Washington and Moscow: Brothers in Arms?
Washington’s announcement that it stands ready to assist Russia with security for the Sochi Olympics offers both countries an opportunity to expand beyond their cooperation in combating terrorism, despite the awkward reality of Edward Snowden’s self-imposed exile in Russia. Washington and Moscow have been conducting joint counterterrorism training missions and exercises. They share information regarding terrorist threats. Their most recent joint exercise, called Vigilant Eagle, involved an effort by American and Russian forces to capture a hijacked commercial airliner.
The threat to the Olympics comes from Russia’s North Caucasus heartland, where the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. Radicalized by decades of war in Chechnya that hark back to the Czarist era, residents of that republic, as well as of neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia, have volunteered to fight the West throughout the vastness of the Muslim world, and indeed beyond: the Boston bombings were carried out by native Chechens.
It is probably no coincidence that two suicide bombers wrought their evil in Volgograd; after all, for decades the city was known as Stalingrad, named after the hated dictator who decimated the Chechen and Ingush peoples. In 1944, on orders from Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), ordered the wholesale deportation of nearly five hundred thousand Chechen and Ingush to Central Asia. Those who died during the forced transfers may have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Neither of these peoples have forgiven or forgotten what they—and, as of 2004, the European Parliament—consider to have been an act of genocide. The ongoing rebellion in the North Caucasus, with related bombings in Moscow and elsewhere, including the Volgograd bombings, harks back to the rebellion of 1940–44 that preceded the deportation, and, indeed, to earlier rebellions against both Soviet and Czarist governments as far back as the Chechen and Ingush rebellion of the 1780s.
Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin, who, first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president the following year, brought the battle phase—as opposed to the insurgency phase—of the Second Chechen War to a brutal close, will stop at nothing to defeat the Islamic extremism that adds fuel to the North Caucasus fire. Thus, when Moscow claims that it supports Bashar al-Assad because the Syrian rebels are Islamic extremists, it is not being entirely cynical and disingenuous. Chechens are among the foreign fighters who are supporting the Syrian rebellion, just as they have fought the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly, Moscow wants to retain its access to the Mediterranean from the Syrian port of Tartus. It also seeks to increase its profile in the Middle East by exploiting the Obama administration’s clear desire to extricate itself from that region to the maximum extent possible. But it equally fears the consequences for its southern flank should Assad be replaced by a radical Sunni government.
In fact, the Russians have proved to have been correct when they asserted over two years ago that the Syrian opposition would be dominated by extremists. Perhaps they were not correct at the time, but they certainly are today. Extremist Sunnis pose a serious threat not only to Russia’s rule in the Caucasus, but also to the stability of Jordan and the viability of King Abdullah’s reign there. Should he fall, Saudi Arabia, long the target of extremists from the 1979 attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca through Osama bin Laden’s creation of Al Qaeda, would be the next prize that the extremists would go after—for while they despise Israel, they know it is too strong to be attacked frontally.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the Obama administration’s increasing hesitancy to exert power in the Middle East, it might find much to recommend in increasing counterterrorism coordination with Moscow not only with regard to the Winter Olympics, but also in seeking to diminish even further the threat of Sunni radicalism throughout the Middle East, including, and indeed especially, in Syria. Indeed, there is much to be said for the administration’s cooperating with Russia on matters that go beyond counterterrorism.
The two countries are already working together to achieve the removal of Syrian chemical weapons. In addition, Washington continues to rely on Moscow’s support as it withdraws from Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network. Surely there is enough common interest for the two countries to build on as they address other issues such as the deployment of theater nuclear weapons in Europe, or their roles both as members of the Middle East Quartet seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as members of the six-party talks seeking a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The administration was right to offer Moscow assistance with ensuring security at the Olympics. Russia should accept the offer in the spirit in which it was made. And both countries should recognize that while Edward Snowden may be Moscow’s houseguest, he is not, nor should he be, the reason for undermining what could be a greatly improved relationship.