Russia has a strategic partnership with Islamic radicalism and uses it to expand its zone of control. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting Vladimir Putin is in bed with the extremists who bombed the Russian airliner in the Sinai. But I am suggesting that he rides the coattails of Islamic radicalism to further his expansionary agenda. He also hypes it to expand his reach into areas of the world that he would like to control.
When the Cold War ended, the West began operating under the notion that, with the Communist cancer removed from Russia, the country could finally become "normal," pursue liberal goals, become a democracy and maybe even integrate with Western institutions. Those were laudable goals, but they were built on a false premise. The Russian empire contracted dramatically between the end of the Cold War and the 1990s, just as it had done many times before in the nation's nearly 1000-year history. And similarly, just as happened so often in the past, the contraction of Russian territory spurred the expansionary zeal of a new leader, Vladimir Putin, to expand Russia's zone of control once again and to tie it to Moscow's orbit, albeit in a different way than the formation of the USSR.
Had we been more realistic after the Cold War and through the 1990s, the West would have realized much earlier in the game that Russia was reverting to its historical mean with a militaristic foreign policy with the goal of control over its neighbors. Instead, the West's policy was built on the naïve hope that the tide of 1000 years of Russian history had changed - but it hadn't. Putin put that notion to bed early in his leadership and has demonstrably shifted to a militaristic foreign policy since assuming power. For the past few years, we've been distracted by the more tangible examples of his expansion - most noticeably Ukraine and Syria, and before that, Georgia. We have narrowly focused our conversation and debate on "where" Putin will next invade. However, an equally - if not more - important question that we have ignored until recently is "how" Putin plans to gain control.
Putin's attempt to make Russia more relevant (or feared) has been to use corruption and political warfare tools to make up for a weak hand. For example, it should be pretty clear by now Ukraine is not wrestling with a separatist conflict but a Russian invasion that has been cleverly masked by propaganda. Mercenary "separatists" are cheaper and more expendable. Russia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars spewing propaganda and corrupting Western journalism in a mostly successful effort to muddy the facts about the Ukraine situation. In turn, Western media has given Russia a relatively free hand. After Russia's mercenaries murdered almost 200 Dutch citizens by shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Russia's propaganda machine sprang into action creating doubt about the facts and convincing the Netherlands that Russia is a vital trade partner. Not only has there been virtually no response, but the Netherlands' EU allies are agitating to drop the sanctions that were in place before the MH17 crime. Russia's propaganda machine even fooled U.S. Representative John Conyers.
As for corruption, it's a tool to make your opponents more pliable. Corrupt officials gladly rig elections. Corrupt oligarchs overlook the interests of their country. Corruption has also helped Moscow build a reliable stable of fellow-traveling politicians in Europe such as Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis, former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Hungarian President Viktor Orban, former German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi among others. He won them over using bribery, blackmail, hook, crook and who knows what. These are just a few examples from a very long list.
Support for Islamic radicalism is just another of Putin's unconventional tools.
As outlandish as it may sound, the notion of Putin playing upon fears of radical Islam to further his expansionary agenda is true and Western governments need to take notice. Before you roll your eyes in dismissal, consider Syria, where Russia and ISIS are obvious allies of convenience. There, Putin is quite openly bombing moderate rebels to create the binary choice of supporting either Moscow's client, Assad, or ISIS. Remember how the White House said it was impossible to find moderate rebels? Putin is able to find and target them quite regularly. ISIS is so far from Russian crosshairs Russia actually bombed more civilians than ISIS.
This is old hat for Putin. He used the threat of Chechen militancy to consolidate his power upon becoming president. In 1999/2000 he used that excuse to flatten Grozny. More recently, Moscow has been shipping Islamic radicals - thousands of them - from inside Russia to ISIS in Syria via a "green corridor" managed by the FSB. Undoubtedly, part of the thinking is that it is better to hunt these terrorists (with help from the U.S.) in Syria than to hunt them in Russia. However, having a credible terrorist threat was immensely beneficial. Clearly, it was the main cause for President Obama to back away from his policy of replacing Assad.
Like most of Putin's tactics, there is historical precedence for his scapegoating. One of Putin's role models, Nicholas I, whose portrait hangs in Putin's office, was known for stirring up Muslim extremists in the Ottoman Empire and then claiming Russia was necessary to protect Christians from them. He had a habit of doing this in places of strategic importance, such as Greek Orthodox areas of the Black Sea. He also instigated the Crimean War claiming to be the protector of the oppressed Russians (Sound familiar? My how history rhymes).
Look closely and we can see the pattern beyond Syria, too. Russia is deploying this age-old tool in the Russian statecraft toolkit in an arc across Russia's Muslim southern periphery all the way to Afghanistan. Regional security sources confirm he is conflating the risk of expanding Islamic radicalism in and beyond Afghanistan to increase Russian influence in the region. Certainly Afghanistan's neighbors are worried, but there is little they can they do without at least recognition of what is going on in the West. Until that happens, they have little choice but to play nice as Russia chips away at their independence.
On October 16, Russia signaled agreement with its Central Asian neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to extend basing rights to 2042 and 2032, respectively. Russia will almost double its troop presence and deploy a helicopter unit in Tajikistan and will be deploying advanced fighter jets to Kyrgyzstan. Moscow has been trying to gain access to Tajikistan's airbase, Ayni, since at least 2004. The main U.S. base for fighting Afghanistan's Islamic radicals was Manas in Kyrgyzstan. Its presence was a Russian irritant for a decade. Russia successfully badgered the Kyrgyz not to renew the lease and the U.S. left in 2014. Now, Russia is happily stepping into the breach.
These regional experts also point out that ISIS is indeed making attempts to recruit in Afghanistan. They are in 25 of the country's 34 provinces. As a matter of comparison, FBI director Comey recently announced that ISIS is doing the same thing in all 50 U.S. states. For ISIS truly to become a driving force in Afghanistan they must either defeat or co-opt the Taliban. That will be a long fight. Nor should we be worried that the Taliban is pushing its extreme ideology north from Afghanistan. That did not even happen in 1996 when the Taliban was much stronger and Russia's presence in the region almost nonexistent.
Yet, Russia is using that very excuse to expand its control in Afghanistan. Moscow is building the capability to have "a legitimate right" to intervene in these states, or their neighbors, should a conflict arise--or the presence to engineer governments of their choosing. It also gives Moscow leverage to control these countries internally and a presence through which to sow corruption. Heaven forbid Putin actually starts helping ISIS--again, don't laugh. He's doing it in Syria.
Ever since 1978, when Zbigniew Brzezinski used the term "arc of crisis" to describe the area of Soviet meddling, stretching across the Middle East out to the Indian Ocean, it became the fashion to describe everything in that part of the world as an arc or crescent. Whether by direct intervention, as in Syria, or by hyping the threat of radical Islam, as in Central Asia, Putin is midwifing an arc of radical Islam. It is an important tool for extending Russia's control over its neighbors; both the tool and the goal are hundreds of years old.
Don't get me wrong. Islamic radicalism is a very real threat and should be taken seriously. The awful airliner tragedy over the Sinai is an unfortunate example of why. Certainly, Western nations should be helping uncover who perpetrated the crime and how they did it. But they should also be asking themselves how Putin will use the tragedy to further his own agenda. If his past history and current actions are good indicators of Putin's future behavior the chances are that Putin will use this clear case of Islamic radicalism to his advantage to spread Moscow's political control as far as possible. This was the largest mass casualty attack outside of a conflict zone since 9/11. Egypt and the West had better be ready.