As French President Francois Hollande visits both Washington and Moscow to solicit aid in fighting Islamic State (IS), which has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives, his options seem few.
Where the European allies are seemingly incapable and unwilling to confront the issues at hand, Russia, which already has a military presence on Syrian soil, has said that it is willing to shift its bombing focus from the Syrian opposition to areas controlled by IS. Russia is also a recent victim of the group, with the downing of MetroJet Flight 9268 by a bomb planted aboard. The United States, desirous only of avoiding yet another Middle Eastern war, but worried by the unraveling of regional order and growing humanitarian disaster, seems willing to go along with the idea of a U.S.-French-Russian anti-IS coalition.
But both Holland and President Barack Obama should be on their guard. In past situations, Putin and his Kremlin have made a habit of responding to tragic events and terror attacks only in ways that they believe will benefit them politically. There is no reason to believe that pattern will change now.
If, as it seems will happen, U.S. and French leadership do decide to work in conjunction with the Russians in Syria, they must take that step with their eyes wide open. Vladimir Putin — the same man who insisted that Russian troops were not in Crimea, and said Russian soldiers had nothing to do with violence in eastern Ukraine — is not a good-faith actor. The Kremlin is not a trustworthy ally, nor is it now in their interest to really and truly combat IS.
Russia’s goals in involving itself militarily in Syria, remain very different from U.S. and French aims. Though many have assumed that the deaths of 219 Russians at the hands of IS-related terrorists will change the Kremlin’s calculations, we must remember that Russia has always responded much differently to terrorism than has the West.
A short history of Russia, Putin, and terror
In 1999, just after Putin was made Prime Minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin, three apartment buildings in three different Russian cities were blown up, killing nearly 300. These attacks, the origins of which have never been confirmed, were blamed on Chechen terrorists. The day after a similar attack was foiled in the city of Ryazan, Putin launched air strikes against the Chechen capital, starting the Second Chechen War.
In 2000, a Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk, sank in the Barents Sea with 118 on board. At the time, Russia’s media was relatively free, and it was unashamed in broadcasting the reality of the military and government incompetence that had made the accident possible. It was that honestly that spelled the beginning of the end for free Russian media, especially since most Russians receive their news through the television. Very quickly, two of Russia’s most-watched TV channels, NTV and ORT, came under the Kremlin’s control.
In 2004, a year of many deadly terror attacks in Russia, a school in the North Caucasus was taken by Chechen terrorists. Nearly one-third of the 1,100 hostages were killed in the siege, a number that the media struggled to keep under wraps. Mr. Putin took the opportunity to further consolidate his power, ended the local election of governors, and gave himself the power to appoint them. At the time, he said: “Under current conditions, the system of executive power in the country should not just be adapted to operating in crisis situations, but should be radically restructured in order to strengthen the unity of the country and prevent further crises.”
Serving the state, not the other way around
The Kremlin’s reactions to these events highlight a key difference between the Western and Russian understanding of the role of the state. While Western nations largely consider the state to be in the service of the citizens that have established and nurtured it, the Russian understanding is the opposite. In Russia, the people are to serve the state, which exists to prevent the blossoming of chaos. The existence and survival of the state is of higher importance than the people which belong to that state. “While Mother Russia must be protected,” write Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, “she does not necessarily protect her own citizens.”
It is this understanding which informs Russian actions in Syria. Where the West seems more concerned about the humanitarian situation in Syria and the millions of displaced persons, Russia’s key concern remains the continued existence of the Syrian state and the preservation of Bashar al-Assad as the rightful leader of Syria. Neither the crash of the MetroJet plane nor the loss of life in Paris has changed that ultimate intention. To give in wholesale to Western demands that Assad must go would be, for the Kremlin, an admission that the very foundations of Russian statehood are illegitimate. Worse, it might open the possibility of the future destruction of the Russian state.
For Russia, then, the destruction of the Islamic State is only a secondary concern. Since it declared common cause with France on November 17, Russia has made a show of increasing its bombing of IS positions in Syria. But it is exactly that, a show. In reality, their old bombing patterns –in which they claimed to be targeting IS but were largely bombing those who stand in opposition to Assad — largely remain the same. In fact, by largely bombing groups opposed to Assad, Russia has been tacitly assisting IS in its mission. Even IS itself notes that it is not being very much targeted by Russian bombing raids, and that those sorties are still largely focused on the opposition strongholds in cities like Aleppo.
As they meet in Vienna to discuss Syria’s future, and meet with each other to discuss a possible alignment with Russia in the fight against IS, Western leaders must bear these realities all in mind. There may be little appetite in the West for more wars, but outsourcing our dirty work to a Russia with vastly different goals has the potential to produce a set of outcomes that we have not even begun to imagine.
Hannah Thoburn is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, focused on Eastern Europe.