Fighting Terrorism: A Common Denominator for Russia and the West

Judging by the tone of Putin’s recent remarks, Russia has put up with its insurmountable differences with the United States and doesn’t consider them an obstacle in protecting its national interests.

The heinous terrorist attacks in Paris have shaken the international community and forced many in the West to move away from comfortable clichés about "moderate Islamists" and start a serious fight against terrorism in Europe and the Middle East. Russia’s international partners are changing their minds about Russia’s activities against terrorists in Syria. In the eyes of many, Russia is now at the forefront of the fight against terrorism.

What caused the wide international response to Russia’s actions in Syria? First, it was the fact that our country’s resources were considered inadequate for active offensive operations. It could be said that Russia has been operating below its potential for the past 20 years. Regarding most issues on the international agenda, including the Iraqi and the Libyan crises, Russia has only made its position known, but never effectively promoted it.

In Syria, Russia has acted proactively for the first time. If you look at the situation in perspective, Russia’s actions in Syria are fully within its resources. By design, the operation has had Russia acting of its own accord. Moscow is almost completely independent from the West. Russian military resources are sufficient to conduct this operation, the result of many years of military upgrades.

In his remarks over the past several months, Vladimir Putin has been proposing a new agenda in Russia’s relations with the West. In New York and Moscow, during Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, Putin urged the international community to focus on two goals - creating a broad-based international coalition against ISIS (ISIS is banned in the Russian Federation) and restoring the statehoods in Libya, Iraq and Syria. However, the United States has been turning down Russia's offer of cooperation and insisting on its own vision of conflict settlement, the first step of which is the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. For the first time, Washington finds itself on unfamiliar ground, where it has lost the initiative and is forced to react to Moscow’s actions.

Of late, President Putin has been less indignant when speaking about the arbitrary position of the West in international affairs. Russia has abandoned its attempts to cause an international response by issuing calls to offer resistance to revisionists and experimenters. Instead, it has begun to restore the status quo in the regions that are important to it.

Russia’s "active measure" in Syria puts it in an advantageous position. It can act independently from the Western countries in its efforts to combat ISIS. Moscow has actually created an international coalition, which includes only those countries that are genuinely interested in winning. Unlike the Syrian opposition, which the United States is betting on, Moscow’s allies - Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Kurdish militia - are actually fighting ISIS. For four years, they have been waging war without any outside assistance. With Russia’s support, their chances of winning have significantly improved. Creating a joint anti-terrorism information center in Baghdad, which includes Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, was a convincing first step in a new international coalition against ISIS.

Russia’s main interest in Syria is to dismantle the Islamist infrastructure. Its goal is to disrupt the training system and to prevent future acts of terrorism.

Its second interest is to support a Syrian ally who has access to the Mediterranean Sea. Supporting the government in Damascus will make it a reliable partner in the future. Russia is showing that it will protect its security in this region and its potential ambitions. The third interest revolves around Russia sending a message about its comeback in the big league of international politics.

At the meeting between Putin and Obama at the United Nations in late September, the parties discussed Syria more than anything else. They agreed to "continue cooperation," which can mean anything. More importantly, the military departments of the two countries were instructed to discuss the details of this interaction. After this meeting with Obama, Putin noted with surprise: "We found a lot of common ground."

Even though such mutual understanding wasn’t reached even after the terrorist attacks in Paris, it didn’t stop Russia, because Moscow is relying on people who are actually, and quite successfully, fighting ISIS, whereas the US can’t find partners in the region, with whom they can cooperate effectively. However, at this point, Russia and the West have an important subject to discuss.

The Russian-French situational alliance has become an important new factor in fighting terrorism. For the first time since the Normandie-Niemen regiment, the armed forces of Russia and France are fighting a common enemy together. France’s actions are supported by the United States, because French geolocation and guidance instruments are based on the American GPS. A US refusal to provide these data to France, its ally, would have caused an uproar. So, in fact there is now a tripartite alliance of Russia, France and the United States, which is combating terrorism in the Middle East. The problem is that the three countries don’t see eye-to-eye on the prospects of a political settlement in Syria.

The memorandum of understanding on aviation safety in the skies over Syria signed in mid-October was the intermediate result of Russian-US cooperation. It involves the establishment of operational communications between the military authorities of the two countries and mutual assistance in crisis situations.

However, this coordination does not imply full-scale cooperation and is strictly limited. It does not involve the exchange of intelligence data and does not include the US support of Russia's policy in Syria. The US’ refusal to establish full cooperation with Russia in Syria is due to the United States’ concern about upsetting its allies in the Persian Gulf and the reluctance to see Russia strengthen its positions in the region. In addition, Washington has problems with developing a comprehensive regional strategy, which is holding it back.

The second key point of Putin's recent remarks concerns the need to restore statehood in Libya, Syria and Iraq, which are now in the grips of chaos and anarchy. Moscow was the first to propose a radical solution to the Middle Eastern refugee problem. This proposal should get the attention of those European capitals, which are affected by the immigration crisis. However, the plan isn’t easy to implement. It calls for restoring statehood in the regions where it has been destroyed (often with active foreign intervention).

Destroying ISIS is a major goal. Achieving it will create proper conditions for normalizing life in Sunni-populated regions of Syria and Iraq. Libya is a more difficult case, since no one really knows how to settle the civil conflict raging in that country. However, no one wants to perpetuate the situation and have Libya become a monument to a misguided intervention and the source of the immigration crisis.

Judging by the tone of Putin’s recent remarks, Russia has put up with its insurmountable differences with the United States and doesn’t consider them an obstacle in it protecting its national interests. Moscow is showing its ability to project power far beyond its borders as it relies solely on its own resources. Russia enjoys the full support of Damascus and Tehran. Russian missiles are flying across Iran before hitting enemy targets in Syria. Russia and Iran do not have a formal military alliance, but have established strong de facto trust-based cooperation.

Possibly, such a level of mutual trust will be established in Russian-French relations as well. Paris is interested in fighting ISIS effectively, and is therefore willing to cooperate with Moscow. In the long term, this could have significant consequences for European security and Russian-Western relations.

One thing is clear: The agenda of international relations in Europe before the events in Paris and Sinai is now in the past.

This article was originally published in Russian in Nezavisimaya Gazeta
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.