Russia’s Questionable Counterterrorism Record

Why Moscow Is an Unreliable Partner for the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 2017. Mikhail Klementyev / REUTERS

In theory, Russia and the United States are on the same side in the war on terrorism. Both have suffered Islamist extremist attacks on their own soil, and both oppose the Islamic State (or ISIS). Former U.S. President Barack Obama often stated he was ready to work with Russia in Syria and in June 2016 proposed a military partnership. And his successor, President Donald Trump, has consistently said that he welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help against ISIS. On November 11, Trump and Putin confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria in a joint statement and ten days later discussed counterterrorism cooperation over the phone.

Such optimism about working with Russia on terrorism, however, is misguided. From Syria to Afghanistan, Putin has done more to encourage terrorism than fight it, with Moscow maintaining ties to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and the Taliban. Russia’s record suggests it will never be an honest broker or reliable partner for the West in combating terrorism.


To understand the folly of counting Russia as a counterterrorism ally, one need look no further than Syria, where from the beginning of the uprising in 2011 its goal has been to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. This, not fighting ISIS or other terrorist groups, was the main purpose of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015.

Consider the fact that much of the weaponry Moscow deployed to Syria was irrelevant to fighting ISIS. The advanced air defense and naval units Russia deployed allowed Moscow to expand its presence and project power, suggesting that its real aim was to limit the West’s ability to maneuver in the region. Numerous reports indicated that most of Russia’s airstrikes were outside ISIS-controlled areas, and primarily targeted mainstream Syrian opposition. In some cases, these strikes even helped strengthen ISIS.

Russia will not hesitate to ally with terrorist groups if it thinks that doing so will serve its interests.

Moreover, Russia will not hesitate to ally with

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