When French President Francois Hollande called upon world leaders to join him in an alliance to defeat Islamic State terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered the call. In a gesture of cooperation at the United Nations Security Council uncharacteristic of Moscow — better known there for its anti-Western obstructionism — it backed France’s November 20 resolution to take “all necessary measures” against ISIS. And to show the world how enthusiasm for the struggle had already taken hold even among the Russian rank and file, the Russian defense ministry posted a video showing Russian pilots writing “For Paris” on bombs intended for Syria.
On Monday, in an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper, Putin expressed undiminished enthusiasm for sharing the good work of countering terrorism with France and the United States.
“We are faced with common threats, and we still want all countries, both in Europe and the whole world, to join their efforts to combat these threats, and we are still striving for this,” Putin said.
Hollande and President Barack Obama could hardly spurn Putin’s counter-terrorist zeal, especially when it was asked for and the rhetoric is backed up not only with planes in the air but with boots on the ground. But at least some people in Paris and Washington have, from the outset, been wary of Russian participation in such an alliance.
As Hamodia’s military correspondent A. Pe’er pointed out in these pages recently, those “For Paris” bombs have not all been aimed at Islamic State targets. In fact, most have been inscribed for the enemy of Russia’s friend Bashar Assad, the rebel forces who are trying to topple him. Russia’s main interest in Syria was and remains the existence of a regime friendly to it, one which will assist it in realizing its long-term goal of strengthening its military and diplomatic foothold in the Middle East.
Russia has been quite willing to bomb Islamic State targets as well. Putin immediately grasped, as some of his allies may not have, that doing “For France” will do For Russia, too. He has leveraged the need for Russian cooperation to gain acceptance for Russia’s expanding presence in Syria, and to loosen opposition to its aggressive activities in Ukraine.
Actually, there is nothing in the rhetoric of anti-terrorism at the U.N. or the Bild interview which binds Russia to anything specific. Putin says he’s against terrorism? Who isn’t?
But when you look at the record, you begin to wonder about Putin’s definition of terrorism. For example, since 2014, Russian-led forces have undertaken numerous terrorist bombings in Kharkiv and Odessa. More importantly, through Iran and Syria, Russia is a principal merchant of arms to Hamas and Hizbullah.
How does Putin reconcile his anti-terrorism policy with supplying weapons to the most notorious terrorist groups in the world? Is he that cynical? Not at all. Russia is perfectly consistent. For it does not recognize Hamas and Hizbullah as terrorist organizations — no more than it considers Iran a threat to world peace. That’s how Russia could finalize the deal with Tehran for S-300 missiles before the ink was dry on the nuclear deal and the sanctions were formally off.
It is all a matter of how one defines terrorism. Islamic State murdering civilians in Paris is terrorism. Hamas and Hizbullah doing the same thing in the Middle East is not.
Even on the lower-profile matter of intelligence sharing, where major policy concerns are not at stake Russia has been strikingly uncooperative in recent times — as in Moscow’s rebuff of the request of U.S. authorities for information about the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Such an antagonistic attitude does not augur well for assistance from Russian intelligence services in tackling Islamic State.
When asked about Russia’s intervention in Syria, Putin confirmed that Russian forces would remain there for the purpose of launching a democratic process.
“There is a plan,” Putin said. “In its key aspects, it coincides with the American plan: working on the constitution, preparing elections in Syria and the recognition of their results. But for now we are going to launch strikes and support the Syrian army in its offensive.”
Putin is for democracy. Who isn’t? That his political opponents and outspoken journalists have a way of disappearing in Putin’s Russia is, of course, no contradiction. He disavows any involvement in repressive tactics and rejects claims that his election victories have been rigged or that his government is corrupt.
During the Cold War, we had experts on the Soviet Union — Kremlinologists, they were sometimes called — who sought to penetrate the wall of secrecy and the rhetorical obfuscation of the communist regime, and to provide American policymakers with an accurate assessment of the Kremlin’s real objectives.
We haven’t heard much about Kremlinology in recent years. Maybe, after the fall of the Soviet empire, the term is outmoded. But the policymakers in Washington and Paris might well do with a Putinologist or two to help them to understand and deal with the Russian leader. He cannot be taken lightly.