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Logic for U.S.-Russia Cooperation in Anti-Terror Actions

Nov 03 , 2015
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

In today’s world, terrorist activities run rampant, with the Islamic State (IS) still growing and expanding, posing immeasurable threat to world peace and causing anxiety and indignation in the international community. The United States and Russia, which hold the biggest arsenals in the world, should have reasons to cooperate in fighting the common enemies. This conforms to their respective national interests.

The White House announced on September 29th that U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had reached consensus on coordinating their actions in fighting IS during their talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

After the announcement, the international community has been eagerly awaiting the achievements of their joint actions. The United States has been carrying out airstrikes on IS terrorists for more than one year, and Russia, after winning approval from the Federation Council on September 30th, immediately started air raids on the terrorist groups in Syria. However, the outcomes are disappointing to all, because the United States and Russia seemed to be out of step with each other in actions against the terrorist organization, causing increased friction.

Can it be possible, then, for the United States and Russia to cooperate in fighting terrorism? The answer is yes, but there are also hurdles to clear.

The reasons for their joint actions against terrorism are clear.

First, terrorism is the common enemy of all people, including people in the United States and Russia. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and the fatal explosions at the Moscow subway system all remind them that they have suffered from terrorist attacks and are victims of terrorism. At a time, as the “Islamic State” is grows and expands and the situation becomes more serious and more challenging, there is both necessity and urgency for them to cooperate.

Second, when Putin took office as Russian president, the United States and Russia then vowed solemnly that they were entering a new era for international cooperation. In November 2001 when Putin visited the United States, he and President George W. Bush issued a joint statement on “a new relationship” between the two countries. The statement said that “the United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War, and neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat.” It also called for “the creation of a new strategic framework to ensure the mutual security of the United States and Russia, and the world community.” In May 2002 when Bush visited Russia, he and Putin signed a joint statement on “new strategic partnership.” The statement said that the United States and Russia are “committed to developing a relationship based on friendship, cooperation, common values, trust, openness, and predictability,” and stressed that “the era in which the United States and Russia saw each other as an enemy or strategic threat has ended.” After Obama came to power, he also made similar expressions.

And third, people of all countries, particularly people of the Middle East nations, all hope that the United States and Russia could cooperate in the war against terrorism, and work together to bring an end to the refugee crisis that is plaguing Europe, Asia and Africa.

There are factors that have led to the failure of Russian-U.S. cooperation in actions against terrorism.

Factor one: strategic misunderstanding and distrust. For instance, what are the strategic goals of President Putin? To him, it’s a rejuvenation of his country. He once promised: “Give me twenty years, and you will not recognize Russia.” As time ticks away for him to accomplish his vow, how could it be possible for him to choose to be an opponent of the United States, now the only superpower in the world? Furthermore, Russia is a country that never yields to pressure, nor easily gives up. There are of course opposition factions in the Russian parliament, but this time, all 162 members of the upper house unanimously adopted the resolution to support Putin for military action against terrorists in Syria. This proved that all factions have such a consensus: Air raids in Syria are justified actions. This also shows that all political parties in Russia share identical or similar stances when it comes to defending the national interest and rebuilding the Russian status as a big power.

Factor two: Completely different attitudes towards Bashar al-Assad. If the two issues – fighting against terrorism and overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime – are mixed together, it would be difficult for the United States and Russia to cooperate, and would naturally undermine any progress in the war against terrorism. When Russia chose to get engaged in airstrikes in Syria, its direct goal is to fight against terrorist groups, and its indirect aim is to support the Bashar al-Assad government, but the underlying meaning is to defend Russian strategic interests in Syria. In Syria, the opposition parties, terrorists and extremist forces are intermingled, but the United States has chosen to support the opposition parties, which makes the U.S.’ real intentions in its anti-terrorist actions in Syria questionable. The way in handling the relationship between anti-terrorist actions and the attitude towards the legitimate Bashar al-Assad government will have a direct bearing on how the Syrian situation unfolds. The United States recently announced that it would abandon its plan to train Syrian oppositions, and this is widely seen as a wise decision.

Factor three: deep-rooted grievances. After the Ukrainian crisis, which was triggered by the eastwards expansion of NATO, Russia has been subjected to severe sanctions by Western countries, which has created an uncomfortable situation. When many western European countries were under surging pressure from refugees from the Middle East and could hardly cope with the refugee waves, many countries began to blame the United States for the refugee crisis. This proved to be an opportunity for Russia. Russia’s swift and effective anti-terrorist strikes in Syria, to some extent, are helpful in curbing refugee waves in the western European countries, and in return, the tense relations between Russia and western European nations are naturally eased. The United States, of course, is unhappy about this development.

If the United States and Russia want to cooperate well in the anti-terrorist actions, they would have to do the following:

They should abandon the “Cold War” mentality. Years after the end of the Cold War, the “Cold War” mentality still lingers. In today’s world, peace and development are the themes of the times and economic globalization is an inevitable trend. They together guide the direction for positive interaction in relationships between countries, and should be cherished. It should be remembered that the United States and Russia once maintained good cooperation during World War II.

They should not apply double standards. The United States had resorted to measures in overthrowing the legitimate leaders in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine. It is a telling fact that the consequences were grave, and the situation in these countries remains difficult to control. As for the future of Syria, it should be decided by the Syrian people, and should not be imposed by external forces.

They should bear in mind the logic of “cooperation brings benefits to both sides while confrontation only results in harms for both.” This principle fits well to the United States and Russia in their anti-terrorist cooperation. The war against terrorists in Syria should not become a battlefield between the United States and Russia. If the United States and Russia choose confrontation, neither side will win, only wreaking havoc for the rest for the rest of the world.

Russia is calling for the creation of a new anti-terror international alliance led by the United Nations, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also proposed to form a broad alliance to fight the IS extremist groups. For the two proposals to succeed and work, it calls for equal, inclusive and patient consultations.

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