President Vladimir Putin’s December 3rd address to the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s national legislature, was an exercise in chutzpah, trying to present Russia as a victim of barbarism and a defender of peace:
Russia has long since been on the front lines of the struggle against terrorism. It’s a struggle for freedom, truth, and justice. For the lives of people and the future of our civilization.
Disregard the fact that Putin’s Russia has been on the front lines of promoting terrorism, at home and in Ukraine. Disregard the fact that Putin’s regime is the antithesis of freedom, truth, and justice. And disregard the fact that Putin has declared war on civilized norms of international behavior.
Consider only Putin’s offer of an anti-ISIS alliance with the West. As Western policymakers consider such a possibility, they would do well to first ask just who the greater threat to world peace is—the Islamic State or Putin’s Russia? The question is of fundamental importance. While no one would dispute the utility of coordinating the Western assault on ISIS with Russia’s, an anti-terrorist alliance with Russia presupposes that ISIS poses a greater threat to the West and its interests than Russia.
Although the barbarism of ISIS inclines us to believe that the Islamists are a greater threat than the Putinists, that conclusion would be a mistake. In fact, Putin’s Russia is a greater threat to the West—both because Putin’s ruthlessness borders on barbarism and because he has the will, capacity, and desire to undermine the international order that made the West possible.
Start with barbarism. Although ISIS’s cruelty is extreme and its destructiveness is wanton, they barely exceed those of Putin’s Russia. During Putin’s campaign to exterminate Chechen separatists, Russian bombs leveled Chechnya’s capital city, Grozny, while Russian soldiers killed many thousands of innocent civilians. In 1999, three Russian apartment buildings were blown to bits, and all the evidence points to the Russian secret police, of which Putin was then head, as the perpetrator. Since mid-2014, some 8,000 Ukrainians and Russians have lost their lives in Putin’s war against Ukraine. Russian troops do not behead their prisoners, as does ISIS, but Russia’s proxies have executed Ukrainian prisoners of war in the Russian-occupied Donbas. ISIS boasts of destroying a Russian plane, while Putin still denies any complicity whatsoever in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. Indifference to civilian casualties has also characterized Russia’s ongoing bombing campaign in Syria.
Dead Parisians may shock us more than dead Chechens, dead Russians, or dead Ukrainians, but if human lives are equally valuable, then Putin has surely destroyed his fair share.
But barbarism is not the issue. Barbarism shocks and terrifies us, but it does not threaten international peace. What does? Above all, rogue states like Russia—and not radical movements like ISIS.
Despite its name, ISIS is not yet a genuine state with all the functioning government institutions that comprise a bona fide state. It’s a revolutionary movement that hopes to construct a state. Thus far, its record of state-building has been mixed. It has seized some territory in Syria and Iraq, but its ability to administer the population is uncertain, and its prospects for continued control are even worse. Revolutionary movements can and do defeat their opponents and establish stable state institutions, but only if they have the military capacity and economic wherewithal to do so. In taking on Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, Russia, and many other states, ISIS is almost sure to lose on the battlefield or, at a minimum, surrender much territory. It may survive in the underground and wreak terror throughout the world, but terror, however atrocious, does not, and cannot, threaten world peace. Dead civilians are a tragedy and a crime, but they do not undermine the international order or entail inter-state war.
In contrast to ISIS, Putin’s Russia is a state—and a rogue state, to boot. It violates treaties and borders, rejects international norms, and sees war as a legitimate means to its great-power ends. Russia tore up the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and unilaterally revised the borders of Georgia and Ukraine by means of armed force. Putin’s Russia views the sovereignty and airspace of its neighbors—from Estonia to Belarus to Armenia to Kazakhstan to Turkey—as anything but inviolate, while insisting that it is perfectly entitled to pursue its imperial interests by means of force.
Russia’s hitherto lackadaisical bombing of ISIS may make it a temporary, tactical, short-term partner of the West, but Putin’s established hostility to the post–World War II international system that produced the European Union and consolidated peace in Europe precludes Russia’s becoming an ally of the West.
Both Putin and ISIS reject the West and everything it stands for. But only Putin has the ability to destroy the West—by progressively undermining the international system that made a peaceful and prosperous West possible. Tactical cooperation with Russia in Syria may therefore be attractive, but it cannot distract from Putin’s strategic hostility to the West.
Should the West cooperate with Putin to destroy ISIS? Of course. But the West must remember that Putin’s Russia remains an adversary committed to the West’s demise. Its support of Ukraine and of sanctions must therefore remain unchanged. Its commitment to NATO must remain firm. And its opposition to Putin’s expansionist designs must be unequivocal.