Russian officials have had to contain their glee in monitoring recent political events in America and Europe. They appear to think their days in the cold may soon be over. Much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s wish to improve relations with Moscow, but the last news out of France appears even more auspicious to Moscow.
The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, is known for her pro-Putin sympathies. Now, with François Fillon’s nomination as the center-right candidate, both major contenders in next year’s French presidential election are favorably disposed toward Russia.
These warmer feelings towards Russia are based, mainly, on changing threat perceptions in the West. Since the emergence of the Islamic State and the proliferation of terrorist attacks in Europe and America, many Europeans and Americans appear to view Moscow’s aggression against its neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia, as an increasingly esoteric problem.
Particularly after Russia’s intervention in Syria, even on the right many now view Russia not as a threat to the West but as a natural ally in defeating the jihadi threat.
These warmer feelings towards Russia are based, mainly, on changing threat perceptions in the West.
While this notion is gaining popularity, it is at best the triumph of hope over experience, and at worst a dangerous delusion. Russia’s interaction with radical Islam over two decades shows that it is part of the problem, not the solution. In fact, leaders in Moscow have a track record of manipulating radical Islam whenever that has suited their purposes – including systematic collusion with Islamic extremists. A few examples illustrate this policy.
Exhibit one is the twenty-year insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. In this conflict, the forces fighting for independence from Russia were divided between secular nationalists and Islamic radicals. Because the secular nationalists enjoyed considerable legitimacy both in the West and among the local population, Moscow actively encouraged the growth of the jihadi elements, which were disliked locally and anathema to the West.
Moscow worked hard to kill off the leaders of Chechnya’s secular nationalists. By contrast, there is compelling evidence of collusion between Russia’s secret services and the region’s most notorious radicals, such as Shamil Basayev and Arbi Barayev, and of systematic Russian infiltration of the radical Islamic groups from the North Caucasus.
As Russia imposed a brutal proxy regime in Chechnya, it sought to leave Chechens and foreigners alike with a binary choice: tolerate the brutal Kadyrov regime, or side with the jihadis.
Russia’s interaction with radical Islam over two decades shows that it is part of the problem, not the solution.
Exhibit two is the case of Russia’s foreign fighters in Syria. Ahead of the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, held next to the North Caucasus, Moscow in spite of its infiltration of jihadi networks faced an acute risk of terrorist attacks. So, as Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Milashina has showed, Russia’s Federal Security Service organized a “pipeline” to facilitate the export of North Caucasian radicals to fight in Syria. Would-be fighters were provided passports and safe passage; some were recruited by Russian intelligence services.
Indeed, foreign fighters from Russia have reached higher in the hierarchy of the Islamic State than any other foreign fighters, and work alongside Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist officers who – similarly – have deep connections to Moscow dating to the Soviet period. Is this a coincidence? The exact nature of these relationships is by nature murky, but the level of state infiltration of the jihadi circles in Russia at the very least raises serious questions about Moscow’s links to the Islamic State.
But, critics may counter, has not Russia’s intervention in Syria served to wipe out these jihadis? Again, while this is the Russian rhetoric, the record shows otherwise. Never mind that Russia has tried, falsely, to take credit for the American drone strikes that have decimated the Islamic State leadership.
By now, it is widely established that Russian airstrikes have not primarily targeted the Islamic State at all, but other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, as in Aleppo. In reality, Moscow is taking a page from the playbook in Chechnya: by eliminating the rebel groups, it strives to mold a situation that presents a binary choice, and where the only alternative to the Assad regime is the Islamic State.
Exhibit three is Afghanistan, where Moscow since last year established contacts with the Taliban insurgency, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Citing the need to fight the Islamic State franchise in the country, Moscow began intelligence sharing programs with the Taliban, and provided this jihadi group with international legitimacy.
Even Russia’s claims to be a bulwark against Islamic radicalization in nearby Central Asia fails to hold up to scrutiny. In fact, it is by now established that most Central Asians fighting in Syria or Iraq are not radicalized in their home countries, where governments have a solid track record of countering radicalization.
In fact, the large majority of Central Asian recruits to Islamic radical movements have been radicalized while toiling as temporary and often illegal workers in Russia itself. Far from being a bulwark against extremism, Russia is domestically an incubator of radical Islam.
This bleak picture raises the question: if Russia is not fighting Islamic extremism, then what are its real goals? The answer is twofold. First, in places a different as Chechnya and Syria, Russia actively tries to shape the actors on the battlefield to leave a binary choice between Islamic extremists and brutal strongmen dependent on Moscow.
Second, in theaters as diverse as Afghanistan and Syria, Russia’s focus is squarely to undermine the national security interests of the United States. In Afghanistan, Russia is supporting the Taliban against Islamic State; while in Syria it claims to fight ISIS, but in fact ignores it and instead targets other rebel groups. The common denominator? Russia alternatively bolsters America’s main enemy, or actively targets its local allies.
The notion that Russia is, or could be, an ally against the threat of radical Islam is a dangerous delusion. Russia’s record makes it clear that it sees America, not Islamic extremism, as its main enemy. So long as Vladimir Putin runs Russia, Russia will remain part of the problem, not the solution.