The World

Can Putin Turn the ISIS Mess to Russia’s Advantage?

A man holds pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in support of Syrian regime in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, on Oct. 19, 2012.

Photo by Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images

Sputnik News, the slick new-media rebranding of the venerable Russian news wire RIA-Novosti, reports that Russia has called on the U.N. Security Council to ban purchases of oil from terrorist-controlled regions, including the territory held by ISIS. This isn’t a surprising position, but it does draw some attention to Russia’s interesting outsider role in the international anti-ISIS effort.

While the U.S. and Russia have pledged to share intelligence on the group, Russia—one of the main international backers of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government—is not a member of the U.S.-led “broad coalition” against ISIS announced last month. As one Russian foreign ministry official recently put it, “We do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy entry tickets.”

Russia has taken the position that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria ought to have been debated in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow enjoys veto power. Russia has also relished the opportunity to say I told you so, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arguing that ISIS is made up of the same rebels that the U.S. and other Western countries were supporting against Assad. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also made much of his umbrage at President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, which listed Russian aggression in Ukraine (along with ISIS and the Ebola virus) as major international threats. Discussing the diplomatic puzzle presented by Syria, a senior U.S. administration official recently told CNN, “The Russians are not our friend here.” 

So there’s little reason to think Russia will formally join the U.S.-led coalition. But there are some ways that this all could work to Moscow’s advantage.

For one thing, the fight against ISIS could provide a pretext for why countries in Russia’s backyard need its “protection.” Edward Lemon writes at EurasiaNet that Russian officials seem to be playing up the potential threat that Central Asian ISIS fighters could pose to their home countries. Estimates vary wildly, but there are almost certainly dozens to hundreds of fighters from Central Asian countries as well as Russia fighting with ISIS in Syria. Russia has military assets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but would like to expand that presence. As Lemon writes, “Russian officials have often stressed that the threat to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which do not host Russian troops, is particularly acute.” These governments have, for years, been fighting the al-Qaida-linked militant group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

(Ironically, some of the Central Asians fighting in Syria appear to have been radicalized in Russia rather than on the battlefield. Olim Yusuf, a Tajik ISIS member captured in September, says he was recruited while working on a building site in Russia. Many Central Asians travel to Russia for low-wage work, and often face discrimination and xenophobia.)

It also seems conceivable that Syria could once again provide the venue for a Russian diplomatic victory. (Remember when a John Kerry gaffe and a last-minute intervention from Russia led to a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons and forestall U.S. airstrikes? I know, that seems like four wars ago.) It seems sadly inevitable that the U.S. will eventually come to terms with Assad remaining in power and go back to trying to push for a peace deal in Syria among the various anti-ISIS forces in the country. If that happens, U.S. diplomats may, much to their chagrin, need to call on Russia to help get Assad on board.

And generally speaking, a leader like Putin who tends to see great-power competition in zero-sum terms, presumably appreciates the fact that U.S. attention and resources continue to be tied down in the Middle East.