For days, tensions between Turkey and Russia appeared to be nearing a boiling point. Yet it still struck many in the international community by surprise when Turks claimed they had shot down a Russian fighter jet on jet on Nov. 24. While the flight path of the downed aircraft remains in dispute, at least one of the downed pilots was killed by Syrian rebels and another was rescued.
It was a bad day for Russia and an ominous day for all. Putin responded angrily, professing to have been stabbed in the back. He accused Turkey of backing ISIL, of buying its oil and otherwise supporting its mission. There are many reasons to question Turkey’s commitment to fighting ISIL, and the moral value and strategic consequence of its escalating war against the Kurds.
But Russia’s commitment to fighting ISIL isn’t so clear, either. Not just because Syrian president Bashar Assad, Putin’s close ally, buys ISIL oil, but because Russian policies help to make Europe more vulnerable to global terror.
Following the air battle on Tuesday, Putin accused Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of not cracking down on the million-dollar oil smuggling that funnels cash through Turkey to ISIL coffers. This accusation isn’t necessarily off base, but like so much in the Middle East these days, it’s also hypocritical. When it comes to Syria, the only thing that seems to be clear is that nothing is clear, and a convoluted tangle of alliances and ulterior motives is helping ISIL, not hurting it.
Russia claims to be fighting ISIL, but many of its airstrikes—like the ones that provoked Turkey’s shooting of a Russian fighter aircraft yesterday—have hit regions where ISIL is not operating, or have directly targeted ISIL’s Sunni Arab enemies. By weakening other rebel forces and framing its intervention in Christian language and symbolism, Russia is confirming ISIL’s narrative and may leave them the option of last resort for Syria’s beleaguered Sunni Arab opposition. Add to this discrimination against Muslims in key parts of Russia and Moscow’s subtle support for far-right, anti-Muslim radicals across Europe, and it looks like Russia is less of an enemy of ISIL than it claims to be. In fact, in many ways, Putin is making ISIL stronger too. In many ways, Putin is making ISIL stronger too.
Czars in their eyes
Following ISIL terror attacks in places ranging from France to Tunisia to Mali, it seems clear that such a global terrorism threat will not defeated without a united response. Key to this unity will be organizations like the European Union, which, among other things, is supposed to be helping oversee the refugee crisis, resettling those fleeing true oppression while identifying and rooting out the few who have other intentions.
Much of the hysteria in American media surrounding Syrian refugees, especially among right-wing media pundits, overlooks the fact that the US’s screening process is different than Europe’s. The EU, for example, had planned to build processing centers at arrival points, and then distributing those approved throughout member countries with the cooperation of those countries. Hungary might have been the most notable country to balk at this scheme, but it was by no means the only one.
The big problem facing the EU seems to be that member countries want the benefits of shared sovereignty, but are a lot more reluctant to go along with the costs of it. Europe is badly divided precisely when it needs to be united; without developing a common policy, neither security goals nor humanitarian objectives can be realized.
But the European Union is a unique experiment, and is bound to have growing pains. Not helping matters is Russia, which seems to be working to undermine that experiment.
In recent months, Russian forces have become more aggressive around NATO’s borders. But Russia knows it is weaker than NATO, and not reckless enough to try to take on the world’s most powerful military alliance.
Instead, Russia has gone a softer target: The European Union. In places like Moldova and Georgia, Russia has created autonomous states within these countries to block any hopes for EU accession—because the European Union would not admit countries that do not have full control over their territory. The same, experts argue, is behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.
Whose West will win?
But Russia has also worked to undermine EU integration among existing member countries.
Far-right parties aren’t often just hostile to Muslims (and Jews), they’re often hostile to the EU, to cosmopolitanism and internationalism—common tropes in anti-Semitic (link to hate site) and now Islamophobic discourse. For some of these extremists, Russian president Vladimir Putin has become the face of Christian values, battling the godless, secular and liberal West.
This is one reason why anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic leadership, like Hungary’s, tilt to Russia, and why white supremacist terrorists like Anders Breivik laud Putin. That appreciation, one could argue, is reciprocated. Islamophobia is Russia’s ticket to weakening the West.
This also explains the money trail. Far-right politicians continue to be elected to the European Parliament, ironically because they are opposed to its very existence. Once in office, these politicians try to prevent the EU from federalizing and unifying in ways that will strengthen the West.
And they get money, support and attention from Russia. In the name of shared (Christian) values, Russia is power projecting, and far-right groups appear happy to go along. Perhaps they resent Washington’s influence over the continent, and prefer Moscow’s.
So how does all this help ISIL? Funding anti-Muslim parties might well weaken the West, but these same anti-Muslim parties also inflame anti-Muslim sentiment, which is a jihadist recruiting tool. Worse still, these same very dangerous jihadists then return to recruit in and from Russia, exploiting ample grievances in a Russia whose overall numbers of Muslims are rising.
Like Turkey, Russia’s playing with fire. It’s only a matter of time before both countries get burned.