Paris attacks bring Russia back in from the cold

by Christopher Read Professor in Twentieth-Century European History, University of Warwick 24.11.2015


"Islamic State,...has achieved the near-impossible. It has united Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Paris, London, Berlin......through its mixture of political naivety, incompetence and sense of invulnerability – appears to have signed its own death warrant"


The full international consequences of Friday 13 November in Paris will take some time to work out but already dramatic changes have occurred. Inspired by an evangelically bellicose French president, François Hollande, France has declared a full-scale war on IS.

Even more dramatically, the UN has passed a resolution sanctioning the use of all necessary means against IS. There will be no Iraq-style debate about the legality of any military action in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.

Islamic State, then, has achieved the near-impossible. It has united Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Paris, London, Berlin, Ankara and beyond. Assuming this configuration holds, IS – through its mixture of political naivety, incompetence and sense of invulnerability – appears to have signed its own death warrant by antagonising everyone that matters at the same time. It has achieved a clear fail in Terror Tactics 101 – divide your enemies and attack them separately.

Fighting talk from Francois Hollande.

Nowhere have these developments been welcomed more than in Moscow. It is still only a matter of weeks since Russia moved into the conflict in a firm and decisive way, unleashing bombers from home soil and the newly-refurbished Latakia airbase in Syria, and batteries of cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.

That, in itself, caught the West flat-footed. Russia is subject to sanctions and in its usual place on the western naughty step. How could they welcome this relative pariah to the struggle in Syria, even though the coalition going up against IS was, up to that point, getting nowhere?

Indecision, leaving action to others, the reliance on poor surrogates – such as the Iraqi army – and a fear of repeating the disasters of the Iraq and Afghan invasions had let the initiative slip to IS which had established itself more securely than anyone had believed possible.

The only solid resistance on the ground was coming from the Kurdish militias and the Syrian army. The West’s insistence on a three-sided war involving IS, Assad and the Syrian Liberation Army – encompassing the campaign against IS plus a civil war in Syria – was bound to lead nowhere. Russian intervention effectively turned it into a war on IS. A reckoning with Assad and the Ba’athist regime will be postponed until the resolution of the attack on IS.

Russian realism

While such an alignment is deeply ingrained in the logic of the situation, the sticking point in this new relationship was the status of the Syrian democratic opposition. Although it had the moral sympathies of most western observers it had proven itself too weak to combat either Assad or IS and yet it was unthinkable that it would fight, directly or indirectly, alongside Assad against the brutal, black-clad jihadis from Raqqa.

In one fell swoop, which may turn out to be one of the most massive self-inflicted injuries of recent memory, IS has made this debate obsolete. The liberal qualms and resultant indecision about having dealings with Assad – while by no means swept away – have been made irrelevant after November 13. IS has made itself what Putin and the Russian foreign policy establishment said it was: the undisputed number one enemy, not only of the West but of all the great powers and many others.

The hard-headed and clear-sighted realism emanating from Moscow, may certainly be seen as cynical and amoral but it is also ultimately correct. IS is a bigger threat than Assad – who poses a threat mainly to his own people. In international relations, for better or worse, that is not the greatest consideration. Rwanda, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and many other examples bear testimony to that. In fact, one might speculate that Assad’s greatest error in the eyes of the West is to have been an ally of Russia since deep into the Soviet era.

Now, however, November 13 has made that, at least temporarily, an issue of secondary importance. Hollande has declared a struggle to the end of IS and, given the will, one cannot doubt that IS could be crushed. After all, its devotees are relatively small in number and are living in an exposed and barren environment which would, in conventional terms, open them up to serious military assault.

Of course, as opposed to the organisation, the spirit of IS might be less crushable. Destroying it risks creating a spectacular and long-lasting example of martyrdom, so it would have to be achieved with a possibly unlikely subtlety and caution.

The vilification of Jeremy Corbyn and others warning against a simplistic and emotional military response suggests that the long-term risks are being discounted in a red mist of revenge.

If it comes to that, not only will Putin be proved wrong in the long run, the West will have an even more complex battle on its hands. But, for the moment, however, IS has brought Putin in from the cold.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Christopher Read:

"My research activity has followed two closely related themes. The main one is the intellectual history of the Russian intelligentsia in the crucial years between 1900 and 1925. In association with this I have also pursued an interest in the social history of the Russian Revolution.

The bulk of my original archival and primary research has been on the former topic. In connection with it I have produced two monographs and a number of articles.

My first monograph was published in 1979 and was a detailed account of the political, social and religious thought of the Russian intelligentsia on the eve of the First World War. The main argument of my second monograph, which took the history of the intelligentsia in a broader socio-political as well as intellectual context, was that the 1920s in the Soviet Union was not so much a period of toleration of intellectual dissent - as proposed by a whole range of 'revisionist' historians - but was really a period of steadily growing intellectual repression. I have also produced an article of 4000 words on 'Bolshevik Cultural Policy' which was published in 1997 in Edward Acton and William Rosenberg (eds) A Critical Dictionary of the Russian Revolution.

The second theme of my research, the social history of the Russian Revolution, has been the subject of several articles and papers and, pre-eminently, of my third book, published in early 1996. The main argument here has been that the struggle between the Bolsheviks and the self-generating popular revolution of peasants, workers and, above all, soldiers and sailors in 1917 and after has been overlooked and was more decisive in shaping the institutions and attitudes of the Soviet government than the more widely studied struggle against the remnants of the former élite gathered in and around the White armies. My interpretation balances the power of the popular movement against the strongly prescriptive assumptions of the Bolsheviks, arguing that the tragedy of the Russian Revolution arose from the fact that the Bolsheviks were driven above all by their 'culture' - especially ideology - into destroying the 'real' revolution conducted by the population. From this arose many of the characteristics of 'Stalinism' which finally brought the system down seventy years later. This theme, the general social and political evolution of Soviet Russia, is at the heart of a volume that takes my argument into the period of the thirties and the Second World War. It involves mainly re-assessing Stalin in the light of new archival evidence and the raging debate about him of the last ten years. In addition, the breakdown and collapse of the system is considered. This volume was published at the beginning of June 2001."

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