With the Islamic State gaining ground in northern Iraq and now representing a common threat for Russia and the U.S., is it possible that Moscow and Washington will find a way to collaborate despite the lingering crisis in Ukraine? RD interviewed experts to find out.

A member loyal to ISIS waves its flag in Raqqa. Photo: Reuters  

The new round of limited airstrikes carried out by the U.S. against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) indicates that U.S. President Barack Obama is very concerned about the increasingly unstable situation in northern Iraq. Likewise, UK Prime Minister David Cameron makes no bones about his readiness and resolve to provide diplomatic and military aid to help prevent ISIS – which he called a "monstrous organization" - from expanding further.

Even though both Obama and Cameron are hesitant about putting boots on the ground and sending their troops, they may use “all the assets we have – our diplomacy, our political relationships, our aid, the military prowess and expertise we have to help others,” as Cameron told BBC1's Breakfast program on Monday.

Likewise, Russia is still trying to figure out what to do about the potential threat that ISIS and religious radicalism pose for the region. On July 22, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about ISIS persecuting and oppressing representatives of religious minorities, including Christians, forcing them to flee the country. It regarded “such aggressive and systematic actions” as “absolutely unacceptable and criminal.”

ISIS has become a sort of bogeyman for a reason. Its religious fanaticism, severe discipline and brutality can overshadow even Al-Qaeda’s. Its military advance and expanding turf in Iraq is become more obvious, even though its ambitions to establish a caliphate throughout the Middle East and Europe looks like an exaggeration and a surreal fantasy.

In July, Russia’s Foreign Ministry called all the world’s stakeholders to do “their utmost” to prevent the ethnic and religious hatred that may have very grave implications for the world. Yet this call seems to be futile. On one hand, there is the increasing confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine and lingering distrust toward the Kremlin, and on the other hand, skepticism about the true scale of the ISIS threat.  

Indeed, naysayers would posit that the ISIS threat is highly exaggerated. Does ISIS really pose a threat to Russia and the U.S.? Can this Islamic organization really succeeded in expanding its influence globally? Should the world really take seriously the declarations from ISIS about their geopolitical ambitions and a global caliphate?

“ISIS is surely a major problem for Iraq, and its tactics and strategy are abhorrent, such as its use of crucifixions and its genocidal attacks on the small Yazidi minority,” reads CNN’s website. “But that doesn't mean it is a serious threat to the American homeland.”

Yet some experts admit that despite the looming threat from ISIS, so far it is not included in Russia’s international agenda. Jack Goldstone, political expert and professor at George Mason University, argues that Russia might not be interested in dealing with ISIS as much as NATO and the Persian Gulf countries are.

“While ISIS is both a threat to Russian interests and to Russian clients (Bashar Assad in Syria), Ukraine is far more important to Russia,” he said. “So I do not expect Russia to change its behavior. It will focus on Ukraine first, and the Middle East second."

Most importantly, the sanctions war between Russia and the West triggered by the Ukrainian crisis might put at stake Russian-American counter-terrorism cooperation.

“Putting Russian security chiefs on the EU sanctions list formalizes the end of anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and the West,” wrote Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin in his Facebook post on July 22.

Nevertheless, the looming threat of ISIS and international terrorism for Russia, the U.S., and Europe seems like it has the potential to bring them closer together and forget about (or at least ignore) their differences over Ukraine. Although such a scenario is unlikely (at least while ISIS doesn’t pose a more serious existential threat for all stakeholders), the question of how to minimize Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine to deal with ISIS together remains open.

Russia Direct interviewed experts to find out if ISIS poses a real threat for Washington and Moscow and if they can overcome their differences over Ukraine and find ways to collaborate despite the beginnings of a new Cold War?

Mark Kramer, Professor, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Despite severe tensions over Ukraine, the United States and Russia still have important common interests, which they can pursue cooperatively. In particular, the two countries have a lot to gain by working together on some counter-terrorism issues, including efforts to neutralize the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS).

Because of glaring blunders committed by the Obama administration in its dealings with Iraq, the brutal terrorists in the Islamic State were able to gain a foothold and spread their influence.

Obama's weak and indecisive response to the disaster in Syria has further strengthened the Islamic State and other radical Islamist terrorists who are using Syria as a training ground.

Russia has not made as many foolish blunders, but it has not done enough to try to combat the Islamic State. U.S.-Russian cooperation against the Islamic State might inspire other countries to do more, including counter-terrorism offensives that would take the fight to ISIS, seeking to destroy it.

U.S.-Russian cooperation [in the region] might prove difficult in some respects – the Russian authorities will want to solidify Bashar al-Assad's regime, whereas the United States has sought to replace Assad – but these problems are not so severe that they will stymie cooperation altogether.

Cooperation against the Islamic State might have the further important benefit of getting U.S. and Russian officials to begin to ease the confrontational stance they have taken against each other. Tensions will persist for a long while to come, but the shrill rhetoric of recent months has been needlessly antagonistic. Cooperation against radical Islamic terrorists might help to turn things around at least a bit.

Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), editor-in-chief of Vostok (ORIENS) journal, member of the Science Council at the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Security Council

No doubt, putting Russian security chiefs on the EU sanctions list further complicates Russia – West counter-terrorist cooperation, but cannot completely destroy it given the size of the threat emanating from terrorism and religious extremism for both sides.

One example: According to Guido Steinberg from Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Chechen jihadist fighters in Syria “represent a domestic security problem for Europe and Turkey” because many of them come from the diaspora – Georgia, Turkey, and “dozens from Austria and France and rather fewer from Belgium, Scandinavia and Germany.”

What will be their agenda when they come back home and who are they going to fight against? Without meaningful cooperation, we’ll be not able to deter this threat. Another example: ISIS leaders declare that they will be killing Americans everywhere in the world.

Doesn’t the U.S. need cooperation with all partners including Russia to obstruct terrorists from inflicting damage to U.S. citizens inside and outside the U.S.? Russia, in turn, also needs international support in its struggle against terrorism and extremism.

I do believe that we can overcome our disagreements over the Ukrainian crisis however serious they are and at least preserve what is left from the cooperation between Russia and the West in the field of security, which is becoming more and more indispensable for them in this era of hyper-globalization.

This cooperation is indispensable but deep mistrust will prevent us from raising it to the level of collective efforts with other partners. Given this, our respective collaboration with such important regional partners as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and others will be confined to bilateral relationships.

In this realm it is extremely important not to allow us to revive the Cold-War-style zero-sum game in these relationships. I’m sure that at some point we’ll be working together against ISIS but on parallel independent tracks.

Volunteers from the Shi'ite Badr Organization have joined the Iraqi army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from ISIS who have taken over Mosul and other northern provinces. Photo: Reuters

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University

The prospect that the U.S. and Russia might cooperate in countering the threat of ISIS, potentially a major menace to both of them, is complete fantasy, one further consequence of the new Russia-West Cold War. True, even before the Ukrainian crisis, the divide in U.S. and Russian approaches to the civil war in Syria created a major obstacle to U.S.-Russian cooperation in dealing with any aspect of the Syrian war, and ISIS is, in part, a product of that war.

In any event, Russia is not central to either the principal theaters of the confrontation with ISIS or to the key actors engaged in the battle. The starting point is the regime in Baghdad. But here Russia is largely irrelevant to the course of events, while U.S. influence, although scarcely decisive, has a role to play. Russia also will have little effect on other portions of the battle ground. Kurdistan’s peshmerga [a Kurdish nationalist guerrilla organization – editor’s note], with U.S. air support, has had considerable success in liberating towns overrun by ISIS.

Their further success will depend on military supplies from France, the United States and other Western countries, not Russia. In this instance, the efforts of Iran produces a more effective de facto, albeit uncoordinated, partnership with the United States than anything that might be imagined between Russia and the United States.

Similarly Russia is largely irrelevant in determining whether the Sunni tribes fight, rather than collaborate with ISIS. That depends on events in Baghdad, and whether the Iraqi government provides incentives and then the wherewithal to enter the battle.

This is not to say that Russia matters not at all in the larger struggle against ISIS or that the lost possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation in containing groups like ISIS is any less tragic. Even if the military campaign against ISIS’s forces in Iraq saves the country from this scourge, at best it will have squeezed these forces back into Syria.

Dealing with ISIS in Syria will pose ugly choices for the United States - choices that would be far easier and more successful were the United States and Russia addressing the problem together.

Similarly, while U.S.-Russian cooperation in dealing with the broader threat of catastrophic terrorism had weakened even before the Ukrainian crisis, if it now shatters completely as a consequence of the new Russia-West Cold War, the price either or both countries will pay down the road may be high, indeed.

Alexander Sotnichenko, Ph.D., is an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University's Department of International Relations

Although Dmitri Trenin has recently expressed his concerns over the decrease in Moscow-Washington anti-terrorism collaboration over the Ukrainian crisis, I would assume that the results of U.S.-Russia anti-terror collaboration that was launched after the 9/11 terror attack are highly exaggerated.

The only benefit Russia got from the U.S. and the EU is the abstention from criticism toward Russia’s anti-terror operation in Chechnya in 2001-2003. The West, in turn, benefited from the ongoing collaboration with Russia in Afghanistan. As a result of this cooperation, they failed to achieve peace in Afghanistan. The country itself turned into the world’s monopolist in producing heroin that is primarily coming to Russia, making it one of the leading countries using this drug.           

Recently, the U.S. has done a great deal to spur the ideas of radical Islamists in the Middle East countries. First, this refers to the U.S. support of revolutions that overthrew the regimes of secular leaders Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad. The current situation in Syria is the result of the Syrian civil war between the forces of official Damascus and radical Salafi rebels. After the rebels’ defeat, the tensions have been shifted to Iraq, where the ideas of Islamists found fertile soil.

Does instability in Iraq pose a threat to the U.S.? In reality, it doesn’t. The repeat of the 9/11 attacks is hardly likely to be expected because of the extensive upgrade of the American security system. The Shia-Sunni war brings a lot of harm to people in the Middle East and, more broadly, to Eurasia, with Washington fulfilling the role of arbitrator and – from to time – supporting its allies by conducting airstrikes and bombings.        

Probably, the U.S. authorities play their own game in the Middle East without involving Russia in their campaign against terrorism in the region. So, I don’t think that current U.S.-Russia differences over Ukraine have seriously affected anti-terror collaboration because there has not been serious collaboration in this field in recent years. In these circumstances, Russia should rely on its own forces, given its proximity to the conflict zones and terror threat within its own borders.