the meantime, the number of casualties in armed clashes between insurgent forces and security forces in the North Caucasus has declined by about 50 percent since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a sign that many members of the Islamist underground in the North Caucasus are now fighting in the Middle East.
FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT GOALS
Perhaps the most important reason why Russia cannot be a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism is that its geopolitical goals are fundamentally different from, and often opposed to, those of the United States. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine were a response to the Euromaidan revolt in Ukraine, which overthrew a regime that was supported by Russia. The example of a successful spontaneous popular revolt against a kleptocratic ruling group in a neighboring country presented a threat to the criminal system of government in Russia itself, and Putin acted to rally the population around his leadership on the basis of nationalism with the help of military aggression. In the process, he undercut the entire postwar international order and launched a war that has already cost 10,000 lives.
When Western leaders objected to Russian adventurism in Ukraine, Russian leaders began threatening them with a nuclear attack. Putin said in a documentary that aired in Russia on the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea that he was ready to put Russia’s nuclear strategic forces on high alert when Crimea was seized. At a meeting of retired U.S. and Russian generals in March 2015, the Russian delegates said that any attempt by NATO to win back Crimea for Ukraine would evoke a nuclear response, and that “the United States should understand that it would also be at risk.” On March 21, Russian ambassador to Denmark Mikhail Vanin told the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten that if Denmark carried out plans to join the NATO antimissile defense shield Danish ships might become targets for Russia’s nuclear missiles.
Russia has also attempted to intimidate the West over the Baltic republics, which are NATO allies. On April 14, 2016, a Russian SU-27 fighter jet came within 50 feet of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic Sea. The incident took place two days after a simulated Russian aerial assault against the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, with one of the jets coming to within 30 feet of the warship.
The Baltic republics pose no danger to Russia, but they are useful foils to stoke the aggressive Russian nationalism that the Putin regime uses to solidify its hold on power. The requirements of the Putin regime, in turn, pose a serious potential danger to the West. Russia cannot defeat the United States or NATO in an all-out war, but it has strategic superiority in the Baltics, where it could provoke a conflict and then threaten to use nuclear weapons, presenting NATO with a choice of escalation or backing down.
If the United States is unwise enough to try to use Russia as a partner against terrorism, it should not be misled into thinking that the Russians will take U.S. interests or global security into account. Such cooperation would involve acceding to Russian hegemony in the Middle East, no matter how much violence that creates, and abandoning U.S. friends and allies in the former Soviet space. It would also mean allowing for Russian interference in U.S. plans for strategic missile defense, which have already been met with a Russian decision to place nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad region, adjacent to Poland and Lithuania.
The safest policy for the United States is to engage with Russia only in cases, such as dealing with refugees and the evacuation of civilians, where such contact cannot be avoided. There should certainly be no quid pro quo for Russian support in the form of the sacrifice of U.S. commitments to its principles and trusted allies.
U.S. leaders should not allow themselves to be drawn into Russians’ surrealistic logic. Far more advisable is to base policy on an objective evaluation of Russian actions. Those actions make clear that Russia does not qualify as a partner of the United States but instead is seeking to reinforce the hold on power of a small corrupt ruling group with the help of a propagandized population. Accordingly, Russia needs nothing so much as to be deterred.