How the Kremlin turns extremist attacks to its own advantage

November 24, 2015
People place photos of victims of a Russian airliner which crashed in Egypt, during a commemoration meeting at Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg, Russia  November 1, 2015. An Airbus A321, operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia under the brand name Metrojet, carrying 224 passengers crashed into a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai peninsula on Saturday shortly after losing radar contact near cruising altitude, killing all aboard. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a day of national mourning for Sunday. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev - RTX1UA59

People place photos of victims of a Russian airliner which crashed in Egypt, during a commemoration meeting at Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg, Russia November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Kovalev

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, four 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.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the the number of apartment buildings that were destroyed in attacks in Russia in 1999. There were four buildings that were destroyed.

18 comments

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How long will the world tolerate the terrorist supporting countries like Turkey ,Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Albania,Bosnia and the annexed Serbian land Kosovo? The whole world should stand together with Russia united. Russia should kick out all the Turkish minorities that live on its territory and send them to Turkey the way that Bulgaria did not that long ago. The good outcome from the downing of the Russian jet is that Russia can impose a no flight zone over the Syrian territory at the request of the legit Syrian government, that way the best fighters against ISIS the Kurds will remain protected from the daily airstrikes by the Turkish air force. Turkey illegally moved the border deeper into Syrian and the Russian jet was operating on Syrian territory.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The author writes out of anger probably because could not get a job at the most progressive and trusted source of information RT.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Another piece of vitriol by a poor standard journalist. Of course Russia and Putin have a different view on dealing with terrorists, but lets be honest (a strange word I know)Obama and co can hardly be labelled a success in that area. And the blind eye that they turn to some of there political allies makes them as un trust worthy as Putin in quite a few areas.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

One of the weakest pieces of “journalism” I have seen in a long time.

Posted by BigMoneyBall | Report as abusive

What an idiotic article! The author states: “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.” WOW! What a revelation — a politician will do something that will benefit him politically! But her facts are wrong — Russia has bombed ISIS plenty (why else would ISIS place a bomb aboard a Russian plane!). But ISIS isn’t the only fundamentalist terrorist group (created by the US and Saudi friends)in Syria and Iraq, and Russia does the world a favor by attacking the others as well. This author should either control her anti-Russian biases or disclose them in the interest of honest journalism. However, I wouldn’t expect either from Reuters.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

This article lacks understanding of political rational and idealizes Western Nations’ ambitions in an ignorant way. It reads like a oversimplifying propaganda piece.

Posted by TheDirk | Report as abusive

… just needed to ad, that of course her working at the “Hudson Institute” explains a lot. “Conservative” think tank!? Conservative – the new umbrella term for all unreflected hate-propagating non-thinkers.

Posted by TheDirk | Report as abusive

RUSSIA WINS BIG! First Britain and then the US divided the Mideast into a group of states containing hateful enemies that were doomed to failure. Then they continued to drain the oil from the region by propping up mass murdering genocidal tyrants like Saddam and Quaddafi, The Shah, The Saudi Royals, the Israelis, and others who killed millions and oppressed hundreds of millions. Lately when that blew up and W’s Iraq war opened Pandoraa’s Box for even more anti West Jihadists, the pot has boiled over. Only the Saudis are keeping gas low and the markets high. In return we guarantee their asses. Now enter Russia, formerly excluded from the general mess except for Syria……Turkey just gave them carte blanch and if the Kremlin has half a brain they will see that creating and protecting a Kurdish State on the Kurdish region in Iraq will be the ultimate and most horrific non act of war Russia can inflict on Turkey while making Russia a hero for doing a wonderful thing….What can the US and Brits say?….they created all the doomed states and boundaries around there to start with, including the oil stealing Kuwait, all designed to weaken the region so we could take their oil in a blood murder and oppression for oil policy.

Posted by ntgg | Report as abusive

“In 1999, just after Putin was made Prime Minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin…
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.”

Pretty much sums up the philosophy of the unelected Russian government.

Posted by Manila02 | Report as abusive

The truth is, both the US and Russia have very specific and self-interested goals in Syria. It’s a proxy war, akin to what we used to see during the Cold War, over and over and over. The US was attempting to capitalize on the rise of ISIS in order to remove Russian influence (Assad) from the region. This is why western forces have specifically avoided eliminating ISIS’ income streams for years. We’re fully aware that Turkey and other NATO allies in the region are buying most of ISIS’ oil through middlemen and then reselling on the market at a significant discount. I’m willing to bet that our low prices at the pump are in a noticeable way a result of this illegal market.

Russia has moved into Syria to capitalize on a weak American position, to undermine our relationships with allies there, to establish their own coalition of nations and organizations, and to prop up Assad. They’re there to rout our ambitions and strengthen their own position.

None of our governments care about the people of Syria. We’re happy to bomb them and watch them either starve, die, or become radicalized. This is geopolitical chess being disguised as a war on terror. This is a game where the kings and nobility lie constantly to the serfs in order to keep them confused, scared, angry, and ready for war.

Posted by mynrkt | Report as abusive

Oops there goes Russian oil and grain customer Turkey, yet another casualty in Putin’s foreign policy. Let’s see – Ukraine, Europe, Turkey, USA, will there be any customers for Russian products left before the end of the year? Russia is headed for certain bankruptcy at 45$ per barrel of oil, and fewer grain and oil customers will seal the deal that much sooner. Putins’s Kremlin sanctioned policy is simply put another way – destroy Russian business relationships.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

i was going to add to the comments section something informative and based on facts but to be honest i just can’t be bothered and neither are you dear journalist,who did you sold your soul to?or are you just incompetent?who knows..i don’t..

Posted by mari1 | Report as abusive

Uh, okay, there is not really any news or original or creative analysis in this piece. We are going on two centuries since Tocqueville wrote his analysis of the differences between the US and Russia, and pretty much things haven’t changed. Putin is as popular in Russia as he is because he understands that. The US, with our idiotic exceptionalism belief, keeps getting surprised.

A much more interesting topic would be the change in attitude in the rest of eastern Europe. An EU skeptic Poland, Slovakia, etc., is much more significant than our centuries old differences from Russia.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Funny how so many headlines read “How the Kremlin turns extremist attacks to its own advantage”… but you never read “How the White House turns extremist attacks to its own advantage”…

Always this Evil Mother Russia Big Brother subtext… despite the fact that the US manipulates world affairs on a much larger scale… yet you never get these headlines from Reuters…

Lazy status quo journalism… if journalism at all…

Posted by SodaBoy | Report as abusive

opinion is given based on fiction and gossip media.

Posted by free_man | Report as abusive

Looks like an article hit the nerve of Putin’s trolls – all are here. )

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

This article is pretty humorous but poorly conceived. Yes. perhaps Russia is turning recent events into political advantage but then again, they are certainly not the only ones so why the double standard? I mean, back in 2003 the US managed to twist 9/11 into the invasion of Iraq, a country and regime that had nothing to do with the Al Qaeda. If anything, logic would dictate that Saudi Arabia should have been the invasion target instead.

As for the comment regarding states and their servile hierarchy with its citizens, I’ll just quote a former politician.

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

It would seem that Russia isn’t the only country that wishes to instill into its citizenry a sense of obligation to serve the state. Again, yet another double standard.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

And one more thing for you “Hannah”. The US government hasn’t been in the service of the American people since the turn of the new century. Corporations and their lobbyists have made certain of that. The corrupting effect of money in politics is real and the US of today is closer to an oligarchy than most would like to admit. In fact many politicians of today want get elected to get rich, not to serve the people. They know that when they finally retire from office, they can collect speaker fees or get offered board seats at large corporations aka financial security for life.

The “democratic” image is just a well-crafted facade created by those in power to fool the masses into believing that they still have some semblance of control over our government. With just two political parties picking and choosing their candidates for primaries, the people are just voting for the “lesser of two evils” every election cycle. That’s not democracy, that’s being shoehorned.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive