When it comes to Vladimir Putin and Islamic State, trust but verify

November 18, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a session of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2015. Putin said on Thursday he had asked his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad how he would view an armed opposition force that was genuinely ready to combat Islamic State militants. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. - RTS5OQ8

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a session of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

As Western countries recast their security policies after the Paris attacks, Russia is capitalizing on the fallout by advancing its claim that no campaign against Islamic State can succeed without Moscow’s participation. Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to come out of the cold during G20 meetings in Turkey over the weekend when the recent pariah huddled with President Barack Obama and other leaders before the announcement of an agreement on a long-term political solution for Syria.

With Moscow’s confirmation on Tuesday that an Islamic State bomb brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt last month, Washington and its allies clearly hope the common aim of fighting the murderous Islamist group will finally persuade Putin to help tackle the root causes of extremism in Syria, as well as Europe’s refugee crisis. He has already promised to stop bombing moderate rebels groups opposed to his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s possible that if the political process moves more rapidly, there could be a greater level of exchange of information [between U.S. and Russian forces],” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris on Tuesday. Syrians could be “weeks away, conceivably, of a big transition,” he added.

Although Western governments are right to pursue any avenue that encourages genuine cooperation, they should be very, very wary of compounding the current crisis in Syria by repeating the mistake of trusting a Kremlin with vastly different goals. For a lesson in how the Kremlin really operates, they would do well to look instead at Russia’s response to another recent news event: the doping scandal that resulted in its suspension from international athletics and possibly next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

After the World Anti-Doping Agency issued a report this month alleging state support for a massive doping regime, Putin withheld comment while a parade of lesser officials issued hardline reactions about a conspiracy against Russia. Russians were being persecuted, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said, because “whatever we do, everything is bad.”

When Putin finally spoke up last week, he sounded fairly moderate. Russia must “do everything” it can to eradicate doping, he said, and ordered an inquiry into the charges. It was classic Putin.

Surely, he had weighed his options. With overwhelming evidence from a resolute agency that the Russian Federal Security Service was covering up a vast bribery scheme, no doubt he concluded denial would do little to help avoid the recommended suspension. The issue’s importance to an already isolated country should not be underestimated. Missing the Olympics would play poorly among sports-mad Russians, whose government invested a record $50 billion last year in the Sochi Winter Olympics, portrayed in a tidal wave of state propaganda as evidence of Russia’s return to the ranks of global great powers.

Exercises in that kind of state nationalism are the closest the Kremlin has to a system of ideas and beliefs. In fact, the Russian president is no ideologue. Otherwise, he might have been expected to deny the doping scandal — anything — to ratchet up his confrontation with the West. But unlike, say, Republicans in the U.S. Congress, to whom opposition to every one of Obama’s policies appears sacred, Putin compromises when he must. What passes for Russian ideology doesn’t determine policy, that is, but functions as a tool for achieving his main — and often contradictory — guiding principle of shoring up his power.

Just last week, Russian state television appeared to betray a major military secret when a news camera filming a meeting between Putin and military officials zoomed in on a paper showing plans for a new nuclear submarine drone that could evade U.S. antimissile systems.

That clearly deliberate “leak” illustrates how Moscow really operates. Rather than develop new technology, the Kremlin appears to have merely dusted off decades-old Soviet blueprints in the latest attempt to threaten the West. The vessel doesn’t exist; it’s communist-era bluster.

In yet more saber-rattling, this time on social media, pictures showed new S-400 antiaircraft missiles stationed in Syria, where besides the government and Russia, only Western forces operate aircraft. Which gets at Moscow’s core disagreement with the West. Despite the apparent thaw in relations, the Kremlin’s offer to form an anti-militant coalition still represents a poison pill: Putin’s backing of Assad only strengthens the figure most responsible for Islamic State’s prospering, as well as the migrant crisis wracking Europe.

Meanwhile, Moscow is inserting itself ever deeper into the Syrian conflict, with unpredictable results. It remains to be seen how the explosion of the Russian airliner will affect Putin’s popularity ratings, the crucial pillar of his personal rule for which Russians are sacrificing so much. Last week, Islamic State promised in a video that more Russian blood will soon be shed.

Putin’s persona has proved remarkably resistant to that and other bad news. Far from restoring Russian power, the Kremlin’s choking authoritarianism has prompted a massive brain drain, stifled technological and economic innovation and otherwise diminished the country’s long-term prospects for prosperity. Despite the Kremlin’s claims, there is no parity between Russia and the United States. Still, confronting the United States through the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria has helped push Putin’s approval ratings to record levels of almost 90 percent. Far from undermining public support, economic recession and receding individual liberties appear to have helped galvanize it.

As in foreign policy, Moscow sees athletics as another way to prove its mettle against the West and — like the Cold War communist regimes that serve as its model — it will go to great lengths to achieve sporting victories. Putin will ultimately continue doing what he must to shore up his power, which according to his regime’s internal logic requires ratcheting up the competition.

Insisting Russia faces serious consequences for violating international fair play has provided an example of how to respond to the Kremlin’s subterfuge: remain resolute about upholding Western values. Putin may have sabotaged the London Olympics, as the anti-doping agency’s report says, but the Paris attacks shouldn’t enable Moscow to do the same to Western policy in Syria.

Overlooking Russia’s real intentions would not only harm the ultimate goal of fighting Islamic militants by addressing the human suffering in Syria, it also would send the wrong signal to Russians about their own regime. The West must proceed very carefully.

13 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Slava to Vladimir The Righteous the protector of the Free World.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Gregory Feifer……….You should turn your high powered perception to the way the West/NATO/US operates with impunity breaking international law time and time again before even trying to tarnish Russian actions around the world.

Posted by SolarPowerBat | Report as abusive

Putin’s backing of Assad only strengthens the figure most responsible for Islamic State’s prospering, as well as the migrant crisis wracking Europe.

Really, the US regime change policy had nothing to do with ISIS talk about air brushing history

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Wow, what a bunch of propaganda. What “moderates”? Al Nusra? They are just al Queda in Syria. The FSA? They are confirmed as participating with al Nusra in anti-Christian massacres. Just sickening that anybody is still trying to peddle this tripe. As to “root cause”, that would be the dark ages Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia. And of course the Turks who are well-documented as having aided and abetted ISIS in many ways, including monetarily by buying ISIS oil. Speaking of which, rather interesting that the US forces only started bombing ISIS oil trucks after the Russkies made them look bad by actually doing something other than train “moderates” who subsequently went over to ISIS with weapons and full kit.

Posted by Moric | Report as abusive

The comments by SolarPowerBat are spot on.

This opinion piece is a wonderful example of Western propaganda.
Patriotism blinds.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

The only enemy here, is Islam. The Prophet Mohammed is a defiled joke now. Just saw a picture of him in his underwear in Moscow, getting spanked in a Toyota truck. Dirty little prophet.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Right. The supposed emperor has no clothes as revealed by Vlad the Great doing in three weeks what Washington had supposedly doing for over a year. The Russian Federation’s stance towards Washington should be “don’t trust but verify”.

Posted by vare1402 | Report as abusive

Your opinions nonetheless the facts concerning ISIS, Libya and Syria are plain to see, Putin was RIGHT all the time. The Western powers were WRONG all the time. Please revise your Cold War/Great Game rhetoric, the 60s are calling and want their misinformation back.

Posted by Rince | Report as abusive

Putin has built a type of might that is going to extend to Europe because we have choosen to take emergency state. In this case the administration is ruling the usual business and the citizens may only through TV or internet leave their comments a few. It is no more democracy. It is a “putinisation” of the western Europe, just a presidency and the media. This change is very sensitive here in France where the administration is hunting islamists to any price.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

Gregory, your article is muddled. This is how wars start.

Posted by stonybrook | Report as abusive

the so called moderate rebels are killing IS and everyone else that does not agree with them..The US keeps giving them weapons so just in case IS one day is defeated straight away we will have another strong terrorist group ready to do exactly what IS was doing and on and on and on..we have to keep the petrodollar at any cost:)

Posted by mari1 | Report as abusive

As I remember, there had been an official acknowledgement in Washington, DC, on the level of the Congress hearings, that ther appear to be no significant “moderate” rebels fighting force, right before Russians began their bombing campaign. And after Russians staerted bombing armed groups -volia, “moderate opposition” suddenly came into existence. Lies stink, and more and more americans are getting disgusted by that stink.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

I always get a chuckle from Feifer’s “analyses”. So now we get this gem: “Putin’s backing of Assad only strengthens the figure most responsible for Islamic State’s prospering…” Just as Feifer notes that Republicans must always appose Obama, so Feifer must always find a way to oppose Putin, not matter how contorted/distorted the logic. Greg, I guess your family didn’t like the USSR, but your maniacal pursuit of revenge makes you a rather warped analyst.

Posted by Squeamish | Report as abusive