Could Islamic extremism prompt Russia and the U.S. to closer cooperation?

With the rise of Islamic militant fundamentalism in the Middle East creating increasing challenges to regional and global security, both Russia and the U.S. are faced with serious risks to their interests in the region. Historian Vitaly Naumkin argues that despite tense relations in other foreign policy spheres, the two nations have good reason to join forces in the region.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Konstantin Maler

The rapid advance of radical Islamist terrorist groups, representing a threat both for Russia and the United States, is one of the dominant trends in the Middle East at the moment.

Moscow and Washington have mostly asymmetrical interests in the region. The U.S., not to mention its allies, still remains a major buyer of Middle Eastern oil; a number of states in the region are strategic partners of the United States, having signed bilateral security and defense treaties, so there are American military bases there. Russia has none of these.

 

Shared interests present opportunities

On the other hand, Moscow cooperates both with countries that have a difficult relationship with the U.S. and with some of its partners, like Turkey. On the whole, Moscow arguably does not have any vital interests in the Middle East. Accordingly, Russia and the United States do not have any serious contradictions there, even if their administrations have different takes on certain regimes and events. Hypothetically, this could create an opportunity for both countries to cooperate in the areas where they have common interests.

But what are those common interests? First and foremost, there is of course the need to fight against international terrorism and extremism. Russia and the United States both want stability in the Middle East. Even if Washington, as many believe in Russia, has actually been seeking to create “controlled chaos” in the region, I do not think this would correspond to the long-term interests of the U.S. Regime change in the countries that are hostile to (or not controlled by) Washington, would create problems for the United States, rather than advantages. When will Libya be controllable and who will control it? Not the U.S. It is no coincidence that realist American politicians, like Henry Kissinger to name but one, have criticized the country’s reckless intervention in the affairs of the regional states. But could Russia and the U.S. cooperate today to, for instance, restore stability in Libya?

 

Barriers to collaboration

However, U.S.-Russia cooperation, even in the areas of common interests, is affected by a number of constraints. The main one is the deplorable state of bilateral relations and the resulting deep mistrust between the two governments. Even once the Ukrainian crisis is settled, the situation is unlikely to change significantly. On one hand, the United States supports several Islamist groups considered “moderate” in some Arab world countries that suffer from terrorism. In turn, Russia believes these groups are almost as dangerous as the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda branch operating in Syria and Lebanon. Terrorists must not be divided into “good” and “bad.” On the other hand, Washington refuses to cooperate with the Syrian government, regarded by Moscow as an important partner in the fight against terrorism.

Even if we assume the counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries would be advanced to a level corresponding to the threat, Russia will not be ready to join any coalition led by the United States, and the U.S. will never refuse to be the leader. Russia, which learned some valuable lessons from America’s (and its own) experience, would under no circumstances conduct military operations in the Arab countries, or even conduct airstrikes there. Moscow will in any case insist on submitting the issue to the UN Security Council (where it wields a veto – RBTH).

 

Low profile?

Nevertheless, Russia is willing to cooperate both with the West and with regional states in the fight against terrorism, preferring to work with legitimate governments. Moscow is especially concerned about the growing numbers of jihadists from Russia and Central Asia fighting for ISIS (Islamic State).

I think the need to stand together against a common threat will eventually prompt Washington and Moscow to make amends. But considering all the above-mentioned constraints, the cooperation will likely be low-profile. At best, the parties will coordinate their efforts and share relevant information, while acting on their own or, perhaps, along parallel directions. That said, even this kind of trust will be helpful for mending the rift between the countries.

Vitaly Naumkinis the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a doctor of historical sciences.

First published in Russian in Kommersant.

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