Russia and USA could jointly combat militant Islamic fundamentalism

Drawing by Konstantin Maler

Drawing by Konstantin Maler

The rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, particularly in West Asia, is creating increasing challenges to regional and global security. Tackling this problem is proving almost intractable, and both Russia and the United States face serious threats to their interests in the region. The historian Vitaly Naumkin argues that, despite strained relations in other foreign policy spheres, the two countries need to join forces in the region.

The rapid rise and advance of radical Islamic terrorist groups, like the Islamic State, across West Asia represents a serious threat to both Russia and the United States and their interests in this crucial region.

Moscow and Washington’s interests in the region are vastly different.

The U.S and several of its allies still remain major buyers of petroleum from West Asia. Several states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, are strategic partners of the United States, and have signed bilateral security and defence treaties, allowing for American military bases to be located there.

Russia does not have bases there.

Shared interests present opportunities

However, Moscow does cooperate closely both with countries that have a difficult relationship with the U.S. and with some of its partners, like Turkey, but, arguably, does not have any vital interests in the West Asia.

Thus, Russia and the United States do not have serious contradictions there, even if their administrations have different positions about some of the region’s regimes and events.

Hypothetically, therefore, this could create an opportunity for both countries to cooperate in areas where their interests concur.

These common interests include primarily, the need to effectively fight against creeping Islamic fundamentalist 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 responsible for creating “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 – RIR).

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.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.