Military officials and experts from around the world came to Moscow this week to discuss how to deal with the most pressing global security challenges, including global terrorism.

Nikolai Bordyuzha (center), Secretary-general, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), attending the Fifth Moscow Conference on International Security. Photo: RIA Novosti

Global terrorism was the main topic on the agenda of the Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) that took place on Apr. 27-28. Organized by Russia’s Defense Ministry, it brought together top military officials, experts and diplomats to address current international security challenges and threats.

“The world has not become a safer and easier place to live,” Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during the conference. “This is why military cooperation between states is more important than ever.” 

The tragic events of 2015 and 2016 - including the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai, deadly terror attacks in Europe and throughout the Middle East, and the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Yemen, Libya and Central Asia – provided the geopolitical context for this year’s conference. For global stakeholders, these events have become a signal to team up and create a broader anti-terror coalition under the UN umbrella.

Among the attendees of the conference were more than 500 representatives from over 80 countries, including those that perennially are the largest targets of terrorism: Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. At the same time, the lack of top European and U.S. military officials at the conference indicates that mistrust between Russia and the West is still a problem that hampers joint anti-terrorism initiatives.

However, several officials from key multilateral institutions did attend the conference. In attendance were Lamberto Zannier, the general secretary of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Yves Daccord, general director of the International Committee of the Red Cross; and a number of top UN officials. Their participation indicates that there are still some opportunities for dialogue between Russia and the West on the problems of European and international security.

Regional instability in the Middle East, which has led to a large-scale refugee crisis, indicates that the current international anti-terrorism approaches driven by bloc mentality and national interests do not work very well. Most of the participants of the conference agree that new approaches, based on mutual respect and the active involvement of all states, are now more relevant.

“Current international relations are at a crossroads: The situation will either continue moving towards more chaos and anarchy or collective work to resolve the current problems will dominate,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during the conference. “To implement this we should establish sincere and open dialogue and look for the balance of interests.”

Pakistan’s Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, agrees. According to him, “People should find solutions to their problems by themselves, solutions must not be pushed on them from outside.” Likewise, his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan reiterates that there should be no interference from outside in the domestic policy of a country, “including under the pretext of fighting terrorism while pursuing one’s own goals.”

Causes of terrorism and instability

One of the main reasons for the current inability of the world powers to solve new challenges is the absence of effective cooperation and dialogue between Russia and NATO, argues Shoigu. Indeed, with almost zero collaboration between NATO and Russia, it is impossible to tackle the challenge of terrorism.

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The clear absence of an equal and open dialogue between Russia and its potential Western partners also contributed greatly to the inability to fight international terrorism effectively.

The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, remembers the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, using it to explain how disagreements and pursuing one’s own interest can affect anti-terrorism campaigns. At that time, a number of Western countries supported radicals – the mujahedeen – to weaken Moscow. In the end, those who fought against the Soviet Union became terrorists. Afghanistan collapsed, which created a thriving environment for terrorists. 

Iran’s Defense Minister, Hossein Dehghan, echoes Karzai. He warns against using proxy wars in the Middle East for achieving one’s interests, because such an approach nurtures terrorists and hampers both regional and international security.

Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov expanded on Dehghan’s points. External interference and promotion of Western-style democracy in the Middle East, combined with the poor economic situation in these countries, are among the major drivers for terrorism, according to Gerasimov. Foreign interventions in Libya and Iraq are a vivid manifestation of the negative effect of foreign intervention, he believes.

Gerasimov argues that Russia’s counter-terrorism experience during the 1990s in the North Caucasus can be useful, because it “gave Russia an opportunity to develop the solid foundation for the legal framework and combat practices,” which has been helpful during the Russian campaign in Syria. Likewise, Karzai argues that “a stronger Russia is a guarantee of stability in Afghanistan,” and Russia’s deeper involvement in the fight against terrorism is essential.

Obstacles for a joint anti-terrorism campaign are still high

However, despite the unanimous recognition that all stakeholders should unite in the face of the global terrorism threat, experts remain skeptical and point to the obstacles and disagreements that impede any joint endeavor.  

“First, there is a disagreement about what is a terrorist group and what is not,” Andrew Tabler, the Martin Gross fellow on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, told Russia Direct. “Second, the U.S. does not see any concessions coming from [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, so I think it is harder for the U.S. to look at that and say: ‘OK! Let’s get involved.’ Third, there is the larger context of poor relations between Russia and the U.S., especially concerning Eastern Europe: Recent incidents in the Baltics are just the latest of many signs.”

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Tabler argues that these reasons “generate the lack of trust between the two sides.” Russia and the West should resolve these problems if they are really serious about fighting terrorism together.

Elena Suponina, the advisor to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees. “How one can fight terrorism effectively when even international mediators cannot agree on the mechanisms which define one or another group as terrorist,” she told Russia Direct. “This is one of the major obstacles.”

Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Affairs at the Hudson Institute, believes that one of the problem stems from what he calls “an asymmetric interest.”

“The Russian government, as shown by sending its large military component to Syria, is more concerned with the outcome than the U.S., which so far has not sent any major commitment,” he told Russia Direct. “The Islamic State issue is important for the U.S. President but not as important as many other issues.”