Russia, Capitalizing on
Terror Threat, Pursues ‘Aggressive’ Military Posture Abroad

Analysts warn that Moscow is seeking to undermine NATO while world focuses on Islamic State fight

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP
November 20, 2015

Russia is deploying more military assets abroad and mobilizing its proxies as the world focuses on the threat posed by the Islamic State, according to reports, raising concerns that Moscow could end its international isolation and strengthen its force posture amid the global fight against terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Tuesday that a bomb, likely planted by Islamic State militants, had brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt last month, killing all 224 passengers and crew. Putin, who had initially resisted calling the plane crash a terrorist attack, waited until after the Islamic State attacks last week in Paris to make the announcement.

In apparent retaliation for the Russian airliner attack, Russian forces are reported to have launched dozens of air- and sea-based missile strikes this week at Islamic State strongholds in Syrian provinces ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour. French jet fighters have escalated their strikes against the terrorist group in Raqqa, while President Francois Hollande, who will meet with President Obama next week in Washington and with Putin in Moscow, called for "a single coalition" to defeat the militants. Putin has also told his naval forces to work with the French as "allies."

Despite Russia’s seeming willingness to join in a coalition against the Islamic State, analysts say Putin has additional motivations. The Institute for the Study of War said in a report that the Russian strikes were "likely intended as a show of force to the U.S. and its NATO allies."

"Russia likely accelerated its announcement about the downed airliner in order to garner sympathy and greater partnership with France," the report said. "Russia may view France’s accelerating air campaign in Syria as an opportunity both to draw a major U.S. ally into its proposed alternative counterterrorism coalition and to degrade NATO."

For the strikes in Syria, Russia used its long-range strategic bombers for the first time since it intervened in the country’s war, the institute said. Moscow appears to have launched cruise missiles from its naval assets in the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, a further demonstration of its expanding regional presence. The Russian military said it would deploy 12 additional attack planes to Syria as well as a missile ship and navy destroyer.

Some of the Russian strikes are reported to have hit Syrian rebel positions in Aleppo and Idlib rather than the Islamic State. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Moscow of seeking to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and target U.S.-backed rebels instead of the terrorist group. There were also reports that a Russian artillery unit might be supporting Assad’s forces in central Homs province.

Cmdr. Elissa Smith, spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said in an email that the Russians notified U.S. forces before they conducted the strikes in Syria as part of the safety protocols the two nations agreed to last month.

"This in no way constitutes coordination with Russian forces," she wrote. The United States has also launched thousands of airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria.

"It appears most of the Russian strikes were carried out against locations that were largely under ISIL control," Smith said.

In addition to military operations in the Middle East, Russia has continued efforts aimed at subverting NATO. The Ukrainian military reported that separatists armed and financed by Russia attacked two eastern Ukrainian towns with Grad multiple rocket launchers this week, the first time the rebels have used such weapons since a Sept. 1 ceasefire. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed Saturday.

Western officials accuse Moscow of supporting separatists in the Ukrainian conflict, which has now claimed more than 8,000 lives, to deter Ukraine from joining NATO and forming a closer partnership with Europe.

Russian aircraft have violated the airspace of Turkey, a NATO member, during their operations in Syria. Moscow is said to be close to completing a new joint air defense system in Armenia, a country on Turkey’s eastern border.

"Russian mobilization through proxies as well as with naval and air assets ranges beyond Syria in an increasingly aggressive pattern," the Institute for the Study of War said.

Additionally, the think tank said that Russia conducted a joint counterterrorism exercise with India on Wednesday and held counterterrorism dialogues with Iraq and Lebanon in recent days.

While U.S. officials have so far said they do not plan to cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State, there are signs that the Obama administration might leave that possibility open. John Brennan, CIA director, said Monday that "we’ve been exchanging information" with the Russians about the flow of foreign fighters from their territory, an example of collaboration that he said should be "enhanced."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter also told MSNBC on Thursday that working with Russia was "possible" if they ended support for Assad and focused solely on the Islamic State.

"If they change—and I've been saying right from the beginning that they were off on the wrong foot—if they get on the right foot, then, and I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry has been discussing this with the Russians, there's a possibility they will contribute in a positive way to this campaign," Carter said. "That's obviously something we wish for. That's not how they started."