Friday, February 24, 2017

Putin Now Fears a Threat He Helped Create – 4,000 Russian Citizens Fighting for ISIS

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – Vladimir Putin told Russian military leaders yesterday that Moscow now estimates that there are some 4,000 Russian citizens and 5,000 citizens of other CIS countries fighting for ISIS in Syria and that in the event that they return home from the Middle East, they constitute a serious threat for Russia.

            That is why defeating ISIS in Syria is so important, he suggested in what appears to be his latest effort to mobilize Russian public opinion behind his military actions there. But there are two facts that the Kremlin leader chose not to mention in the course of his remarks (

            On the one hand, these new figures are significantly larger than the ones he and other senior Russian officials have given in the past.  In Octobeer 2015, for example, Putin himself put the total number of ISIS fighters from Russia and the CIS state taken together at between 5,000 and 7,000.

            The new figures suggest that Moscow has not stemmed the flow of its citizens into the ranks of the Islamic State. Indeed, its increasingly repressive anti-Muslim actions in the North Caucasus may have produced the exodus behind the new numbers.

            And on the other hand, Putin did not acknowledge what more junior Russian officials have confirmed in the past. The Kremlin played a key role in the departure of many people from the North Caucasus into the ISIS ranks earlier when in order to avoid a possible terrorist incident at the Sochi Olympiad, the FSB actually encouraged and assisted radicals to leave the country.

            That explains his continuing calls for a harsh even brutal and murderous Russian campaign in Syria: Moscow doesn’t want those it helped to go there to be able to come back alive, and it wants to hide its earlier role in helping Russian citizens to join the ISIS ranks by casting its effort now as simply part of an anti-terrorist campaign.

            “All of this is a direct threat to Russia,” Putin said, “and our military personnel in Syria are first of all defending their own country. Our actions there are not dictated … by abstract geopolitical interests or the desire to train and test new arms systems.” Instead, they are about “blocking a threat” to Russia itself.

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