The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, with its brazen challenge to Western values, has the potential to shift Russian domestic and foreign policy. Will it unite the Kremlin and the West - or alienate them even further?


Mourners hold signs depicting victim's eyes during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. Photo: AP

The terrorist attack in the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo exposes the core values of Western civilization to even greater scrutiny than did 9/11. What happened in Paris was not a terrorist attack in the classical sense. Rather, it can be described as a localized military assault. A blow was dealt to the free press, one of the most important institutions of civil society, and was intended not to maximize random casualties, but to eradicate a very select group of people guilty of “improper conduct.”

The attack was carried out not by suicide bombers, but by cold-blooded murderers intent on not only dispatching their victims, but also avoiding capture and punishment. The terrorists were not a foreign force throwing down the gauntlet to a hostile government. Instead they came from within, striking at the heart of the key institutions that define the rules of conduct in society.

Within hours, the events in Paris had reverberated far beyond the borders of France, and even Europe. In particular, Russia’s response to the incident may have far-reaching consequences, both in foreign and domestic policy. The Russian authorities including Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — have already expressed their condolences and their readiness to expand anti-terror cooperation between the countries.

Anti-terrorist solidarity with the French government and people could, under certain circumstances, help overcome the crisis in relations stemming from the conflict in Ukraine. Especially given the fact that, in recent months, French President Francois Hollande has shown commitment to resolving the issue of Ukraine in relations with Russia.

However, the onset of a new positive impetus in relations between Russia and the West in the wake of the events in Paris could be impeded by a number of serious obstacles, each with the potential to turn rapprochement into a new wave of confrontation. Much will depend on the nuances of Russian foreign policy in 2015.

The fact is that the entire logic of Russian public opinion in recent years has trod a path of increasingly vocal moral criticism of Western civilization. According to this logic, Europe has finally “decomposed,” its inhabitants have nothing sacred left and only Russian conservatism can save them, etc.

In this sense, some Russians could not fully empathize with the satirical work of the victims of the terror attack, which under a law adopted in Russia in 2013, could be classified as “an insult to the feelings of believers,” with the prospect of imprisonment of up to three years. However, as a country that lives under the constant threat of terrorism, Russia’s instinct is to support the victim of any such attack, regardless of ideological or even moral preferences.

Based on these interlocking but opposing principles, Russia’s response to the terrorist attack in Paris could theoretically follow several widely divergent trajectories.

An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting, at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Photo: AP

One highly auspicious, albeit impracticable option, would be to revive the “spirit of 9/11” — that “golden age” of anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and the West, for which President Vladimir Putin certainly feels a touch of nostalgia. However, the memory of how the West neglected the interests of its ally in the anti-terrorist coalition acts as a strong counterweight to such feeling, and the deep-rooted antagonism over Ukraine rules out a repeat of 2001. If bridge building with the U.S. is out of the question for Russia, perhaps it can be done with France, although such aspiration follows more along the openly political aim of “splitting the West.”

Another option for Russian diplomacy, more feasible in the current climate, harbors serious risks of deepening the confrontation with Europe. It would involve polite condolences from the Kremlin, accompanied by (not so) subtle allusions to the fact that the victims of the terrorist attack showed poor judgment in provoking religious fanatics with their caricatures, while the French government did nothing to bring the journalists’ shock tactics under control and avert the tragedy.

The next step in the logic of such reasoning would be to proclaim that terror attacks in Russia are not targeted against individuals, since the authorities are tasked with ensuring that such persons display decorum and do not endanger themselves through improper behavior. No doubt the case of Pussy Riot would warrant a mention or two. Two members of the group were incarcerated after a scandalous performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, thereby (according to many observers in Russia) saving them from the wrath of religious radicals.

This interpretation of events is the most likely, since it dovetails nicely with that traditional leifmotif of Russian foreign policy — “whataboutism.” Except this time, it is the other way round: instead of “take a look in the mirror,” the mantra is “look at us and learn.”

In the present situation, the proposition that Russia is a step ahead of the West in terms of ideology – in terms of taking into account the new global threat posed by religious fanatics and proactively “educating” citizens through legislative restrictions on freedom of speech - is unlikely to facilitate mutual understanding between Russia and the West. 

The attack on one of the basic values of Western civilization — freedom of speech — will rally the people of Europe to repel the threat, while Russia’s theory that the terrorists are not the only guilty party could be perceived as aiding and abetting extremism. This is unlikely to increase the country’s standing in Western eyes.

The best option for Russia in the current circumstances would be to offer comprehensive assistance to the French law enforcement agencies with no sermonizing, no exploitation of the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment, and no demonstrative support for right-wing parties. That today would be wholly inappropriate and counterproductive. The Paris attack shows that all countries representing modern civilization are in the same boat and face a common set of threats.

If the political crisis in relations between Russia and the West hinders the fight against these threats, it must be resolved as a matter of urgency. If history causes one side to view the other with suspicion, measures are needed to build trust. Attempting to score political points on the back of another’s tragedy will only weaken Russia and the West, while the outside forces longing to overturn the existing world order will triumph.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.