In seeking to extract benefits from a disaster, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly been willing to actually manufacture such disasters so that their time, place and nature give him maximum advantage for action. Indeed, he has repeatedly demonstrated this tendency since 1999, when the Russian security services allegedly orchestrated the Moscow apartment bombings that brought him to power (John B. Dunlop, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule, Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2012; David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, Yale University Press, 2003; Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky, Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within, London: Gibson Square Books, 2007; “Putin’s Way,” Frontline, PBS, January 13, 2015). The West’s collective unwillingness to recognize this pattern has prevented many from seeing Putin for who he is or recognizing why it would be entirely out of character for him not to be actively involved with the Islamic State terrorist organization, a group he claims he is fighting. This controversial Kremlin–Islamic State connection is being increasingly asserted by various Russian analysts (Gordon, September 11, 2016; Graniru.org, December 30, 2016; Nv.ua), December 31, 2016).
Pragmatically, such actions routinely give him an advantage over his opponents, and he can always muddy the waters enough so that many in the West will refuse to accept what he is doing. Putin has three reasons acting in this manner, all of which arise from the modus operandi of Soviet intelligence agencies from which he sprang. None of them are easy to accept for Westerners, who have an entirely different operational code and thus seldom employ the kind of tactics someone like Putin is more than prepared to use against them.
First of all, Moscow from 1917 on has regularly used false flag operations. The Russian government recruits people often by using agents who portray themselves as opponents of Moscow and all that Moscow stands for. The classical example of this was “the Trust”—Cheka director Feliks Dzerzhinsky’s successful use of an invented anti-Soviet conspiracy in Moscow against Russian émigrés. Beginning in 1921 and extended until 1927, Moscow created, out of whole cloth but seeded with plausible figures, a fake anti-Soviet group in Moscow called the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. This organization was established to contact, disorganize and control the most radical and militant members of the first Russian military emigration. While some émigré leaders, like General Alexander Kutepov, were suspicious, enough were taken in—including most notoriously Vasily Shulgin. Thus, the Trust came to be viewed by Soviet and later Russian intelligence as the best way to penetrate and control Moscow’s opponents (Pamela K. Simpkins, ed., “The Trust,” The Security and Intelligence Foundation Reprint Series, July 1989).
The Trust was successful because Russian émigrés wanted to believe in the existence of such a group. Moreover, the Cheka was able to salt its operation with people who appeared to share the anti-Soviet émigrés’ goals. And finally, Dzerzhinsky arranged things so that when the operation was eventually exposed, that worked to Moscow’s benefit as well, discrediting those abroad who had cooperated while making the Soviet regime look even stronger than it in fact was.
The second reason why it would make sense for Putin to surreptitiously support the Islamic State is the fact that Moscow intelligence services have more often recruited those who agree with one or another aspects of its policies—it does not need or perhaps even want those who are prepared to agree on them all—rather than relying on payoffs or compromising information to encourage such cooperation. Certainly, it also uses such classic espionage tactics, but they are less important for the Russian government than finding people who genuinely agree with its positions. And those positions, which include among other things a fundamental hostility to the United States, democracy and human rights, find supporters among those one might not expect to line up with the Russian government given their divergent positions on other issues. Indeed, the list of people who share various individual policy positions with the Kremlin is far larger and broader than many want to admit.
And third, both in Soviet times and even more today, Moscow has been relatively weaker than the West it opposes. So to compensate, the Russian intelligence services have been willing to do something the West does not: sow chaos by promoting groups that oppose the West even if they do not directly support Moscow and even if at some other level they are opposed to what the Russian government wants. In undermining its more powerful geopolitical opponents, chaos is a more useful strategy than the usual tactics more powerful or more morally constrained governments typically are prepared to use. Consequently, the Russian intelligence services have long had an interest in being involved with the most radically anti-Western groups—directly where that is possible or via false flag operations where necessary—both to stir the pot and to ensure that the trouble such groups cause will be directed in the first instance not at Russia but at the West.
Given these underlying principles of Russian covert operations, it is far more probable than improbable that Moscow is, in fact, actively involved with the Islamic State on at least some level. Indeed, such a task would have been facilitated by Russian security services’ clandestine role in assisting Islamist radicals to leave the North Caucasus to fight in the Middle East (see EDM, May 28, 2015). Thus, the security services presumably have had the chance to recruit both directly and via false flag operations people who could play a major role in directing the Islamic State and related terrorist groups.
Some Russian analysts are making this argument already (Gordon, September 11, 2016; Graniru.org, December 30, 2016; Nv.ua), December 31, 2016). But generally they have been dismissed by Western analysts. Given Putin’s record and the danger that a Russia–Islamic State alliance, however much denied by both sides, would pose to the West, it is time to stop ignoring the operational principles of Putin’s KGB state. Considering the Russian president’s demonstrated character and modus operandi, he would presumably consider it a signal failure not to form such an alliance against the West.