Munich Security Conference – Hot Issues, Vibrant Debates, Ukraine Steals the Show (II)

Munich Security Conference – Hot Issues, Vibrant Debates, Ukraine Steals the Show (II)

Part I

Russia and the West: relations at low ebb with a common threat looming

The Ukrainian crisis has been detracting from the potential of U.S.-Russia collaboration in fighting the Islamic State. But putting odds and ends together there are some signs that Russia and the West can finally find common ground.

The primitive black-and-white picture of the relations between Russia and the West has been somewhat muddled by dramatic events occurring in the Middle East. The issue of the jihadist threat is a concern for Russia, North America and Europe. The Islamic State controls about 30 percent of Syrian territory, it now possesses armed units with up to 90,000 people. It is also well financed with about $2 billion at its disposal. With its ideas of the Pan-Caliphate and the export of the terrorist war onto other countries’ territories the Islamic State goes beyond the scope of a regional threat.

Leaving the intricacies to the experts, there is a number of general conclusions to be made with large degree of certainty. 

The situation in the Middle East can get much worse if the Bashar Assad regime in Syria collapses as Western forces are leaving Afghanistan. With ISAF and NATO gone, a wave of militant Islamists will originate from there to engulf the Middle East (Jordan, the Persian Gulf monarchies), Central Asia, Pakistan, Russian North Caucasus and other regions. This January the terrorist organization was reported to take advantage of a security vacuum in Uzbekistan.

It is counterproductive for the West to exploit Islamic extremism in the struggle against Russia. In most cases, such efforts eventually backfire. The United States and its allies learned it the hard way, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which they organized and armed against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan subsequently perpetrated shocking terrorist attacks in North America and Europe. The Islamic militants that the West nurtured now engage in terrorist activities worldwide. This is especially evident in Syria at the moment, where the United States is trying to distinguish between the Islamic State and the Syrian Liberation Army militants. 

Evidently, the relations between Russia and the West are in deep crisis right now. Yet, this crisis is caused by conflict within the framework of the same European Christian civilization. The Islamic State offensive serves as a reminder to the West that it has an immeasurably more frightening enemy standing at their gates. The Islamic State openly declares that it will settle for nothing less than the destruction of European civilization, and pursues this goal by combining the activities of terrorist network inside the United States, Europe and Russia with full frontal offensives in the adjacent regions. 

Perhaps it’s even worse than the clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam predicted by Samuel Huntington. IS’ victims are now mostly Shiite Moslems and non-Arabic peoples, as well as Islamic regimes gravitating toward Iran, Russia and the United States. Actually, this is a clash between modern civilization (all its diversity and conflicts notwithstanding) and the medieval religious fanaticism with the goal to make the world as we know it vanish once and for all. 

The current conflict between Russia and the West, as serious as it is, pales in comparison. But it could seriously hinder the concerted efforts to combat the common enemy, which does not care about the disagreements topping the agenda of the Munich 2015 event. 

Russia supports Syria while it fights the radical group. Iran becomes the ally of Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the United States, while still being subject to Western sanctions. Under the new conditions, old enemies of the West, such as the Syrian government and Iran, could become Western partners in the struggle against the radicals. While opposing each other on the Ukrainian issue and engaging in a sanctions war, and even flexing military muscle, both Russia and the West together supply Iraq with weapons and military equipment. Meanwhile, the U.S. President called Russia a greater threat to the international security than the Islamic State in his UN speech. Complicated enough, isn’t it!

Finally, the positive outcome of the 2001 operation in Afghanistan and the negative results of the 2003 invasion of Iraq suggest that airstrikes, raids by special forces and even boots on the ground do not in and of themselves bring victory in the struggle against militant Islam. They can merely delay or postpone the extremists’ advances. The great powers and their regional partners must unite to win. They should realistically assess the international security priorities and resolve the conflicts that stand in the way of their unity.

Russia can be a partner

On January 6, 2015 Zamir Kabulov, who is Russian President's special representative for Afghanistan, warned in an interview that the Islamist group is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. Kabulov said that all of this could start to manifest itself within the next few months. 

Russia is directly threatened by Islamic States fighters under Omar al-Shishani since late 2014.

The Islamic State poses just as much of a threat to Russia as it does to the West, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department of new threats and challenges, Ilya Rogachev, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti on 13 January. «ISIL poses a particular threat to Russia. To a significant degree it is analogous to the threat this organization poses to Western states, and I do not think that there are any fundamental differences here that could divide us and prevent us from cooperating as necessary to repel it efficiently», Rogachev said.

Moscow is continuing to cooperate with the West on fighting terrorism despite tensions over Ukraine, Russia's Foreign Minister said on January 21. Speaking at a news conference, Lavrov emphasized that Russia was also cooperating with other countries in the fight against terrorism, organized crime and other threats. 

Russian assistance could also be useful in terms of arms supplies to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. As opposed to the EU members and the US, the weapon exports in Russia do not require multiple approvals of different officials. Consequently, the Russian authorities react to the demands of the anti-IS forces quicker than their colleagues in the West. Moscow is already supplying the Iraqi government with fighter jets and strike helicopters. There is an opportunity for the EU to coordinate its supplies with Russia.


The world's security summit is over. Wolfgang Ischinger, the forum's chair, should feel pleased. Munich has become the place for open dialogue and discreet exchanges on security issues around the world.

The looming threat of Islamic State posed to Russia, the U.S., and Europe appears to have the potential to bring them closer together and leave temporarily aside (or at least ignore) their differences over Ukraine as talks are given a chance. Who knows, perhaps the February 11 Normandy format meeting will spur a broader process of peaceful settlement. The question of how to minimize Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine to deal with the Islamic State together remains open. True, as the Munich conference showed, there is no quick fix to the crisis. Anyway, the only viable way forward is to peacefully engage rather than escalate the situation in Ukraine and address the issues where the interest is common – the enemy threatening the very existence of us all.