Why sanctions on Russia could complicate Obama’s anti-Islamic State efforts

The ramped-up US sanctions come less than two weeks before President Obama is set to hold a UN Security Council summit on the issue of foreign fighters who aid international security threats like the Islamic State.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Shi'ite fighters from Mahde Army launch rockets during heavy fighting against Islamic state members at Bo Hassan village, near Tikrit in northern Iraq Friday.

The Obama administration is imposing a new round of sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine – a move that in the interrelated ways of international politics could complicate the president’s efforts to build a broad global coalition to defeat the Islamic State militant group.

The sanctions announced by the Treasury Department Friday are the fourth round of restrictions and bans that the United States is placing on Russian companies and individuals in coordination with the European Union. The sanctions are the spearhead of an effort to pressure Russia to end what the West says is Moscow’s aggressive action toward the Ukrainian government, and instead to promote peace between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists.

But now may not be the most opportune moment for President Obama to further antagonize Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The ramped-up sanctions come less than two weeks before Mr. Obama is set to hold a United Nations Security Council summit on the issue of foreign fighters who aid international security threats like the Islamic State (IS). As such, they are likely to bury that much deeper any prospects of Russian cooperation on an international issue of importance to the US.

“Foreign governments, and certainly that would include the Russians, have a clear common interest in curbing the flow of these kinds of ‘upsetters’ of international order,” says Michael Doyle, a former UN official who is now a professor of US foreign and national security policy at Columbia University in New York. “But unfortunately, I think we’re going to see the fallout from the poor state of relations between the US and Russia when this issue is taken up” at the Security Council.

“The two are in a pretty confrontational position right now,” he adds. “So we’re likely to find ourselves in a zero-sum mentality with them, where [the Russians] will use every opportunity to criticize and stymie the US. That includes blocking even a modest diplomatic advance like a resolution on foreign fighters if it’s coming from the [US].” 

Russian opposition to US policy on Syria is nothing new. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most important ally, Moscow has acted for years to derail any effort in the Security Council to pressure Mr. Assad or to involve the international community in Syria’s civil war.

When Russia vetoed a US-backed Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s actions against Syrian civilians in 2012, then-US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice – now Obama’s national security adviser – called the Russian vote “disgusting.”

But that was well before the direct Western confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

As recently as this week, the Russian government noted its opposition to US policy on Syria, with a spokesman responding to Obama’s address Wednesday night on the threat of IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by rejecting as “illegal” any US action in Syria without the approval of Damascus.

Still, that should not automatically draw a Russian nyet to Security Council action on an international threat like foreign fighters, but Professor Doyle says it very likely will.

Russia may have an interest in stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the Caucasus, for example, just as China might be expected to support a move that could serve its purposes in addressing the tensions it’s experiencing with some ethnic minority populations. But a desire to dampen international cooperation with the US and weaken a sense of US leadership on a global issue will probably trump local interests, Doyle adds.

That does not mean Obama can’t advance the issue of foreign fighters with a UN summit, some diplomatic experts say. A 14-to-1 or 13-to-2 vote in favor of a foreign fighter resolution (on the 15-member Council) would still be viewed as a success for Obama.

Just raising the profile of the issue will be a plus, they add, especially if it further galvanizes the countries that matter most on the foreign fighter challenge: the Sunni Arab regional powers and the Europeans.

The “sour state” of US-Russia relations does not mean cooperation between the two is now impossible, Doyle says, but it probably means cooperation will be possible only “on issues of great importance to both.”

Foreign fighters may not rise to that level, but there is a “looming big issue” that does, Doyle says. Which is? Iran and the international effort to strike a deal with Tehran this year to roll back and limit its nuclear program.

“That will be the test to come that will determine whether strong common interests can overcome what is also a pretty strong emerging geopolitical hostility between these two powers,” he says.

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