The Paris attacks have shocked the globe and left world leaders stunned. But the small step needed to unify Russia and the West in the fight against ISIS might prove to be too much of a giant leap.
A bird flies in front of the Eiffel Tower ,which remained closed on the first of three days of national mourning, in Paris, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. Photo: AP
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, it is becoming a moral imperative in the eyes of almost all normal people that the civilized world must unite in the fight against radical Islam. However, in the cold light of day, this quite understandable emotional outburst runs into formidable obstacles when it comes to Russia’s complex relationship with the West.
Obstacle #1: Ukraine, Crimea and sanctions
What is hindering the formation of a new "anti-ISIS" coalition? Lots of things, unfortunately. From the Russian perspective, the most obvious is Western sanctions over Ukraine. However, many people in Russia think that there has never been a more opportune moment to overturn them.
The “reason will prevail” sentiment is gathering momentum across the Russian ideological spectrum. If the Kremlin feels that Europe is indeed close to decisive action, it is possible that Moscow will try to nudge its partners in the right direction by abolishing Russian counter-sanctions, for instance, or demonstrating solidarity in some other way.
However, if fear of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and desire for revenge are to overpower the European political elite’s sense of self worth, something more than the Paris attacks needs to happen. It appears that the EU’s principled stand and condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine will not become a bargaining chip in the fight against ISIS.
In any event, politicians who are constrained by past rhetoric and unable to change tack without severe reputational damage cannot use this strategy. This means that only Russian President Vladimir Putin can initiate a drastic reversal in Russia-EU relations.
Putin’s key advantage is that he is far less tightly bound by postulated principles and moral sermonizing than the Europeans. During his tenure, the Russian president has constructed a political reality in which he himself defines what is moral and what is amoral, where the line between good and evil lies, and what Russia’s national interests are.
Therefore, only Putin has the capacity to change the modus operandi of Russia-Europe relations by sacrificing some asset — like a chess grandmaster who sacrifices a piece before unleashing a devastating combination (indeed, Putin has a reputation for unexpected “gambits”).
However, there are limits here too. Moscow will not return Crimea to Ukraine for the sake of anti-ISIS unity, even if terror attacks rage across Russia from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.
Obstacle #2: NATO’s reluctance to wage war against ISIS
Another aspect to the problem of creating an anti-ISIS alliance is the situation inside NATO. This situation is no less complex than the one surrounding Russia-EU relations. A large question mark hangs over U.S. leadership and willingness to lead its allies in a ground operation against ISIS. A major new military campaign in the Middle East is certainly not how U.S. President Barack Obama would like to see out his presidency.
Incidentally, the climate change conference due to be held in Paris in late November (which until recently was high up the U.S. foreign policy agenda) is now also in jeopardy. If one recalls the wait-and-see attitude that Obama has adopted in all previous international crises, it is difficult to suppose that this time he will behave any differently.
All that can be expected from the present U.S. administration is a strengthening of security measures, new supplies of arms to the anti-Assad opposition in Syria, and words of encouragement for Europe in its fight against ISIS. That, incidentally, could correspond to the objective interests of the United States, since in contrast to the September 11 attacks on New York's world trade centers in 2001, the country is not at the epicenter of events.
NATO members unlikely to team up against terrorism
Are Europe’s NATO allies capable of organizing an anti-ISIS operation without the direct involvement of the United States, similar to the Libyan campaign of 2011? Russians are inclined to think that the Europeans not only can, but must — and in cooperation with Russia at that. However, on closer examination, such a scenario looks fanciful, to say the least.
First, the operation in Libya was not of an anti-terrorist nature. To eliminate ISIS (if indeed that is possible through military intervention) requires very different resources, including boots on the ground. Despite the shock of the Paris attacks, not even France is wholly ready to start an all-out war, not to mention those European NATO members that have not yet suffered a direct attack.
Second, to organize a ground operation against ISIS, a common language somehow has to be found with the current Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad. NATO’s European partners, especially without the direct involvement of the United States, will never be able to agree on a military operation that would effectively re-colonize the Middle East and establish a NATO protectorate over the territory of Syria or northern Iraq.
Third, Russia’s military presence in Syria hinders rather than helps any potential anti-ISIS consolidation, muddying the waters and making the situation almost unsolvable.
Moscow’s underlying idea — to return everything to the way it was before the U.S. intervention and the "color revolutions," to restore the Assad regime’s control over Syria, and to support the government of Iraq so that it can fight the cancer of ISIS by itself — is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
New solutions are needed, for which something extraordinary needs to happen. The great powers had better forget about their old assets in the Middle East and start the game from scratch, believing ISIS, and more broadly Islamic terrorism, to be the common and only real threat.
Taking the first step towards reconciliation
The ISIS terror attacks are a clarion call for leaders of the civilized world to come to their senses and unite. The explosions and shootings are not so much attacks by a foreign enemy as symptoms of the internal disease that plagues the West.
Russia, having evolved throughout its history as the eastern edge of this huge civilizational space, finds itself in the strange and awkward position of being at once the opponent of Western civilization (trying to split U.S.-European unity, rejoicing at the political failure of Western leaders, attacking the West’s “low values”) and its last hope and savior in the face of the threat of radical Islamism.
Russia is wholly unsuited to both roles, and neither offers the country hope or promise. Regrettably, there is nothing else available at present in the international picture.
The unanswered question here is whether the leaders of Russia, the United States and Europe have the wisdom to recognize that it is not the particular interests of individual countries, peoples and political elites that are at stake, but the interests of Western civilization, to which they all still belong.
Someone has to take the first step forward, but it remains to be seen which side will take that crucial first step.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.