Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Moscow and the Islamist Challenge: Three Disturbing Developments

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 17 – Three developments over the last few days – a clash in Daghestan that ISIS has taken responsibility for, Russian interest in an alliance with the Afghan Taliban, and Patriarch Kirill’s statement that Orthodox Christians and Muslims must stand together against the Christian West -- raise some disturbing questions.

            First, just as it has become obvious that the Kremlin is using anti-extremism legislation not against extremists but rather against its political opponents (vestnikcivitas.ru/pbls/3966), so too it has become clear that the relationship between the Russian government and Islamist extremists is very different than Moscow insists and that many in the West accept.

            Exactly what happened in Derbent over the weekend remains murky.  The basic facts appear to be these: A squad of police, coming to arrest a group of militants who were suspected of murder, were fired upon. Two MVD officers were killed and 15 wounded, and the militants were “destroyed” (kavpolit.com/articles/derbentskij_shturm_siloviki_protiv_boevikov-25657/).

            The Islamic State (ISIS), a group Moscow has declared illegal in the Russian Federation, subsequent(ly claimed responsibility for the actions of the militants, the third time that group has done so in the case of clashes between militants and the Russian authorities since the start of 2016 (kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/282505/).
            Are the ISIS claims true? They are certainly plausible but not necessarily true: ISIS benefits by suggesting that it and no other group is behind such actions, even if the Islamic State has nothing to do with a particular action.  But there is another question: are the claims of the Russian media about what happened true either? Again, they are plausible but not certain.

            There are two reasons for having doubts.  On the one hand, as Reuters recently documented, Moscow has been deeply involved with ISIS, providing radicals from within its borders with passports to go to Syria and elsewhere (reuters.com/article/us-russia-militants-specialreport-idUSKCN0Y41OP).

            And on the other, as a Turkish analyst has pointed out, “it appears that ‘the ISIS threat’ is becoming a new instrument of Russian pressure not only in the Middle East and Turkey but also on post-Soviet countries,” including not least of all Azerbaijan, to restore Moscow’s control (turkist.org/2016/05/isis-russia-central-asia-azerbaijan-karabakh.html).

            Organizing an action in Derbent which is close to the Azerbaijani border and then suggesting that ISIS was behind it would serve Moscow’s interests by suggesting that only a powerful military force could suppress this movement and that the countries of the South Caucasus are incapable of organizing such a force or using it in that way.

            Given what Reuters reports and Moscow’s obvious strategy, the Turkish analyst says, “no one can guarantee that the special forces of the Russian Federation will not help these same ‘radicals’ to move into Azerbaijan and not continue to run them there as well.”  Azerbaijan, he says, “should be prepared” for that eventuality.

            Second, a Belarusian commentary on a statement by Zamira Kabulova, Moscow’s special representative for Afghanistan, suggests that Moscow is edging toward allying with the Taliban against ISIS not only to defeat terrorism but to help Moscow project influence in Central Asia (sb.by/blog/883997-yuri-tsarik/chto-skryvaetsya-za-lozhnymi-ugrozami.html).
            In an analysis of the conclusions of Yury Tsarik of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Questions, Kseniya Kirillova, a US-based Russian commentator, says that it appears Moscow is now ready to drop its classification of the Taliban as a terrorist organization in order to secure its cooperation (ru.krymr.com/content/article/27735980.html).
            She suggests that Tsarik is building on the conclusions offered by two of his Minsk colleagues last October (ru.krymr.com/content/article/27329950.html) and that he like they have concluded that Moscow views any cooperation with the Taliban not strictly through a counter-terrorism lens but rather geopolitically.
            Having close ties with that Afghan group may do little to combat ISIS, but Moscow  can use these not only against the US and China but to promote the destabilization of Central Asia in order to compel the leaders of countries there to turn to Russia out of a sense that they have no other choice.
            And third – and this may be the most important if longer term development of the three – Moscow Patriarch Kirill on a visit to the North Caucasus suggested that Orthodox Christians and Muslims share “a common understanding of Divine law,” one that puts them at odds with Western Christians (newsru.com/religy/15may2016/cyrillsays.html).
            The Russian church leader, in his closest approach to the Eurasianist ideas of Aleksandr Dugin that Vladimir Putin has sometimes drawn on, said that Western Christians had an “inauthentic” understanding of their faith and thus were failing to combat evil in the world. Indeed, they sometimes were promoting it.
            “Many Christians in the West are forgetting their roots, re-thinking the bases of morality, justifying sin not only in their community but supporting sinful laws which justify sin,” Kirill continued.  In Russia, in contrast, “nothing of the like is taking place” because the Orthodox and Muslims are not ready to live according to laws” which violate God’s will.
            That common commitment, he concluded, means that with Russians, “there is a foundation for building a common life.” On the one hand, this statement reflects the demographic realities of Russia, a country where the Muslim majority is growing rapidly even as the Orthodox Russian is declining.
            But on the other hand, Kirill’s words justify a kind of cooperation with Islam based on hostility to the West as such, something that calls into question the Kremlin’s oft-spoken commitment to a joint battle against Islamist extremists and may even open the way for Russian cooperation with them.

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