Moscow is not a reliable partner for Washington in combating international terrorism. On the contrary, the Kremlin supports forces in the Middle East and elsewhere that oppose the United States. It aims to deflect violent jihadism toward the West, both to shield Russia from being targeted and to weaken America’s global influence. Vladimir Putin’s Russia possesses all the attributes of a terrorist sponsor, by engaging in terrorist attacks against its own population and by playing a significant role in developing terrorist networks outside its borders. 

Russia’s security services have engaged in domestic terrorism both to subdue and manipulate public opinion. The most notorious outrage occurred in September 1999, shortly before Putin was appointed president. John Dunlop, a distinguished scholar at the Hoover Institution, in his landmark book The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin's Rule, provides compelling evidence that the FSB—formerly the KGB—bombed several housing complexes inside Russia, killing over 300 citizens. The objective was to scapegoat “Chechen terrorists” and justify a new war against Chechnya’s independence. Putin’s subsequent state terror campaign against Chechnya indiscriminately murdered tens of thousands of civilians.

Connections between the Kremlin and international terrorism extend back for decades. The KGB helped develop modern terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. It provided weapons to several terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, helped devise aircraft hijackings during the 1960s, and promoted the concept of suicide bombings against both military and civilian targets. According to KGB defectors, the FSB successor has continued to sponsor terrorists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former deputy leader of al-Qaeda, who was trained in Russia in the 1990s before joining Osama bin Laden.

The FSB upholds the KGB’s terrorist tradition. During its proxy attack on Ukraine, Moscow supplied the missile system to separatists who shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet, killing nearly 300 civilians. The West has been reluctant to declare Moscow’s proxy groups—the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk inside Ukraine—terrorist organizations despite their deliberate targeting of civilians. This is primarily a political decision in order to protect Russia from being recognized as a terrorism sponsor.

In the Middle East, the Kremlin’s allies are America’s enemies. In Afghanistan, Russia provides military assistance to the Taliban against the central government supported by Washington. Gen. John Nicholson, who leads U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently confirmed that Russia is dispatching weapons to the Taliban that are used to kill Afghan government forces and U.S. troops. This is part of a broader strategy by Moscow to gain influence among Muslim radicals and create a long-term Afghan quagmire for Washington. Moscow also supports Hezbollah against Israel and is the primary ally of the Iranian government the White House consistently condemns for sponsoring international terrorism.

In Syria, Moscow’s military campaign is not directed against Islamic State (IS) but is intended to annihilate the moderate opposition forces supported by the West. Putin’s primary objective has been to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and thereby guarantee Russia’s ongoing military and intelligence presence in the region. The largest number of IS militants are being recruited inside Russia, especially as the FSB has encouraged local Islamists to travel to Syria and Iraq on the assumption that this would reduce insurgencies in the North Caucasus and increase pressure on the West. Among the thousands of Russian citizens recruited by IS, there is little doubt that the Kremlin has infiltrated its operatives into the upper reaches of the organization where they can influence decision-making.

Proposals have been voiced in Washington and other Western capitals for a “grand bargain” with Russia. In return for allowing Moscow to assert its dominance throughout the former Soviet Union, the Kremlin would provide support in combating IS. In reality, such a plan would surrender Ukraine, Georgia,and other states to Kremlin control without any tangible benefits for the West. On the contrary, it would encourage Moscow to intensify its sponsorship of terrorism against Western interests in the calculation that this will bring further concessions from the White House.

Any agreements with Russia against IS have limited value. Moscow’s main objective in the Middle East is to uphold Assad in power while keeping the United States preoccupied with fighting IS and other terrorist and guerrilla groups. Terrorist attacks on Western targets and in Europe’s cities also help Putin. He can thereby pose as a partner in the struggle against jihadist terrorism while cracking down with impunity on any domestic opposition on the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism.

Collaboration with Moscow will damage American interests if any intelligence or operational plans are shared with the Kremlin. This could make the United States even more vulnerable to terrorist penetration. Rather than forging a coalition based on wishful thinking, it is time to conduct a thorough investigation of Moscow's terrorist connections. This could result in the Putinist regime being ostracized as both a sponsor and perpetrator of domestic and international terrorism. Developing military links with such a government will dangerously undermine American security.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 


Janusz Bugajski

06 June 2017

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