By MOLLY K. MCKEW
America and Russia fighting on the same side against ISIS: This is the radical realignment that President Trump has been dangling as the linchpin of his promised reboot of the global war on terror. In one of his first executive actions, Trump signed a presidential memorandum on Jan. 28 giving the Secretary of Defense until the end of February to present a “new plan to defeat ISIS,” calling for the “identification of new coalition partners in the fight against ISIS.” Trump has made it clear that he expects Russia to top that list. In an interview this weekend, the President made the case that if the US can work with Russia “in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world…that’s a good thing.”
Pressed on the wisdom of working with Russia, Trump defended the idea not by denying that Putin is “a killer” and a potentially problematic partner for this fight, but by saying that we should work with Russia because America is not “so innocent” and has “a lot of killers around,” too.
The President’s statement drew immediate bipartisan fire, with voices from both sides of the aisle calling Putin a thug and pointing out that journalists and political opponents alike often end up dead in Russia. But Trump’s broader plan is no less fraught than the casual moral equivalency he drew. The differences between our wars on terror run as deep as those between our nations.
On the surface, the idea of partnership with another powerful and capable military to share the burden of fighting the Islamic State may sound tempting. Russia has devoted considerable resources to broadcasting its “victorious war” in Syria, airing endless footage of spectacular airstrikes and trumpeting supposed territorial gains. The slick Kremlin media narrative and coordinated messaging campaigns have helped create powerful myths about its effectiveness in Syria and in the war against ISIS.
But that’s exactly what they are: myths. The truth is that it is both pointless and dangerous for America to fight ISIS alongside Russia. Pointless because the Russians are not there to fight ISIS — their real goals in the region have nothing to do with eliminating the terror group, but with empowering Assad and other anti-American allies. Dangerous because the United States and Russia share neither common goals nor common tactics. Our forces are not interoperable, and neither is the way we fight wars. Russians operate differently from Americans at every level of conflict — tactically, operationally, and strategically. There is no established trust between our nations or our forces, and the place to build that trust is not during a major operation where our goals are fundamentally misaligned.
There is simply no way to make Russia our partner in this fight without betraying the values we defend as a nation, betraying the principles we endeavor to uphold in this war, and betraying the force we have built to fight it. If Trump pushes ahead anyway, what are we in for?
Counterterrorism, Russian style
The United States views the war on terror — rightly — as a messy, confusing world of gray authorities, targets, and battlefronts in which legal frameworks matter as much as military or law enforcement operations. We try to be careful in sorting moderate from extremist, civilian from militant, bystander from believer. We get it wrong at times, and we subject ourselves to scathing review, and our lawmakers investigate those missteps to avoid repeating them in the future. We are constantly reevaluating civil rights and protections in an unclear war.
Russia has no such uncertainties or concerns. There is only one rule in Vladimir Putin’s counterterrorism tactics: anything done in the service of defeating “extremism” is justified. Russian tactics are brutal and indiscriminating: targeting a terrorist or his family or his community are all the same. The Russians have no concept of “collateral damage” in their attacks; it’s all tallied in the same column. If it ends up dead, it was a terrorist.
Russian tactics leave a high civilian body count. Its decade-long internal war against militants and terrorists fighting for an independent Chechnya left at least tens of thousands dead on both sides, and likely far more–a body count that includes countless civilians. It was a scorched-earth war, and Russia has spent countless billions to rebuild the smoking ruin of Grozny. Despite the cost in blood and treasure, it’s not a clear-cut victory: the new Chechen leadership cultivated by Putin has done little to stop the spread of violent extremism in the North Caucasus. But Putin and his security state have found it useful to keep the constant specter of internal terror alive.
Russia has also shown no inclination to learn from its errors. In 2002, when Chechen terrorists took an estimated 850 people hostage in a theater in Moscow, the Kremlin ordered FSB special forces to pump an undisclosed toxic gas into the theater to break the siege. The militants were killed, but so were 130 hostages. In 2004, when Chechen terrorists took around 1100 people, mostly children, hostage in a school in Beslan, the same Russian security forces ended the standoff by storming the school with tanks and incendiary munitions. The terrorists were killed, but again, so were at least 330 hostages, including 186 children. Rather than investigating or reviewing the raid, the horrific outcome was used as political leverage to drum up ethnic hatred and greatly expand the powers of security forces.
We’ve fought wars with plenty of undesirable allies, and it might be tempting to imagine we could hold our noses and ally with Russia against what we believe are the more horrific forces of the Islamic State. But, even putting aside moral differences, there is no feasible way to form a coalition with the Russians and have a joint force that is interoperable. We can’t, as they say, “plug and play.” It has taken decades of training and joint exercises to integrate NATO forces — especially the armies of former Soviet nations — so we can work together at a command-and-control, doctrinal, procedural, technological, and human level. It has cost billions of dollars to achieve and maintain this interoperability. It is fantasy to believe even a bandaid version of this can happen easily or quickly with a large, lethal force five years deep in a spreading, bloody, total war.
Russian anti-terror ops are not about providing security, but exacting vendettas and controlling an environment through fear and devastation. In the Kremlin’s calculus, high civilian casualties contribute to those objectives, so they are considered tactically acceptable. This approach is not only antithetical to our own: It has no Western counterpart.
It may not be fair that Russia is routinely bombing hospitals and civilian infrastructure with relatively little backlash, while one stray US airstrike on a Doctors without Borders facility unleashes unending international outcry. But it’s a hypocrisy we live with as the world’s most powerful military, and it is the reason why American forces operate with the most restrictive rules of engagement on the planet — even though we know that in minimizing collateral damage, there is sometimes a cost in American lives. Because ultimately this is the best and only way to protect our fighting men and women, and our interests, when things go awry.
We still believe in international conventions governing war crimes — conventions the Russians explicitly reject — and we will expose our fighting men and women to criminal charges by fighting the way that Russians do. If we allow ourselves to integrate the Russian way of war, we implicitly endorse the Kremlin’s actions, and the impact on our already damaged reputation will be incalculable. This endangers our troops, by shaping our next generation of warriors and commanders with this mindset of war, and this endangers our nation, by becoming everything we have spent generations training ourselves not to be.
Russia’s kabuki war on ISIS
The US and Russia also have different operational objectives in Syria. On TV and in official statements, Russia says all the right things about its glorious war against ISIS. It’s persuasive storytelling — until you look closer at the details.
First, Russia didn’t enter the war in Syria to fight ISIS; it entered the war to defend their ally, Bashar al Assad, from a popular uprising that threatened his autocratic regime, and to expand the Russian footprint in the Middle East while they were at it.
Second, Russia provides material support to ISIS to manipulate the war. Credible reporting from Russia suggests that Russian security forces helped recruit for ISIS, which now has thousands of Russian-speaking jihadis in its ranks. The arrival of the first group of several hundred Russian-speaking fighters was a key turning point in the Syrian war — turning the war away from Assad and toward Iraq. The largest current source of ISIS revenue, according to US and European officials, is from selling oil to Assad — and Assad cannot act without Russian approval. ISIS requires Russian ammunition to fight, readily acquires it from stocks sent to Assad, and seems to find fortuitous resupply when necessary.
Third, Russia has not been directly fighting ISIS. Russia has dropped three times more bombs than the US coalition, but only a fraction have hit ISIS targets. Instead, Russia has been using ISIS as a convenient excuse to remove threats to Assad, destabilize Iraq (and prove the weakness of American power by doing so), unleash Iran, consolidate its hold on the region, and deploy military hardware and architecture around the edges of NATO.
Why does Russia need massive anti-access area denial (A2AD) air defense capabilities in Syria when ISIS doesn’t have an air force? Partially, this is because Russia has established Syria as its central naval, air, and land force base in the Middle East, from which it can lilypad to wherever necessary, including Libya. If there are any questions about the power dynamics between Russia and Syria, Russia drafted a new Syrian constitution in January.
But mostly, the air defense assets are about us. Russia has prevented US aircraft from fighting ISIS in Syria, threatened to shoot down planestargeting Assad’s forces, and used its planes to force ours away from targets. Russia has targeted airstrikes against bases used by US special forces, and, just to make sure we got the message, bombed the same base again 90 minutes after we asked them to stop.
Russia’s war against anti-Assad rebels, however, closely resembles its traditional counterterrorism operations. The world watched in real time as Russia pummeled Aleppo into dust. The message has been clear: Any who stand against their pawn are fair game. Russia has said civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, is a legitimate target. This has driven a refugee crisis that has destabilized Europe, challenging its political and physical security, and aided the rise of far-right parties supportive of Moscow. Some believe that Russia is waging a war to intentionally “weaponize” migration. The intense civilian collateral damage, widely visible via social media, has arguably inflamed radicalization and aided ISIS recruitment — in the Middle East and in the West.
Adding further questions about Russian intentions in “fighting terrorism” is its own war coalition, which — in addition to Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces, in coordination with Iraqi and Turkish forces — includes terror group Hezbollah as a core component. It also relies on sectarian militias led by Iran’s Quds Force, which is well-documented as Iran’s favorite tool for exporting terror. Russia has also been sharing intelligence and working with the Taliban.
How does it make any sense that Russia fights terrorism in one place, while working with it in another — sometimes exporting the enemies from one war to another? How can the Kremlin claim to be fighting a war to defend Syria from ISIS when Assad has also funded terror groups, including aiding ISIS?
Because for Russia, this is all a simple matter of definition: as we have readily seen in Ukraine, the Kremlin has long referred to anyone who stands against its power as a terrorist or Nazi. “Extremism” is, in turn, a catch-all Kremlin term for radical forces that must be fought. It should not be lost on us that the Kremlin also defines “ akin to other forms of extremism, and that Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov has called the Western promotion of democratic values a cause of terrorism.
Our operational objectives differ wildly. Ours are to eliminate a terrorist force; to limit its replication and recruitment; to keep it from attacking American soil; and then to get our forces out. The Kremlin’s are to entrench a fractious ally (and other regional dictators and strongmen loyal to Putin), to project Russian force into the region, and to continue the realignment of global power away from the West.
Operationally, if we choose to fight as a partner with Russia, we endorse the objectives of their war. We accept that Assad — and Russia — stays in Syria. We accept that the Kremlin will maneuver and manipulate terrorism to suit its strategic and financial needs. We accept the embrace, training, and arming of unholy allies who will likely spawn the next generation of extremists we will fight against. We accept that they have objectives we won’t fully understand — some of which are meant to weaken our allies and undermine our own security architecture. We also become complicit in the grand fiction that Putin has used to inflate his standing at home and in the world.
The threat to alliances
Russia’s strategy for the past decade has been to dismantle NATO, erode the values of the transatlantic partnership, and challenge American power. When the Kremlin views a humanitarian crisis and forced migration into Europe as a strategic success, then it’s pretty clear we share little in common strategically with Russia. The 100 years of American blood spilled for Europe was an investment — an investment in a Europe whole, free, and at peace, upon which we have earned ample returns. Compromising that for a one-off action with Russia makes little strategic sense.
Fighting ISIS with Russia would come at the expense of our strategic alliances and partnerships. Our national security is dependent, more than most Americans know, on the partnership structure we refer to as “Five Eyes” — the highly integrated, collaborative intelligence sharing that occurs between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All of these intelligence forces understand the threat that Russia presents to our countries, and they have gone to great effort to prevent Russian infiltration and recruitment. The minute the US agrees, for political reasons, to openly share intelligence with the Russians, the Five Eyes family ends, leaving us immeasurably more exposed to attack. There is nothing we can gain from the Russians that would replace this source of information in our domestic security. It is likely for this reason that the Obama administration’s attempt to launch a joint operations center with Russia to fight ISIS never got off the ground.
NATO aside, we have spent the past 15 years, during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, building a Western-aligned group of states that share a common commitment and understanding of the threat. A kind of armed brotherhood, these are the nations — Poland, the Baltic states, Georgia, others — that answer the American call to arms most readily because they understand why our strategic objectives matter and they want to be defined as our partners in this fight. They are the frontiers of NATO, and the next generation of warfighters. All of those countries are uncomfortable sharing intelligence with Russia or fighting with Russia, and for good reason: It wasn’t so long ago they rid themselves of Russian occupiers, and they still receive regular Russian threats against their sovereignty. It may be an informal alliance. But we value it, and it evaporates the second we pose for the Russian photo op — or worse, allow Putin to drag us into a replication of his ISIS war in Libya.
What if he really tries it?
If the President and his new National Security Council nonetheless decide to pursue the course of fighting ISIS with the Russians, then we can draw essential lessons from the last time we fought, somewhat nervously, alongside them — World War II. In that war, as in this one, we fought on the same side, though not without trepidation — but we didn’t fight together. This is the model we must replicate for a Middle Eastern war. We should operate on separate fronts, with clear divisions of operational space and limited intelligence sharing, but never allow the two forces to cross. Our military cannot, and should not, be asked to cooperate and integrate with a Russian force and command structure that sees the laws of war, and threshold of acceptable carnage, in ways that we have long rejected.
Putin likes to remind Russians that 24 million Soviet citizens died during World War II. He leaves out that the vast majority of these were killed by Stalin’s deportations, executions, intentional famines, and other internal tactics of submission and control. Russians have been indoctrinated with the idea that this was a justifiable cost of war. The Russia we talk about partnering with now may have modern weapons and equipment, but its perspective on the human cost in war, especially in counterterrorism operations, is still grounded in the fields of Stalingrad.
In the best-case scenario of forced US-Russian cooperation, our military can deconflict the battle space, but should steer clear of open intelligence sharing or participation in command structures in which Russia’s conscripted terrorists and sectarian allies have any access to our personnel or information. Similarly, we cannot allow the Russians to dictate which combatants are legitimate and which are not.
We should also ask for control of areas like Aleppo, where the potential for civilian casualties is high under the wrong rules of engagement, and where the humanitarian responsibilities are greater. Our forces are simply better-trained to fight a humane, legitimate war. The Russians can sweep the desert and focus on keeping their sectarian allies and puppet-regime forces in line, and they can keep their propaganda war on Russian TV screens while we bear the human cost of separating fighter from civilian and rebuilding an utterly devastated nation.
This would certainly raise the question of what the benefit of such a partnership is, or what it does to help our cause or achieve the objective of eradicating ISIS. It would be expensive and challenging. Worse, the Russian way of war would be a seeping poison for our troops. The cost to our current and future generations of warriors of fighting with a brutal, inhumane Russian force would be devastating and immeasurable — and when they returned home, we would be wholly unprepared for the importation of this kind of mentally institutionalized violence into our society, or to help our troops transition from that state back into successful civilian life.
Terrorism is, by its nature, a spectral opponent, but the Russian war on terror is never what it seems. Before the Sochi Olympics, for example, Putin warned of the potential terror threat from North Caucasian militants and staged massive security operations. That operation was cover to move Russian forces into place to seize Crimea. “Fighting terrorism” has been a convenient justification used by President Putin for many terrible things since 9/11 — the justification for every sin, the perpetrator of every crime, the reason so many rights have been rescinded and power re-centralized.
If President Trump signs up for such endeavors, he should do so clear-eyed. He should understand that joining Russia in Syria captures America into a Putinist narrative of domination and victory. He should understand that his decision to do so, if guided by other desired benefits of an imagined policy realignment, will likely come at the cost of American national security in cascading ways that we cannot yet fully define.
To buffer against this, if he insists on this course, then President Trump must ensure that Secretary Mattis and our military commanders have the final say on how we divide the battlefield and how we fight the war. But there should be no illusions about the nature of what we are partnering with, and the cost to our nation — the vast majority of which will be carried by our military personnel for decades to come.
There is no moral equivalency between us and Putin’s Russia. The strong bipartisan backlash to President Trump’s comments is evidence enough that his attempts to forge ahead in a new partnership with Russia will meet tough resistance when they are out of bounds. A place to focus this outrage — for the sake of protecting our military and preventing ourselves from becoming no better than Putin’s “killers” — would be to avoid the trap of fighting ISIS with Russia, or of coordinating our global counterterrorism strategy with the Kremlin.
Far more logical than accepting a bad choice would be to return to the original assignment — the identification of coalition partners to fight ISIS. We are already a member of “the most successful military alliance in modern world history, maybe ever’. The US will have partners to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Our partners — our NATO allies, and the NATO aspirants, with whom we share tactical, operational, and strategic objectives; with whom we share a deep foundation of trust; and with whom we have bled a lot more recently than 1945. Why would we turn our backs on that?
Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) advises governments and political parties on foreign policy and strategic communications. She was an adviser to Georgian President Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013, and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat in 2014-2015.