Maija Kostareva's Blog

The War against Islamic State: Reconstruction of the Geopolitical Balance

January 21, 2016

Will the war against Islamic State stimulate Russian — Euro-Atlantic Relations?

The relations between Russia and the West have worsened due to the confrontation on the Southeast Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Consequent sanctions imposed on Russia by the West could have resulted in the next ‘cold war’. However, In spite of the political crisis and rising tensions between Russia and Euro-Atlantic region, the terroristic attacks in Paris on November are forcing the West and Russia to become allies in the fight against Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. Was it the opportunity for Putin to reconstruct geopolitical balance? The answer is definitely yes. However, Andrew Weiss (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) stated that: “Cooperation against terrorism between USA and Russia was always problematic due to the lack of confidence between our secretive agencies”. The politician Harry Kasparov has criticized president Putin and supposed that Putin is distracting attention away from the Ukrainian crisis. There is a wide gap between the Western and Russian media on the issue of cooperation.


There are some prerequisites that show that international isolation of Russia is over. The visit of U.S. secretary of State John Kerry to Russia on December laid a ground for the start of negotiations between two countries. However, that talks still did not significantly improve US-Russia relations. Another sign of co-operation between Russia and U.S. was a resolution aimed at mastering the ISIS’s funding. Finance minsters from fifteen countries, including U.S. and Russia have adopted this resolution. Theoretically the long-term cooperation between Russia and the West is more than likely. U.S and Russia share the same interests in Syria: The importance in defeating the ISIS and protecting civilians from hunger. Nevertheless, practically, there are short-term issues that need to be resolved. Russia and the West have different tactics and ‘bombing targets’ in Syria. United States claims that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is the core of the instabilities in Syria, while Putin is still supporting Syrian president. As Michael McFaul (2016) has claimed “Assad cannot remain in power for the simple reason that his presence only drives more volunteers to the ISIS cause”. Assad’s regime is killing civilians, and the primary goal of Putin should be to persuade Assad to stop killing people. Russia has been bombing Syrian opposition supported by U.S. coalition. To reach cooperation both countries need to reach some agreement or compromise in Syria.  First, Russia will need to stop bombing Syrian opposition, otherwise there will always be an issue of disagreement. Second, U.S. need to move away from its previous insistency on driving Assad from office as a pre-condition for any further communications between U.S. and Russia. Putin, Assad and Obama together with other international leaders need to create a set of behavioral rules in order to cooperate and protect civilians from dreadful actors.


Could Russia-Euro Atlantic Relations improve without the co-operation against ISIS? In the context of Ukrainian crisis (which will still be at the heart of it all for the next couple of years) the prospects of improved relations between Russian and the West is rather pessimistic. Obviously, the unification for the fight against terrorism is critical opportunity to be taken by Russia, in order to improve international political climate and its relations with the Euro-Atlantic countries. The other question is whether West needs Russia as an ally in the fight against ISIS. One important point is that nowadays terrorism is not a regional problem anymore. Terrorism has transformed to a global hazard same as climate change. The Paris Climate conference has unified all countries and has reached satisfactory conclusions on climate change issue. The same need to be done with terrorism, regardless of economic and political tensions between countries.

Will the unification of forces between US led coalition and Russia result in more effective fight against Islamic State?

The other important question, which arises, is whether the cooperation between Russian and the West will lead to efficient results in fighting the Islamic State. United States, France, United Kingdom and Russia are main actors fighting against ISIS in Northern Iraq and Syria for more than a year. Russia was not a part of the US let coalition against ISIS. However, military attacks that took place in Paris on November 2015 have significantly changed the course of actions.


Western media, especially The Wall Street Journal and The Times are constantly publicizing articles on that issue. They take a dim view on the fact of coalition between NATO and Russia taking actions against ISIS. The publications assert that USA can deal with ISIS without Russian help. However, the current strategy of Washington in the region has failed. Supporting moderate ‘democratic’ opposition and conducting airstrikes did not bring peace in the region and did not pacify Islamic State. Republican party in USA has criticized Obama’s tactics in fighting the ISIS, claiming that bombing Iraq and Syria will not defeat the terrorists. Air strikes alone are not effective, what is needed is more ground troops on the territory of Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Russian foreign minister Lavrov has stated that if Russia and USA could unite their forces to fight terrorism, ISIS could collapse very soon. Currently, he said, anti terroristic front is not united with one country antagonizing the other. Terrorists may take advantage of this non-compliance of actions between Russia and U.S. and turn it against them. So, in order to successfully fight the terrorism, Russia and western countries need to find an agreement in military and non-military tactics.


Primary non-military tactic in fighting Islamic state is to cut off the financing. In the last month there were some signs of cooperation on that issue, especially with creation of resolution to cut off funding to ISIS. UN, together with finance ministers from 15 countries, including U.S. and Russia, has created resolution to close financial system loopholes and make the ISIS sanction list more rigorous.  The president of the European council Donald Tusk said, that: "terror networks cannot plan or operate without the money that moves through the financial systems of many countries. Only if we fully cooperate on exchange of information about suspicious transactions, will we be able to stop this threat effectively". While military tactics of USA and Russia move in opposite directions, they will be ineffective in fighting the Islamic State. Primary military tactic of both U.S. and Russia is to unify their military forces, coordinate air strikes and forward them toward ISIS group. In addition, not only US-Russia cooperation is important, but also Assad is an important actor in fighting terrorists. Until now, the defeat of Islamic state wasn’t his first priority. However, only Assad’s Syria can provide feasible ground forces in a short period of time. In order to destroy ISIS Assad, Putin and Obama should work toward one primary goal, which should be a priority – to defeat the Islamic State.

Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students