Speaking this week (September 15) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, at a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—the Russian-dominated regional defense alliance—President Vladimir Putin detailed his understanding of regional and global security threats. The CSTO summit was notably held in former Soviet Central Asia, in Tajikistan, which borders unstable Afghanistan. And Putin began with the potential threat of destabilization emanating from extremist jihadist forces across the border. Putin accused the United States and allied forces of failing to stabilize the security situation in Afghanistan: He described their role as “partially positive,” but with the withdrawal of the bulk of troops, “the situation [in Afghanistan] has degraded.” Putin singled out the spreading influence of “the so-called Islamic State or ISIS [the organization’s former name—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]” in Afghanistan as the main threat and described the Islamic State as a world scourge. In Syria and Iraq, according to Putin, “ISIS controls substantial territory and plans to expand further—to [the holy cities] of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.” According to Putin, the Islamic State “is planning to spread its activities to Europe, Russia, [and] Central and Southeast Asia” (Kremlin.ru, September 15).
Putin called for a joint effort by the international community to resist the Islamic State threat and promoted the formation of a “broad coalition” to support the Iraqi and Syrian government forces “that are already fighting ISIS.” Russia is selling Iraq weapons and is “providing military-technical assistance to the Syrians to help resist the terrorist aggression.” According to Putin, without the support of the Syrian authorities and military loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it is impossible to defeat the Islamic State and “save from devastation, servitude and barbarism the multi-confessional and multinational Syrian people.” Putin called on other countries to join in providing military assistance to al-Assad. Putin promised al-Assad was ready to share power “with healthy opposition forces,” without deliberating on who these forces were or the exact nature of possible political reforms. The Russian president insisted that joining forces in the fight against terrorism was essential to solving all problems, including the present refugee crisis in Europe. On the basis of fighting the common enemy, personified by the Islamic State, Putin moved on to a vision of a new world order, based on a “full reassessment of all problems and conflicts,” to the building of a Euro-Atlantic system “of indivisible security” that must “include norms to prevent the scheming of unconstitutional coups, support of radicals and extremists” (Kremlin.ru, September 15).
The threat of a possible jihadist insurgency spilling over the border from Afghanistan into Central Asia has been used by Moscow since 1991 to scare the post-Soviet secular authoritarian leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan into submission. At present, the Islamic State’s activities and interests seem far off from Central Asia. In fact this extremist group is siphoning jihadist activists to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, where many of them are killed in action. In doing so, the Islamic State is possibly reducing the present terrorist threat inside Central Asia, Russia and Europe.
The Dushanbe summit did not lead to any major changes in the CSTO. Uzbekistan, a frontline state bordering Afghanistan, faces the potential terrorist and insurgency threat of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has associated itself with the Islamic State in recent years. Yet, Uzbekistan did not return to the CSTO fold, after having left the alliance in 2012. Thus, building an effective barrier on the Afghan border with Central Asia will be an uphill job. Tashkent could have moved closer to the CSTO and Moscow, if the transborder Islamic State–connected IMU threat had been imminent. But Putin did not seem disturbed by yet another hollow CSTO summit—he was apparently speaking over the heads of the authoritarian Central Asian leaders gathered in Dushanbe. Instead, in a sense rehearsing his United Nations General Assembly speech that he plans to deliver on September 28, Putin’s words seemed directed toward the West—and Washington, in particular. According to Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, Putin will be speaking in New York about the terrorist threat (the Islamic State) and international security, possibly including the Ukrainian crisis (RIA Novosti, September 11).
Putin has been using the Islamic State threat to impress upon the reluctant West and the US-led anti–Islamic State coalition the need to join forces with al-Assad. In an apparent attempt to add more pressure, Moscow has implied it may act unilaterally by deploying a substantial military expeditionary force in Syria, with armor, combat troops and aircraft (see EDM, September 10). Official Russian denials of direct military involvement in Syria have been deliberately vague. In Novosibirsk, first deputy chief of the General Staff (a senior military position in Russia—a general with access to the nuclear launch codes), Colonel-General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, told reporters: “We do not, today, have a plan to establish an air base in Syria, but anything may happen” (RIA Novosti, September 16).
According to the pro-Kremlin weekly Expert, the Kremlin and the White House may be moving closer to the idea of President Putin and President Barack Obama meeting this month, during the UN General Assembly session, in New York. Expert argues that the seemingly irresolvable regional conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia are a mere reflection of the global Russo-US row that must be deescalated for everyone’s benefit. The US is in decline; it must accept Russia as an equal power and resolve their outstanding issues, taking Russian interests fully into account. Future rivalry between Moscow and Washington must follow strict rules of engagement, so as not to lead to uncontrollable escalations, the paper recommends (Expert, September 16).
Moscow is apparently offering Washington joint action against the Islamic State, together with al-Assad and Iran and Hezbollah—the forces that are, indeed, fighting in Syria against the jihadists and suppressing the more moderate Syrian opposition. The coalescence of such a coalition could help the Islamic State win the support of most Sunnis in Syria and seriously undermine US standing in the entire Arab world. But Washington may take the bait, some in Moscow believe, since the US is in decline and withdrawing from the world. Putin also clearly wants the United States and the West to publicly castigate the present Ukrainian regime: In accordance with Putin’s blueprint of a new Euro-Atlantic order, the government in Kyiv is deemed illegitimate, having taken power after an allegedly “unconstitutional coup.” The Kremlin apparently believes Putin’s visit to New York could be a game changer in ending the confrontation with the West on Russia’s terms, establishing a new multipolar world order including a humbled US.