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.
MOSCOW'S SYRIA STRATEGY
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 terrorist groups if it thinks that doing so will serve its interests. Soon after Putin’s Syria intervention, Hezbollah and Moscow reportedly established joint operations rooms in Latakia and Damascus. In November 2015, Moscow and Hezbollah began to “officially” work together in the country to establish communications channels and possibly coordinate military operations in Syria, although the first Hezbollah delegation had visited Moscow back in October 2011. More recent reports indicate that Hezbollah has even been fighting alongside Russian troops in Syria. According to a January 2017 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one Hezbollah commander stationed in Aleppo said that “our relationship with the Russians is better than excellent.”
A DOUBLE GAME IN AFGHANISTAN
Russia’s unreliability on terrorism is hardly limited to Syria. Consider also Afghanistan where, by late 2007, Moscow had opened a line of communication with the Taliban. A senior Taliban official reportedly said about these early contacts, “We had a common enemy…We needed support to get rid of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Russia wanted all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible.”
To be sure, Putin continued to support U.S. efforts while communicating with the Taliban. In early 2009, Moscow helped create the Northern Distribution Network, a supply route from Eastern Europe to the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border, and granted the United States passage for lethal military supplies to Afghanistan. But Moscow agreed to this only after pressuring Kyrgyzstan to close the Manas airbase that the country was leasing to the United States.
This year, however, reports noted that Moscow’s support for the Taliban went beyond diplomacy. Senior Western military officials such as U.S. Army General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe Curtis Scaparrotti, has been talking about Moscow arming the Taliban since at least February of this year. U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson said in April, “To the extent Russia is supplying arms to the Taliban, that is a violation, obviously, of international norms and it’s a violation of UN Security Council norms.”
Some analysts point out that the Taliban may simply be getting their hands on large stockpiles of Russian weapons that remained in Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation. Although this is no doubt part of the picture, I learned from an Afghan official on a recent trip to the country that the Afghan government has confiscated new Russian military equipment from the Taliban, equipment that was manufactured well after the Soviet Union’s fall. Whether the group obtained these weapons directly from Moscow remains unclear. (Moscow, unlike Washington, does not prohibit secondary arms sales.) Regardless, it should cast further doubt on Moscow’s reliability as a counterterrorism partner.
Russia’s Iranian ally is also stepping up its support to the Taliban. This seems to make little sense at first glance, given that the group is traditionally anti-Shiite. Yet from a geopolitical perspective, Tehran has good reason to reverse its anti-Taliban policy. Limited support to the Taliban would, for example, accelerate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Moscow and Tehran both want. Senior Afghan officials claim to have received intelligence reports of Iran arming the Taliban with weapons from Moscow. Farah Province Deputy Governor Mohammad Younis Rasooli said this spring that “Russia, with Iran’s assistance, is equipping the Taliban with advanced weapons.”
Moscow denies arming the Taliban and claims that their communication channel is necessary because they share a greater common enemy: ISIS. In January 2016, for example, Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov mentioned ISIS when he said that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” But when Moscow first opened a channel with the Taliban in late 2007, ISIS did not exist. More recently, Afghan officials said that the Taliban could not have briefly seized the center of Kunduz province in the spring of this year without Moscow’s assistance, yet ISIS does not operate in Kunduz.
Indeed, ISIS in Afghanistan is a fairly small, motley collection of groups disconnected from the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban and ISIS have sometimes clashed, but in other cases they have entered into truces or even worked together. The two groups held joint operations in Sar-e-Pul province in August of this year in which they reportedly killed 50 civilians. Meanwhile, Moscow’s continued contact with the Taliban grants the group added legitimacy it would not have otherwise.
Since at least September 11, 2001, Putin has presented himself to the West as an indispensable counterterrorism partner, and it has paid off. Many have believed from the very beginning, for example, that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without Moscow, however flawed its approach may be. Yet Putin’s priority is to weaken and divide the West, and he will work with any group that will help him achieve this goal. The West believes in win-win scenarios, but for Putin it is zero-sum—for him to win, the West has to lose. Western policymakers should recognize Moscow’s true intentions and condemn its support for terrorist groups. They should also work to regain leadership roles in key regions such as the Middle East and pressure Moscow to change its behavior. Acquiescing to Moscow will never bring true, lasting stability. Rather, it will ensure the proliferation of conflicts for years to come.