Russia And Islamic State: Time For Action – OpEd


In addition to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran pursuing its aim of dominating the Middle East, the world is facing two further major threats to its peace and security, namely the resurgent Russia of President Vladimir Putin and the rampant Islamic State (IS) under its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi.  The world’s response so far can be summed up as hesitant, weak, undecided, vacillating and ineffective.  However neither Putin nor Baghdadi can be allowed to ride roughshod indefinitely over the principles of moral behaviour accepted by the civilized world; finally they must be brought to heel.

What is Putin’s offence?  Violating the sovereignty of an independent state, and flagrantly continuing to do so.

As the old USSR fragmented in 1991, Ukraine became an independent republic. Three years later, Russia, the US, Britain and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. Under it, the three powers promised to respect Ukrainian territory and sovereignty and never threaten or use force against it.

Things did not go well for the fledgling republic. By November 2013 Ukraine was saddled with massive debt and endemic corruption. In the early weeks of 2014 the EU offered it a trade deal.  Putin, desperately anxious to avoid either the EU or NATO gaining a foothold so close to Russia, countered with an offer of a $15 billion loan – providing Ukraine joined a “Eurasian Union”, Putin’s alternative to the EU.  When President Yanukovych took up Putin’s deal, protests erupted in Kiev.  On 22 February 2015, parliament voted to oust him and hold new elections in May.

On the night of 22–23 February, Putin convened an all-night meeting with security services chiefs to discuss extricating deposed President Yanukovych. At the end of that meeting he is reported to have remarked: “we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia.”   

Next day Russian trucks and aircraft flooded into Crimea from its Black Sea military base. Parliament and airport were seized.  On 27 February masked Russian troops withjout insignias took over the Supreme Council of Crimea. Shortly afterwards a pro-Russian government was installed, and a disputed, unconstitutional referendum endorsed Russia’s intention to annex Crimea.  On 18 March Crimea was formally absorbed into Russia.

Subsequently, as if his “increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on” (as Shakespeare has it), Putin has engineered and maintained military action in the east of Ukraine – nominally in support of the demands of ethnic Russians, who form a majority in the region, to integrate with Russia.  In truth, if former Rear-Admiral of the Latvian navy, Andrejs Mexmalis, is to be believed, the current armed conflict taking place in Ukraine is in pursuit of a deliberate plan with three main objectives , namely to

  1. re-establish the Russian Empire, Soviet- or Tsarist-style;
  2. establish a land route from “mother Russia” to Crimea in order to ensure that  occupied Crimea becomes a viable part of Russia – achievable only by occupying the eastern provinces of Ukraine, followed by the Odessa region and Moldova;
  3. grab the potentially energy-rich areas of eastern Ukraine – the coal fields and potential oil and gas fields.

What has the world’s reaction been to Putin’s brazen grab for power?  To turn a blind eye to his takeover of Crimea, thus virtually endorsing it, and to impose a handful of pretty ineffective sanctions for his support of military action in eastern Ukraine – sanctions which even now the White House is urging Congress to ease, since the US is apparently dependent, for the time being, on Russian-made rocket engines.  Should Congress give way, Putin would simply be emboldened in his determination to re-extend Russian dominance into the old Soviet empire.

Putin is motivated by powerful political convictions. In the case of IS it is burning, yet misplaced, religious zeal, allied to an unquenchable thirst for power, that drives its bid for world domination.  In the mind of its leader al-Baghdadi and his followers, any human being who does not agree with its religious beliefs is fair game for slaughter.  In regions IS has captured, it subjects the population to a simple choice: convert to the IS interpretation of Islam or be butchered in most savage fashion. Respect for the dignity of human life has been discarded.  Any act, however brutal or bloodthirsty, however inhumane, however philistine, is justifiable according to the IS’s perverse interpretation of Islam which, let it be said, is widely and vociferously rejected across the Muslim world.

Al-Baghdadi is utterly convinced that his vision of an extremist Sunni-based caliphate, led by himself, will triumph in Syria and Iraq, be extended further into the Middle East (and indeed it already has adherents in Libya, Yemen, Sinai, Gaza and as far afield as Nigeria), and will eventually encompass the whole world.  On the other hand, just as convinced of the eventual triumph of a Shi’ite caliphate is the Islamic Republic of Iran, its adherents and its puppet organization, Hezbollah.

“Know your enemy” is a basic and fundamental rule of war.  So far most of the civilized world – with a few notable exceptions like the Kurdish Pashmergas – has deliberately down-played the existential dangers posed by IS, and has engaged with it at arms’ length. More direct involvement against this enemy to civilization has no doubt been inhibited by the unsatisfactory results of the West’s incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.  As a result, under the banner of “No boots on the ground”, the West has attempted an alternative form of engagement – military personnel to train local forces, and air-strikes in support of local field operations – a policy which has clearly failed to deal IS any sort of knock-out blow.

The time has surely come for the civilized world to bite the bullet. IS and all its works is abhorred by most of the world.  The US could – and should – assemble a multi-nation alliance and lead a joint military operation across both Iraq and Syria, administer a full-scale defeat on IS, and sweep it off the face of the Middle East.  Only when it is beaten into submission will the baleful attraction that IS exercises over immature and vulnerable Muslims be exorcised.

No one in his right mind would suggest any such approach to the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin.  But his actions should be ringing alarm bells in the mind of anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Europe in the 1930s.  A pusillanimous approach when dealing with autocrats and dictators leads only to disaster.  Strength of purpose must be met with strength of purpose. The West must support the sovereignty of Ukraine with all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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