We’ve even seen it inside the Central Intelligence Agency. The day after 9/11, senior CIA officials charged with fighting terrorism briefed Bush at the White House. They provided a plan to tackle al-Qaeda, explaining that the Russians would be key allies in the fight. The next day, CIA Director George Tenet came to those of us managing the CIA’s Russia program asking for additional material to provide the White House on what assistance to expect from the Russians. Unaware that the topic of Russia came up at the White House, we were dumbfounded. Those of us who had worked on Russian issues for years knew that there was no way the Russians would be real allies. The years that followed proved us right.
Russia’s bloody experience with Islamic terror and its own long war in Afghanistan might suggest it would be a natural ally of the United States 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 it is equally comfortable supporting those terrorist groups at war with the U.S., including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Syria. Despite the Kremlin’s claims, the Russian military in Syria is not targeting ISIS but is allied with Iran and Hezbollah in an effort to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
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A former colleague who was leading the effort to engage Russia in the War on Terror compared the periodic desire to work with the Russians to someone who buys a baboon as a pet, only to be surprised to have his face ripped off. Then, after recovering, he 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?” my colleague asked.
Further, the disconnect between the United States and Russia is not our fault. The basic problem is that Russia is more interested in doing damage to America than helping us solve the terrorism problem. Like many before him, Paul this week promoted the notion that the U.S. and Russia could work together to defeat terrorism. As with all the previous efforts over the past 17 years, the Russians will likely provide nice words but do little. The United States is a bigger enemy than ISIS.
There is also a darker side to the notion that Russia is a natural ally. White nationalists and other right-wing groups are attracted to the belief that Russia represents a socially conservative European nation guided by a Christian, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay agenda. The recent arrest of the Russian activist Maria Butina, who allegedly exploited the appeal of Russia to conservatives, shed some light on this mind-set.
Vladimir Putin, conservative icon
Of course, those who view Russia as a conservative nirvana are mistaken. Traditional conservative values of small government and individual rights find no home in present day Russia. Abortion is still a primary means of birth control, such that Russia has one of the highest rates of abortions among women of child-bearing age in the world. Christian values are protected as long as you belong to the Russian Orthodox church, and gun rights are severely limited. Tyranny is what Russia does best.