To hear President Vladimir Putin tell it, his government is the proverbial tip of the spear in the global war on terror.
For months, Kremlin officials have taken great pains to style their intervention in Syria in grandiose terms — not simply as a ploy to prop up a key strategic ally, but as a broader campaign against Islamic extremism. To hear them tell it, Russia has been forced to lead because of Western fecklessness in the face of gathering Islamic radicalism. Yet this bluster belies the fact that Moscow's counterterrorism policy is both flawed and selective in the extreme.
For one thing, the Kremlin is fueling the very flames of Middle Eastern extremism that it is purportedly fighting. Facing growing unrest among its own Muslim minority, the Russian government has reacted by exporting the problem. As Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper has reported, Moscow is effectively "controlling" the flow of jihadists into Syria, with Russia's various domestic security agencies assisting homegrown Islamic radicals in their efforts to migrate to the Middle East. In doing so, the Kremlin evidently hopes to ship out its domestic insurgency — and subsequently to fight those forces far from home.
But this has made the Kremlin complicit in perpetuating the very terrorist threat that it is purportedly fighting. The FSB, Russia's feared domestic security service, has estimated that nearly 3,000 Russian-origin Islamists have traveled to the Middle East to take up arms in the Syrian conflict so far — up from an estimate of some 2,400 just this fall.
That, moreover, is only the tip of the iceberg. The Russian government estimates that the countries of the former Soviet Union have, to date, cumulatively supplied 7,000 — or nearly 25 percent — of the estimated 30,000 jihadists who have joined the ranks of the Islamic State and other assorted groups fighting in Syria. The contingent is now so large, experts say, that Russian is the third most frequently spoken language among Islamic State fighters, following Arabic and English.
For another, Moscow isn't above making making common cause with at least some Islamist radicals. Russia's government, for example, has admitted that it is sharing information with the Taliban, Afghanistan's Islamist insurgent movement, as part of efforts to beat back the advances of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the "post-Soviet space."
According to Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin's special representative for Afghanistan, the cooperation is possible because "the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours." As a result, Russia and the Taliban have now established "channels for exchanging information."
Meanwhile, in Syria, Russia has partnered with yet another terrorist actor: Lebanon's Hezbollah. Field commanders from the group — which, like Moscow, is fighting to keep besieged Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power — have acknowledged that their forces are receiving heavy weapons directly from the Russian government. The Shia militia, in turn, is providing Russia's military with targeting information and other vital intelligence that is increasing the lethality of the Russian airstrikes now being carried out against assorted opponents of the Syrian regime.
This cooperation is far from a fluke. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently told the Interfax news agency that the Kremlin does not consider Hezbollah, one of the world's most capable radical groups, to be a terrorist organization at all, and in fact maintains regular contacts and relations with it. Russia's rationale appears to be based at least in part on the group's current political outlook. "They have never committed any terrorist acts on Russian territory," Bogdanov explained. Moscow's view of terrorism, in other words, is highly subjective.
All of which suggests that Russia's anti-terrorism efforts aren't nearly as altruistic as Mr. Putin and his loyalists would have us believe. Rather, the Russian government — while justifiably worried about the Islamist threat within its borders — appears to be more than happy to perpetuate the same problem abroad in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives.