AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS – If anyone has benefited from the Paris attacks, it is the Kremlin. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the great powers of the West resolved to crush Islamic State (IS) at all costs, and as Russia was already bombing Syria, Western democracies deemed it a natural ally.
From an international pariah punished for the brazen annexation of Crimea and stealthy intervention in eastern Ukraine, practically overnight Moscow turned into a respectable pillar of world order others wooed.
France has commenced military cooperation with the Kremlin, and though the United States exercises more restraint, during the Group of Twenty summit in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama invited cameras to catch them talking and smiling. In foreign policy terms, this means a new start.
This is the second time in 15 years when a terrorist attack on Western soil takes Russia out of the doghouse. The first time was after 9/11 when, building a broad coalition for its “war on terror,” the White House acknowledged the legitimacy of Putin’s atrocious military campaign in Chechnya.
Now history repeats itself. From April 2014 to this month, 8,000 people have died in the war in Ukraine, unleashed by the new friend of the democratic world, Putin. It is incomprehensible how that is a lesser evil than the Paris attacks.
Yet, the talk of the day is a joint fight on IS, possibly even the merger of the two coalitions, one currently led by Russia, another by the U.S. The alliance may or may not happen, but the conflict in Ukraine seems to be on its way to the icebox of diplomacy.
The hasty rapprochement between Russia and the West is just one of the numerous baffling effects of the IS Paris strike.
In principle, the Paris massacre did not tell the world anything about IS or jihadi terrorism that the world didn’t already know. That was not the first time that IS struck Europe, and before IS there was al-Qaida. The 2005 London bombings killed 52 civilians; the 2004 bombings in Madrid killed 191 and injured 1,800. Yet back then no one talked about the demise of European civilization as something conceivable, let alone imminent. The current Islamophobic frenzy in the U.S. is worse than it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One Republican presidential hopeful advocates registering all Muslims living in the U.S. Another calls Syrian refugees “dogs.” The upsurge in this kind of blatant intolerance in a democratic society already constitutes a victory for IS.
After the Paris attacks, it felt like half of Facebook’s members dressed their profile pictures in the colors of the French flag. That included Russian Facebook users, who had not been nearly as angry about the downing of the Russian passenger jet over Sinai two weeks earlier. Russian Air Force mechanics scribble “For Paris!” on the bombs intended for Syrians. The Russian police are sending their Paris peers a puppy to replace the heroic dog Diesel.
The whimsicalness of our selective solidarity should have given us pause, but it didn’t. Putin says his air force can double the number of raids on Syria? So give us Putin. Give us devil with horns, if he is anti-IS. Anything to avenge the City of Light.
All people have hidden agendas, but some people are uncannily good in pursuing theirs. Putin happens to belong to the latter category. It is very doubtful that his goals in Syria are in sync with those of Europe or the U.S.
Not so long ago, the international media noticed a new interesting route the Middle Eastern refuges had started taking to reach Europe — they went across Russia and into Norway.
Norway is a NATO country, meaning that the Russian-Norwegian border is not exactly a white picket fence. On top of that, the Northern Fleet, Russia’s strongest, has its base on the adjacent coast, making the whole area off limits to any intruder except flu viruses and, possibly, a migrating bird or two. Putin’s Russia is not a totalitarian state, but it is a state that knows darn well what is happening in its strategically critical areas.
It is very hard to believe that the Norway-bound refugees are simply slipping through Russian cordons. A decision must have been made on the very top to encourage the migration. It is not a secret that the Kremlin hopes that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners will eventually undermine European stability and, consequently, the European economy. If Putin could facilitate the exodus in any way, he most certainly did. With friends like Putin, who needs enemies, right?
Yet, the strongest stimulus for the people of Syria to leave their homes, or, rather, the places where their homes used to be, are bombs and missiles falling from the skies — Russian, American, French, British and Israeli.
The current consensus on the policy toward the IS extremists seems to be “bomb them back to the Stone Age.” That is something that the combatants probably can do, reducing the people of Syria and Iraq to an even deeper level of misery. As to the purported target of the campaign, the IS contingent, they don’t need health services, electricity, or running water to access knives, Kalashnikovs and bombs.
According to the ongoing French investigation, it took just nine IS foot soldiers to wreck havoc on Paris, sending the West into Putin’s embrace, and NATO into a war frenzy. Even counting the regional IS network in France and Belgium, the total number of people involved in the planning and execution of the Paris attacks most likely did not exceed 50. A day of “successful strikes against IS” brings the group more volunteers than that — people who lost family or friends in the attacks and now have a score to settle.
With strikes against IS breeding more foot soldiers for terrorist networks worldwide, it remains unclear how the carpet-bombing will make anyone feel safer. Avenging the City of Light, Russia and the West can turn Syria into the desert of darkness, but from that darkness nothing good will come.
Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.”
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