Russia's Vladimir Putin says West is fomenting jihadi 'blowback'

Moscow is criticized for weak support of the Arab Spring, and for actively backing Bashir al-Assad in Syria. But the Kremlin says its policies are consistent and the West is exporting revolt.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow in Dec.

Both Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister have lashed out at the West in recent days for pursuing what they regard as naive and incoherent Middle East policies.

The critique targets Western backing of anti-dictator rebellions in Libya and Syria, which, as Mr. Putin tells it, only fuels the spreading flames of extreme Islamist insurrection, including the current war in Mali and last week's terrorist strike on a gas complex in Algeria.

"The Syrian conflict has been raging for almost two years now. Upheaval in Libya, accompanied by the uncontrolled spread of weapons, contributed to the deterioration of the situation in Mali," Mr. Putin said at a meeting with new ambassadors in the Kremlin Thursday.

"The tragic consequences of these events led to a terrorist attack in Algeria which took the lives of civilians, including foreigners," he added.

 "Those whom the French and Africans are fighting now in Mali are the same people who . . .  our Western partners armed so that they would overthrow the Gaddafi regime," in Libya in 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Wednesday.

Many in the West may be inclined to shrug off Russian criticism as the routine sniping of a government whose Mideast influence has slumped since the Arab Spring began, or the self-serving rationale of an autocratic regime that fears popular revolution and automatically backs authoritarian rulers.

 But many Russian experts, including sharp critics of the Kremlin on other issues, argue that Russian leaders are being realists about the blowback that has followed Western interventions in the Muslim world.

They say Moscow has been dealing with the threat of militant jihadists since the Soviet Union's disastrous 1980s war in Afghanistan, and has watched as it has shown up in parts of Russia's heartland. Kremlin leaders accuse the West of an enthusiasm for toppling dictators that has led, not to democracy, but to spreading mayhem and rising Islamist militancy across West Asia and North Africa.

"Russia is on the frontier, we are in jihad territory," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow.

"Our own fringes, the northern Caucasus, Central Asiaand even the central Volga region  are threatened. That's why we're very clear about who the enemy is.. . .  We know this, and you would think that after 9/11 and other events that our American and European colleagues would have some clarity about it, too. Yet they always seem ready to play with fire, and to use militant jihadists against Russia and its national interests – as they did in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Libya, and Syria," he adds.

Over the past decade Russia has used its UN Security Council vote to oppose the US invasion of Iraq aimed at overthrowing dictator Saddam Hussein; yet it has strongly supported NATO's anti-Taliban mission in Afghanistan. Last year, Putin even urged the Western allies not to leave Afghanistan before the "job was done" and Moscow gave NATO the use of a huge airbase in central Russia to help with the resupply effort to its embattled forces there. 

Moscow abstained on the March 2011 Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force "to protect civilians" in Libya, and last month it actually backed another resolution empowering France and others to intervene against Islamists threatening to overrun Mali.

On the other hand, Russia has repeatedly vetoed any resolution aimed at international cooperation to ease Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from power and continues to back his regime with political support and shipments of weaponry. The UN estimates 60,000 killed in the ongoing civil war in Syria, with some 500,000 to 600,000 displaced or categorized as refugees.

Outsiders may be forgiven for seeing Moscow's policies as a bit tangled, not to say hypocritical, but many Russian analysts argue that they have been completely consistent – with the sole exception of former President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to abstain on the Libya "use of force" resolution, which was publicly slammed by then-Prime Minister Putin.

"The Libya resolution contained promises to Russia that were never delivered. Today our abstention on that vote can be clearly seen as a mistake, a symption of Medvedev's non-professionalism," says Mr. Satanovsky.

The Russians argue that they back secular goverments and stability, even where it is enforced by a dictatorship, because the alternatives are almost universally worse. They insist that Western efforts to back democratic revolution have backfired almost everywhere, and will continue to do so.

"All attempts to export revolution end badly," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"In Iraq, the Americans came in to eliminate fictitious weapons of mass destruction, and knocked out all the pillars of stability in that country. Look at the mess it's in today.... Libya was stable, Syria was stable, until revolutions aided and abetted by Western powers tore them apart. All this chaos is a gift to militant fundamentalists and no one else," he adds.

Russia's backing for the current French-led intervention in Mali is just a case of lining up against the common enemy, the jihadists, pro-Kremlin analysts say.

They point out that the government the West is propping up in Mali is a dictatorship, the result of a military coup last year that overthrew the democratic government on the eve of elections.

"We agree with the French about this. Maybe they're finally seeing the light," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President Putin in the past.

  "It's an attempt to stem the damage that's a result of the misguided operation in Libya. It's against the jihadists and we support it," he adds.

"When the West is helping to destroy a stable regime, and willfully opening the gates to the radical Islamists, we oppose it. . .   We wish that Russia and the West could work together on this. We are willing, but we doubt the West is ready to cooperate with us," Mr. Markov says.

"Will it have to take a few more Western ambassadors being killed by the very forces they created before they will listen to us?"

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