Although Islamic State militants continue to threaten attacks on Western cities, there is an argument that Russia and President Vladimir Putin are potentially more of a threat to the world as we know it.
As Alexander J. Motyl writes in World Affairs, Putin likes to make Russia out as a victim of barbarism and a defender of peace. However as we have seen most recently in Ukraine, Moscow has a patchy record when it comes to promoting peaceful conflict resolution.
Putin paints Russia as defender of peace
On December 3 Putin made a speech to the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s national legislature, in which he plugged the same line about the Kremlin’s struggle for peace. “Russia has long since been on the front lines of the struggle against terrorism. It’s a struggle for freedom, truth, and justice. For the lives of people and the future of our civilization,” he said.
Motyl argues that Russia has promoted terrorism both domestically and in Ukraine, as well as working to restrict freedom, truth and justice. He also accuses Putin of violating international norms of diplomatic behavior.
Putin recently offered to form an anti-ISIS alliance with the West, an idea that is under serious consideration from policymakers from Washington to Berlin. Motyl argues that before Western leaders enter into any such alliance, it would be wise to think about which of the two presents a greater threat to security.
What is the difference between ISIS and Russia?
It seems logical that a coordinated assault on ISIS makes sense for Russia and the West, but an alliance is an entirely different proposition. Such a move assumes that ISIS is more dangerous to Western interests than Russia, which may not be the case.
While ISIS grabs the headlines with its acts of barbarism, there is an argument that Putin’s Russia is far more dangerous. He is a ruthless political operator that has the will, capacity and desire to disrupt the international order on which the West is built.
ISIS beheads its prisoners and destroys ancient cultural sites, but Putin is almost equally barbaric. Putin ordered bombing campaigns against the Chechen capital of Grozny, which he hoped would exterminate separatists. Instead the city was razed to the ground, and Russian soldiers butchered thousands of civilians.
Rogue state more dangerous than revolutionary movement
Investigations into the bombing of three Russian apartment complexes in 1999 revealed that the Russian secret police may have orchestrated the explosions. Putin was head of the service at the time. More recently there have been around 8,000 deaths during the conflict in Ukraine, and Russian-backed rebels have been executing prisoners of war.
ISIS may have destroyed a Russian passenger jet, but Russia still denies any complicity in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. The disregard for civilian casualties is a disturbing trend that emerges from Putin’s actions, and it has appeared once more during the bombing campaign in Syria.
Barbarism is certainly shocking, but the main issue here is that Russia under Putin has become a rogue state that threatens international peace. Most worryingly Russia possesses a huge army and nuclear arsenal, making it a more dangerous rogue state than others that have come before it.
In contrast ISIS is not a state in anything but name. It has no functioning institutions and is still working towards constructing a state, with a mixed record of administering its population. The revolutionary movement may have trouble maintaining control over the territory it has seized, and could become a terror movement that carries out attacks around the world.
Russia has the ability to destroy international order
However daunting that prospect, it is not a threat to world peace. Killing innocent civilians is an affront to our civilization, but it does not undermine the international order. Russia is a more dangerous foe that violates treaties and borders, rejects international norms and considers war to be a legitimate means of achieving its ends.
In the past few years Putin’s Russia has revised the borders of both Georgia and Ukraine using military assets, and that could be just the beginning. Putin has repeatedly spoken of the right to use force to pursue geopolitical goals.
At best Russia may become a short-term partner of the West against ISIS, but Putin’s opposition to the international order runs deep and will prevent Russia becoming an ally. ISIS and Russia hate the West, but only the latter could destroy it.
Cooperation against ISIS is an attractive proposition, but Western leaders should not be distracted from the bigger picture. Support for Ukraine must continue, sanctions must be upheld, and NATO must be kept strong.