STANFORD, CALIFORNIA – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has been welcomed by some as a moment for the Kremlin to “come in from the cold.” Russia’s conflict with the Islamic State, the argument goes, has aligned the country’s interests with those of the West. Even Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane does not seem to have deflated this optimism.
Indeed, at a recent press conference, U.S. President Barack Obama again urged Putin to join the alliance against the Islamic State. And French President François Hollande billed his recent visit to Moscow as an effort to build a broad international coalition against the terrorist group.
At first blush, the idea that Russia is a natural ally against Islamist terrorists seems to make sense. The country has suffered horrific terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, including the bombing in November of a plane above the Sinai Peninsula, which killed 224 passengers and crew, nearly all of them Russian. Around 20 million Muslims, most of them Sunni, live within the Russian Federation, and the country’s security officials report that some 7,000 fighters from the former Soviet republics and Russia have joined the Islamic State.
On deeper examination, however, it becomes clear that an anti-terror alliance with Russia is wishful thinking. Putin has not gone into Syria to defeat the Islamic State. He has intervened to save the regime of Russia’s client, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Putin may sometimes give the appearance that he is ready to abandon Assad, but ultimately he will defend him. Leaving Assad to his fate would be a sign of weakness — and thus anathema to Putin.
Ordinary Russians may be in danger of attacks by Islamic extremists, but they pose little threat to Putin or his allies. Russia has indeed suffered a number of terrorist attacks, including the 2004 Beslan massacre, in which 334 people, most of them schoolchildren, were killed. In nearly every case, the response to the attacks was brutal, inept, and costly in terms of civilian lives lost. And yet the Putin regime has emerged unscathed each time. Indeed, terrorist attacks at the turn of the century solidified public opinion against Chechen rebels and gave Putin the public support he needed to raze Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.
Putin’s confidence in dealing with terrorism reflects the design of Russia’s security state. Russia spends more on internal security than it does on national defense. It has interior ministry troops, federal security agency special forces, OMON (mobile special service) troops, military intelligence troops, and a vast network of internal spies and informants. Regime opponents are not allowed to run for office, their rights to demonstrate are restricted, and they are subject to a legal arbitrariness in the courts. Citizens have virtually no protection from wiretaps or the interception of their electronic communications.
Every society must balance civil rights against national security. Putin’s Russia has swung to one extreme of the spectrum, while the United States and Europe (despite the protests of civil libertarians) have chosen to occupy the other end. Indeed, Russia is an example of the upper limit of what state power can do to control terrorist activity. It would be a rare extremist group that had not been infiltrated with an informant who reports to Moscow. There is even evidence that those who carried out the Beslan massacre were infiltrated by Russian intelligence. Moreover, any terrorist group knows that their operations will be met with the most extreme use of force. In Beslan, for example, Russian special forces used thermobaric weapons.
As the reaction to the attacks in Paris illustrates, the seemingly random murder of 130 civilians has monumental resonance in the West — especially when the religious and ideological motives are difficult to understand. But the Kremlin places a lower value on human lives than Western societies do. In Putin’s calculations, the loss of lives in extremist attacks is unwelcome, but ultimately acceptable if it does not threaten the regime.
The Russian people might be horrified and frightened. But the Russian regime is primarily concerned with its own survival — and with how it might use the public’s horror to its benefit. Working with the West to combat the Islamic State serves neither of those purposes.
Paul R. Gregory, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a research associate at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, is a professor at the University of Houston. © Project Syndicate, 2015
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