The Beginning of the End of Russia’s Estrangement from the West

Mercator Projection Satellite Image of Earth

(Kennan Institute – – Maxim Trudolyubov – November 17, 2015)

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013.

Perceived threat from Russia has been a recurring theme in Western thinking in the past two years, at least. But Russia’s standing with the West has been changing with mind-boggling speed over the past few days. The coordinated strikes in Paris were the latest in a new wave of terror. But Russia recently officially recognized that the downing of its passenger jet in Egypt on October 31 was also an act of terrorism. Russia has launched cruise missiles against targets in ISIS-held territory, becoming a de-facto ally of the West in retaliation for the attacks.

In the first public statement on the cause of the plane crash, Russia’s Security Chief said on Tuesday that it was a terrorist attack. President Vladimir Putin called the attack “one of the bloodiest crimes in terms of the number of victims.” He went on to vow to avenge the civilian deaths. “We will not wipe away the tears from our soul and hearts. This will stay with us forever, but will not stop us from finding and punishing the criminals,” Putin said in comments released Tuesday.

Almost simultaneously with this statement, Russia launched a series of missile strikes on targets in Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria. Russia gave the United States advanced notice before the launches, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Reuters. The French newspaper Le Monde reported that the strikes were coordinated with the French military and launched from Russian war ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Coordination with Turkey was also implied, because the missiles flew over Turkish territory, Le Monde reported.

The Kremlin hesitated to call the Russian plane crash an act of terror for more than two weeks. But on Tuesday, Putin placed the crash in Egypt on the same map of terror that also includes the explosions in Ankara, Turkey, on October 10 (95 dead), the attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 12 (43 dead), and the massacre in Paris, France, on November 13 that caused 129 deaths. This chain of events now appears to be a centrally planned campaign of attacks. Terrorist networks moved from focusing on holding their “state borders” in Syria and Iraq, to targeting civilians on distant territory. “They have crossed some kind of Rubicon,” William McCants, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” said to the New York Times.

The Russia of the Ukrainian conflict, the Russia of the 2008 war with Georgia-an assertive and aggressive player that has not shied away from using military force-has been viewed as a threat by many in the West. The issue was often framed as a comparison between the threat posed by Russia and the dangers of terrorism. “Russia is a bigger problem than ISIS for Obama,” wrote Financial Times’ international affairs columnist Gideon Rachman, exactly one year ago.

“ISIS or Russia? Labour needs to decide which is the bigger threat,” journalist Paul Mason asked in an opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper as recently as mid-October. “Putin is [by far] a bigger threat than the Islamic State,” Garry Kasparov, a chess grand master who has been in fierce opposition to Putin, said recently in an interview.

But during the Sunday meetings of the G-20 group of nations that took place in Turkey immediately after the Paris attacks, Putin went from a pariah to a fully engaged player. Perceptions change quickly if one thinks in relative terms. On the scales that commentators use to compare dangers, the threat of terrorism is now the heaviest weight.

“Paris changes everything,” Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Soeder told Welt am Sonntag newspaper immediately after the terrorist attack on the French capital. Soeder’s comments were his contribution to the heated European debate on refugees. It’s still unclear how deep the inevitable backlash against Europe’s open door policy toward war refugees is going to be. What is clearer is the fact that Paris has indeed changed Western perceptions of Russia’s role in international affairs.

With ISIS back at the center of the Western agenda, Russia can be a partner and Vladimir Putin himself was quick to point this out. “We proposed cooperation on antiterrorism; unfortunately our partners in the United States in the initial stage responded with a refusal,” Putin said. “But life indeed moves on, often very quickly, and teaches us lessons. It seems to me that everyone is coming around to the realization that we can wage an effective fight only together.”

It is too early to tell how, exactly, a new agreement between Russia and the West is going to look. It is still on the drawing board. “The West has to understand that Moscow’s position should not be confused with the stickiness of the official Damascus,” Alexander Axenenok, a Russian diplomat, said in a commentary for Vedomosti. This probably means that Moscow is indeed going to be flexible about the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

But one also has to keep in mind that the Russia of the Ukrainian conflict has not evaporated. The forces that were driving that conflict are still pretty much alive and they are thinking in terms of a big bargain that Russia may now strike with the West, in exchange for becoming a more agreeable partner on ISIS. “[In Ukraine] We should replace the junta with a technocrat government, change the constitution, drive away the neo-Nazis, and hold a new election. The Kiev junta is an obstacle to a joint struggle of Russia, U.S. and Europe against terrorists,” the fiercely pro-Kremlin commentator Sergei Markov said in a post immediately after the Paris attacks. Moscow is apparently hoping that there will be a deal in which cooperation over Syria leads to an easing of Western sanctions over Ukraine. Up until now, both American and European officials have resisted any such linkage.