Vladimir Putin has something to be proud of. Only a year and half has passed since the Russian president called for the creation of a broad anti-terrorist coalition of the civilized world, in his last speech at the United Nations General Assembly. The Kremlin apparently assumed that in the process of creating this coalition, Russia’s partners would shut their eyes to the annexation of Crimea and to Moscow’s ongoing surreptitious war against Ukraine in Donbas. Now, leading Western countries seem to finally be responding to his call positively. This possibility was strongly stressed in Putin’s January 28 phone conversation with newly inaugurated President of the United States Donald Trump. “The two leaders emphasized that joining efforts in fighting the main threat—international terrorism—is a top priority. The presidents spoke out for establishing real coordination of actions between Russia and the USA aimed at defeating ISIS [a still commonly used older acronym for the Islamic State] and other terrorist groups in Syria,” the official Kremlin readout of the phone call stressed (Kremlin.ru, January 28). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even more enthusiastic about new possibilities for cooperation: “With regard to possible forms of cooperation with the United States to combat ISIS (which, I repeat, is Russia’s and the United States’ top priority in the international arena, which was clearly confirmed during the telephone conversation between the two presidents on January 28), I can see almost unlimited possibilities provided there is the political will and commitment of our militaries to translate this political will into concrete agreements and actions” (Mid.ru, January 30). Lavrov even went so far as to not preclude Russia’s possible willingness to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, instead of only Syria.
This enthusiasm was sparked not only by the 45-minute-long Putin-Trump phone call, but also by the US leader’s Presidential Memorandum on fighting the Islamic State, which stressed the need for an “identification of new coalition partners in the fight against ISIS” (Whitehouse.gov, January 28). Some Russian commentators perceived this as a clear invitation from Washington for Moscow to enter the US-led coalition. They are sure that Russia’s participation in the joint fight will be the first step to pushing the US to lift its sanctions (Vzglyad, January 29; Rusnovosti.ru, February 2). For now, however, the Kremlin has denied that the subject of sanctions was broached by the two sides (TASS, January 30).
Either way, there are obvious obstacles for Russia and the US to conducting such joint “anti-terrorist” operations. Indeed, Lavrov had failed to establish US-Russian military-to-military cooperation back in September 2016. According to the Russian foreign minister, his talks with then–Secretary of the State John Kerry “ended with the coordination of a document on actual military coordination of actions against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [since renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham], including the creation of a standing facility, which is the Joint Executive Center (JRC), which would be used to coordinate intelligence and the targets to attack to neutralize ISIS and Nusra on Syrian territory. At the last moment, when all these agreements had been signed, the [Barack] Obama administration failed to muster the strength to put the problem of combating terrorism above its Russophobic intentions” (Mid.ru, January 30).
But the problem was not the Obama administration’s “Russophobic intentions.” Rather, the issue lay with the Pentagon, which strongly rejected the Lavrov-Kerry deal. And the reasons were not ideological, but purely military. US Armed Forces leaders were concerned that the need to share information with Russia would reveal how the US military uses intelligence in the preparation of air strikes. This type of information would have relevance not only for US operations in Syria but also regarding the Baltic States and other areas where the United States is involved in trying to contain Russia. The US military feared that their Russian counterparts would ultimately use this information to oppose Washington’s efforts in those regions (The New York Times, September 13, 2016). Indeed, the sharing of intelligence data is one of the most sensitive issues even among true allies. For example, it took several decades for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to establish the possibility of sharing information among its member states (Nato.int, June 23, 2016).
Since last autumn, Russia’s confrontation with the West in Europe has only increased. In particular, in mid-January, the United States deployed a mechanized brigade to Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, one of the most important elements of NATO’s overall strategy to contain Russia (Usembassy.gov, January 10; Polskieradio.pl, January 12). Therefore, the exchange of intelligence information in Syria would likely worsen the strategic position of the United States in Europe. In fact, it is hardly possible to deter Russia in one part of the world while cooperating militarily in another. If the Trump administration chooses to pursue military cooperation with Russia, that decision will have profound consequences for carrying out US responsibilities vis-à-vis European defense.
Another possible stumbling block is the different attitude of Moscow and Washington regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. For the Kremlin, support for al-Assad is an important part of confronting “color revolutions” around the world. But the US President has recently floated the idea of establishing “safe zones” on Syrian territory. Trump’s proposal is supposed to address the continued flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees to the West, particularly from the Syrian war zone (Al Jazeera, January 31). But the question arises: whose forces will protect these areas to ensure their safety? Lavrov immediately recommended that Washington start cooperating with the Syrian authorities. However, the bulk of Syrian refugees are in fact fleeing attacks by al-Assad’s military, and the zone will be under the control of the opposition. This means that armed units of anti-al-Assad forces will inevitably start congregating in these zones to rest, recuperate and reorganize. Al-Assad’s and Russian forces will certainly be tempted to bomb them. So whoever creates these zones, has to be ready to defend them by establishing an access denial zone. This means the possibility not of cooperation, but of direct confrontation between the Russian and US militaries.