RD Interview: Associate Professor of MGIMO-University Andrey Sushentsov explains the obstacles impeding any anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and the West, even in the wake of the deadly Brussels attacks.

Police in riot gear protect one of the memorials to the victims of the recent Brussels attacks, as right wing demonstrators protest near the Place de la Bourse in Brussels, Sunday, March, 27, 2016. Photo: AP

The recent Brussels terrorist attacks rocked not only Belgium’s capital but also the entire world. It seems fair to compare it with the Sept. 11 in New York in 2001, because they potentially can greatly impact the global approach to fighting terrorism and brings Russia and the West together.

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With that in mind, Russia Direct recently interviewed Andrey Sushentsov, head of the Foreign Policy analytical agency based in Moscow, an associate professor at MGIMO-University and program director at the Valdai Club, to discuss the chances of Russia-West rapprochement in light of the recent terror attacks and the fledgling peace progress in Syria.

Russia Direct: With the recent terror attacks in Brussels, which put Europe on the highest possible terror alert, how would you assess the terror threat now?

Andrey Sushentsov: The terror threat has been there for several years. Russian officials, including intelligence officials, have been claiming that this kind of terror threat to Europe is coming and it is deeply connected with the crises in Libya, Syria and the refugee flow to Europe.

There is also a new type of terror activity, which is homegrown in Europe and this is a very dangerous process that has its own inertia. People radicalize and even if they have not been extremists in the past, they are becoming extremists now, contributing to the terrorist threat.

I do not think that the recent Brussels attacks have been in many ways different from what we’ve seen already, such as in November 2015 in Paris. Those very terror attacks in Paris did not cause any decisive change in how Russia and the West interact in Syria or in Libya or how they assess the terrorist threat worldwide.

RD: Do you see a glimmer of hope for reconciliation in Russia-West relations as a result of those terrible terror attacks in Europe?

A.S.: There have been several statements, including ones from top American officials, like U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, that they currently better understand Russian motives regarding the terrorist threat that is coming from Syria.

Whether it will deliver any decisive differences in how Russia and the U.S. interact on the Syrian issue is an open question. And in my view, the current threat of terrorism is not that decisive for the West to change priorities in its overall strategy towards Russia.

If they prioritized the terrorism issue above everything else, they would certainly support Assad’s forces, which are fighting in Syria to get the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) out of the country. But currently they see Assad as a problem rather than a solution. I think that, until they re-evaluate the cost of stability in any discussion of democracy promotion, they will possibly never be on the same page with Russia in the discussion of what to do with terrorism.

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RD: After the Brussels attacks, many countries – including Israel offered their assistance to Europe to confront the terror threat within its borders. The U.S. and Russia also offered their help. Do you see Russia having enough expertise and experience in fighting terrorism to share it with Europe?

A.S.: I think Russia has very significant expertise in everything that is connected with terrorism in areas adjacent to Russia geographically, including the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eurasia in general. Its expertise is very sophisticated and valuable, which Russia had been asked to share with the U.S. after the Boston Marathon attacks. But the deep-rooted mutual negative perception of Russia-U.S. and Russia-Europe relations usually prevents them from substantial cooperation on this issue.

We remember that in the context of those Boston Marathon attacks, several U.S. officials tried to get unofficial information from Russian security officers – an act that was basically perceived in Russia as spying. So, this cooperation, even if it is in place, is not symmetrical and it does not at this moment create trustworthy solutions. In my view, this is the major problem. Therefore, while we have very different understandings of what terrorism is, while we have different lists of who to consider terrorists, there will continue to be very significant obstacles in battling this evil.

RD: Do you think that the current terror threat to Europe can play the same role in bringing Russia and the West closer together, just as the Sept. 11 attacks did?

A.S.: No, not at this point. Europe is currently going through a very significant stress of finding itself in new circumstances where the European project is not that attractive to many of its participants.

And they are also trying to figure out how to defend their common border, how to defend against possible threats, which are emanating from countries that have been inundated with migrants recently. So, they are trying to find an answer to the question of how this European Union as a political union, as a security and defense union, will work. And usually this process of figuring out takes a decade or even a generation.

And Europe would not rely on any kind of external support as a decisive factor to fix it. They will try to find their own local solution and I think it is a proper way to proceed with this. So, local security officials should be more competent to fight these kinds of security threats. I think the Europeans have all the resources they need to address this issue and if proper attention is given to it, the proper solution is going to be found. 

RD: Given significant changes in the dynamic of the Syrian crisis after U.S.-Russia diplomatic engagement, we can witness quite a few positive results: a ceasefire that is largely observed, a significant drop in hostilities on the ground, humanitarian aid flows to the blocked settlements and towns in Syria, and resumption of Syria peace talks.  Do you think such progress in Syria could be a starting point for cooperation between Russia and the U.S. on a wider scale?

A.S.: I think this would not be the case. The current relations between the two states are deeply compartmentalized. Each issue under concern is discussed separately. We have already seen that with the Iranian nuclear deal, where the positive effect did not spread to other issues.

First of all, it did not happen because the Obama Administration could not sell this deal as a success of U.S. diplomacy. Republicans started to attack it, saying that the Americans look weak with it, that the U.S. ended up defeated by the Russians and Iranians, which consequently gave it a very negative spin in U.S. domestic politics.

So, when the U.S. consciously cooperates or coordinates efforts with Russia on a very small case, it is usually seen as a problem rather than an asset. And I see that as a major problem in getting to the point of real partnership. Until the U.S. feels relaxed in a symmetrical partnership with any country they will find themselves, there will be a situation where people will claim that the U.S. is weak when it cooperates with anybody who does not share their values or approaches.

And in this respect I also do not believe that there is any sort of a major deal for the entire region, which also includes Ukraine and other issues.

RD: In his recent interview with CBS, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry states that Russia is not an American ally in Syria, but rather, it is a country that is helping the U.S. with other matters in the "strategic interest" of the United States. How do you see this statement and how, in your view, will U.S.-Russia relations evolve over the course of 2016?

A.S.: Since the beginning of this year, we have already witnessed several positive developments that took U.S.-Russia relations a little bit higher from the point they have been last year. But still I think that this year we could witness several contingencies, which again could drop us back to where we were before – and some of them are not dependent on either Russia or the U.S. These are independent factors like Syria or Ukraine, where third parties are involved and their actions can prove to be either constructive or destructive to the trust and relations in Russian-American affairs.

This is why we should be very cautious in how we see each other and what exactly our interests are. It is fine with Russia if we do not call it a partnership or an alliance or anything else. But until we have a clear understanding what exactly our interests are and why exactly we need cooperation with each other on a particular issue, it is fine.

RD: Wrapping up recent developments in Syria, how would you estimate their impact on the regional dynamic of the Syrian crisis and what course of action is Russia likely to pursue in Syria over the year?

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A.S.: I think that the ceasefire in Syria was very instructive. A number of regional parties, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some others saw the overall situation as a consequence of the Russian-American negotiations. When Moscow and Washington settled on the ceasefire and presented it as of the utmost importance, nobody dared to ruin it. This is, in my view, a very important and positive development in this respect.

When and if the regional powers see Russia and the U.S again playing counter to each other in proxy games or something like that, then the dynamic will change negatively. But for now we are not doomed to this kind of bad dynamic and we need to be very cautious about what is exactly at stake: nobody needs a Saudi-Iranian war or a Russia-Turkey full-scale confrontation.

We ultimately need to understand that stability is not a given – it is actually a hard thing to achieve. You need to put a lot of effort to get to the point of stability. And I hope that people in the West and in the world generally understand that stability is not a given.

Speaking about Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria and Moscow’s policy after that, I think in many respects it was a political gesture. It did not downgrade Russia’s military capabilities in the country significantly. It still has S-400 anti-missile defense systems there, it operates its facilities in Tartus and Latakia and it can easily upgrade its military presence in Syria in several hours if the situation deteriorates.