The recent events in Britain have shown a trend. Russia is accused not simply of an assassination attempt but the use of a weapon of mass destruction on the territory of a foreign country. Moscow has been subjected to unprecedented political and information pressure before any evidence or proof has been produced. Russia is to blame simply because it is to blame. The consolidation of NATO and the EU around the British position make this trend even stronger. New provocations can happen anywhere.
Terrorism and extremism are a global problem common to all modern states. Specific acts of terror are perpetrated by different forces with their own political goals, doctrines and methods. However, the international community represented by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly unequivocally describes terrorism as a threat that cannot be justified by any motive. UN members have managed to make progress both in legal areas and in countering terrorist ideology. In 2005, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1624 that denounced any attempts to justify terrorism. In 2006, the UN approved the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. It was used as a guide to action from the very start. UN experts have regularly reviewed it, made reports on the level of the terrorist threat and adapted previously adopted recommendations. In general, this positive dynamic was preserved until recently – on May 24, 2017, the adopted Resolution 2353 on measures to counter terrorism and terrorist organizations.
In practical terms the global front for fighting terrorism is experiencing serious problems. The main factors in this respect are as follows: first, the growing division between Russia and the West and, second, the changes in the global ideological landscape in which radical ideas acquire a virus-like character. The authors of UN resolutions justifiably see the roots of the problem in the growing appeal of extremist ideas. However, it is no longer enough to counter them on the usual ideological grounds: “for everything good and against everything bad.”
With the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, supporters of preserving constructive relations between Russia and the West proceeded from the need to protect the anti-terrorist struggle from the impact of political discord and put it into a separate “sacrosanct” basket. This position was based on a sound concept. A wave of high-profile acts of terror swept European and Russian cities. Common sense suggested the need to preserve cooperation in fighting radicals. Nonetheless, practical cooperation in the Russia-NATO Council was frozen. The sides adopted a line towards mutual deterrence. They failed to preserve the system of cooperation against terrorism.
The Syrian conflict became an indicator of the degradation of relations between Russia and the West in the anti-terrorist struggle. The West saw Russia’s military operation in Syria as a threat. The West suspected that Russia’s real goal was not the struggle against ISIS (banned in Russia) but support for the Bashar al-Assad government in its struggle against the armed opposition. Russia considered the restoration of Syrian statehood to be an important factor in fighting the radicals. Much was done for the recovery and training of the Syrian government army and security institutes. Moreover, some opposition movements, including those supported by the West adhered to overtly radical views and were unscrupulous in their methods of struggle. At the same time, the Americans made counter-claims by pointing to the activities of Hezbollah and Iran, which the United States has long accused of supporting terrorism. ISIS, the most odious group – was eventually routed but the efforts of Russia and the US-led coalition can hardly be described as “cooperative.” Tensions in their relations have been growing since the destruction of ISIS. Apart from the risk of armed incidents and their escalation, there are still “sleeping cells” and terrorist networks. While Moscow and Washington settle their disputes, the radicals are reorganizing, creating new terrorist brands and dispensing information. They are preserving and, in all probability, consolidating their social base.
Importantly, a much more dangerous trend is becoming increasingly pronounced today. Russia is excluded from the list of partners on fighting terrorism in the Western narrative as a matter of principle. It is believed that recognition of Russia as a partner even in this narrow area will allow it to break the isolation from the information sphere and gain at least a reputational if not a political victory. The CIA’s warning about a possible act of terror in St. Petersburg last year and the meeting of the heads of the Russian and US secret services were not part of the general picture and are not enough to reverse the trend. It is asserted that the United States and the West in general can fight terrorism without Russia. For the time being the word “terrorism” is timidly applied to Russia but it looks like the discourse is about to change. Judging by what we have seen, the West has prepared the role of outsider for Russia.
The recent events in Britain have shown a trend. Russia is accused not simply of an assassination attempt but the use of a weapon of mass destruction on the territory of a foreign country. Moscow has been subjected to unprecedented political and information pressure before any evidence or proof has been produced. Russia is to blame simply because it is to blame. The consolidation of NATO and the EU around the British position make this trend even stronger. New provocations can happen anywhere. They may lead to Russia’s marginalization, the destruction of its reputation and new attempts to erode its role in the UN Security Council. The attempts to dismiss Russia from the global anti-terrorist coalition are strengthening the positions of Western Russophobes. They also consolidate the positions of extremists of all shades. The price that will have to be paid for this in the future will be hundreds of victims of new terrorist acts and thousands of new recruits.
There is yet another, even more serious problem – the weakening ideological base of fighting extremism. The UN Security Council and General Assembly, as well as the majority of modern states (including Russia) are building ideology on the principles of enlightenment in its numerous forms. Chaos and radicalism are set against an orderly, rational and well-organized society that is based on the supremacy of law and the market economy. Rationality is the key to justice and efficiency in resolving development tasks. Indicatively, at one time the bearers of such ideas also were in the radical minority whereas later the ideas of progress and freedom engendered numerous radical movements. It is enough to mention left-wing terrorism or the activities of ultra-right forces. The peculiarity of the current times is that the threat to the principles of enlightenment is emanating from the outside rather than the inside, that is, from the ideologically close radicals. The enlightenment project has to compete on a foreign field and with a different interpretation of justice, law and social organization. In the past, radical Islamism was part of local exotica. It could easily be used in proxy wars as the United States used it against the USSR in Afghanistan without much risk for its security. But in today’s breakdown of time and space it is much more difficult to protect oneself against it, and it is not only and not so much because acts of terror and the propaganda of extremism are becoming technically easier. The problem is that the social fiber of modern secular societies has become much more vulnerable. It is easy enough for the cancer of extremism to settle in it and this problem cannot be resolved through a rational approach alone. Enlightenment doctrines will at least have to undergo a re-branding. At most, they will have to offer the prospect of a “new modern age” and incorporate tradition into it by any means. In all probability, China is following this road. Russia is most likely to follow it as well, with reliance on its own tradition.
In practical terms, this will mean new forms of anti-terrorist coalitions with Russia’s participation. It is quite probable that Russia will stop offering itself as a Western partner and will step aside and deal with problems inside and near its borders. Formats like the SCO will become increasingly promising since they have a serious legislative base for supporting efforts to counter terrorism and extremism.
Author: Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
First published in Valdai Discussion Club