U.S.-Russian Cooperation on ISIS: Do We Want Our Face Ripped Off Again?

| John Sipher
John Sipher
Former Member, CIA's Senior Intelligence Service

Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News recently reported that the Trump Administration sought to lift economic sanctions on Russia immediately after entering office, leading to an under-the-radar battle within the government. Needless to say, the Trump Administration has never been shy about their desire to build better relations with Russia. To date, however, the only public rationale to radically shift U.S. policy toward Russia is that Russia should be a key ally in the fight against ISIS.

The fact that both the U.S. and Russia are battling against extremist Islamic groups would seem to suggest that the notion has some merit. At the same time, there is strong resistance to the idea throughout the agencies of the Executive Branch and in Congress. 

Why?

The basic problem comes down to this: While Islamic terrorism is our #1 enemy, Russia’s #1 enemy is the United States. Russia is more interested in doing damage to America than helping us solve the terrorism problem – even if there is some ancillary benefit to them. 

Second, we don’t need their help to tackle ISIS. Russia offers very little added value to our existing capabilities and partnerships. The fact is, we have a lot Russia wants (primarily lifting sanctions), but they have nothing we need. Hardly the makings of a worthwhile negotiation.

Russia has had a long and painful experience with Islamic terror. Moscow’s faced al Qaeda fighters and terrorists stemming from its wars in southern Russia and Chechnya in the 1990s. Ibn Al-Khattab was one of the most brutal and effective of bin Laden’s al Qaeda fighters until he was killed by a poison letter sent by the Russian security services. Islamic terrorists were responsible for the deaths of Russian children and innocent citizens during attacks in schools, theaters, airports and the Moscow metro, among other places. Even prior to 9/11, President Vladimir Putin was warning of Islamic militant groups across Europe and Eurasia, and pushing for a coordinated fight against them.

This bloody experience with Islamic terror and Russia’s long war in Afghanistan would suggest that they would be natural allies with the U.S. and Europe. However, shared goals do not necessarily translate into a common outlook and approach. Russia may be determined to stamp out radical terrorism inside Russia, but they are equally comfortable supporting those terrorist groups at war with the U.S., to include the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Syria. Despite their claims, the Russian military in Syria is not targeting ISIS but is allied with Iran and Hezbollah in an effort to prop of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. 

Despite several efforts to engage the Russian security services over the 16 years since 9/11, Russia has not helped the U.S. effort to tackle terrorism in any meaningful way.

We in the CIA tried more than once to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian intelligence services to tackle Islamic terrorism, but came away each time with nothing. The day after 9/11, the Director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center briefed President George W. Bush that the Russians would be key partners in the fight against al Qaeda. Unfortunately, he failed to coordinate his comments with the elements inside CIA responsible for relations with Russia who would have told him that, despite what seemed reasonable to assume, Russia would be unlikely to help. 

While there has been some lower level cooperation of the type expected between even the most unfriendly of states, the two countries have not been allies in the war on terror. In the 1990s, the Russians were focused on al Qaeda networks sending fighters from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia. Following some initial sharing of knowledge, further efforts to work with the Russians ended up focused almost solely on their internal battle with Chechen separatists and provided little in return that helped the U.S global effort. Those in CIA engaged with the Russians on the counterterrorism front joked that they were missing the “Global War on Terror,” while they fought Russia’s “Global War on Chechen Terror.” 

Several years later, then CIA Director Michael Hayden tried again. He dedicated a senior team and resources in a renewed effort to engage the Russians on the issue of terrorism, only to again retreat in failure. As described by a former colleague who was leading the effort, the periodic desire to work with the Russians on terrorism is akin to someone who buys a baboon as a pet, only to be surprised to have their face ripped off. Then, after recovering, goes out and buys another baboon. “How many times do we have to get our faces ripped off by the Russians before we realize that we have fundamentally different goals?”

It is the American way to remain optimistic and try to find solutions to difficult problems. We are willing to discard consistency in an effort to try new approaches. After 9/11, we happily assumed that everyone would drop their earlier differences and focus on a shared threat. 

Unfortunately, the Russians don’t think the same way. They never changed their focus. We are their main enemy and have been since WWII. Indeed, Putin needs the U.S. as an enemy more than ever. Who else can he blame for Russia’s anemic economy and the fact that his neighbors prefer to join the West? Putin is in the midst of a war against all things Western. The attack on our elections was just the latest example of his larger hybrid war against the United States.

For an Administration that mocked the Obama “reset,” the Trump White House sure seems interested in a reset. Further, they do not seem to want much in return. However, as we look forward to a better relationship with Russia, it should be with open eyes. Do we need something of theirs that we don’t have? What are we willing to give up to get it? How can we avoid falling into the same trap as during previous efforts? What price will we pay with our allies who have been more helpful on the terrorism front?

The U.S. and Russia have fundamentally conflicting views of the world and their place in it. Even in the area of terrorism, there is only a narrow intersection of interests.  Ultimately, working together on anything of value takes trust. Even if we have a shared enemy, it is hard to see how the U.S. can work effectively with a country bent on destroying the U.S.-led world order. It may be worth a try, but watch out you don’t lose your face.

The Author is John Sipher

John Sipher retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations. Sipher served multiple overseas tours, as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station, in Europe, the Balkans, Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. He also ran Russian operations at headquarters. He retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, and received the CIA's Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.... Read More

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