Syria Air Strikes Raise Risk of Terror Attack in Russia, Experts Warn

According to textbooks on political violence, a terrorist attack requires the following key components: a target, an actor or actors, and motivations.

The Kremlin’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria could raise the risk of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, security analysts said, as the move increases the motivation of Russia-related supporters of the Islamic State to retaliate against Moscow.

As its forces waged security sweeps and real combat operations in the Northern Caucasus during the past two decades, Russia has been targeted by terrorists many times, but in the past 18 months the security forces have managed to contain them, at least from committing massive acts of deadly violence.

“Islamists, jihadis and extreme Muslims are, to put it mildly, not pleased with Russia’s interference in Syria and they will be prepared in some way to answer what is happening at the moment,” Sergei Goncharov, a terrorism expert who heads an organization for veterans of Alpha, a Russian special forces unit, told The Moscow Times.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Monday in an online statement that its planes had flown 25 sorties in Syria in the past 24 hours and had hit nine Islamic State targets.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 fighters, most of whom belonged to the Islamic State, had been killed since Russia launched its air offensive on Wednesday, Reuters reported Saturday.

The threat of retaliation is not a new one: Even before Russia’s massive buildup of arms in Syria over the last month, Islamic State counted Russia among its enemies.

In September last year, after claiming to have seized a Russian-made MiG fighter jet at a military base in the Syrian province of Raqqa, IS militants for the first time openly declared war on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This message is for you, Vladimir Putin! These are the aircraft you sent to [Syrian President] Bashar [Assad], and we’re going to send them to you. Remember that!” a militant could be heard saying in a video uploaded to YouTube at the time.

But the decision to launch air strikes in Syria could be a trigger to translate words into actions, experts said.

Homegrown Danger
Around 2,400 Russians — mainly natives of Russia’s southern predominantly Muslim-populated regions of Chechnya and Dagestan — are fighting together with Islamic State militants in Syria, Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), said last month.

Nearly all major terrorist attacks in Moscow, from the Nord Ost theater hostage crisis in 2002 to the twin metro bombings in 2010, were perpetrated by natives of these regions.

While those people are fighting in the Middle East, Russia is safer, said Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a Harvard University policy think tank.

“As long as they are there, the threat [of terrorism in] Russia has actually diminished,” he said. “The more [militants] Russia annihilates on the ground [in Syria], the fewer will come back.”

But according to Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, the real number of fighters from Russia and Central Asia who have joined the Islamic State is closer to 7,000, and hundreds of them have already returned to Russian soil.

The Russian government stepped up security at home after launching the air strikes in Syria.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the county’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, special security forces and FSB were on alert.

“They are constantly taking measures to prevent [terrorist attacks],” Peskov was cited as saying by state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

Terrorists strive to hit symbolic targets and generate as strong a media storm as possible. In Russia, they have taken hundreds of hostages, including children, sent teams of female suicide bombers on coordinated missions, and targeted Moscow. The concentration of the media — including international outlets — is the highest in the capital, which is the most targeted Russian city outside the North Caucasus.

“The likeliness of a terrorist attack is very high, and it will probably take place in a large city like Moscow, to make a political point. But we cannot know when,” said Malashenko.

No Negotiations
Previous attacks were primarily aimed at forcing Russia’s hand in the North Caucasus, not abroad, and proved unsuccessful in pressuring the Russian government to change its policies with regard to Chechen separatists and the radical Muslim underground in the North Caucasus.

But terrorist organizations have often hit targets abroad in order to force foreign policy change, such as the 2004 bombing of commuter trains in Madrid by an al-Qaida-inspired terrorist group when Spanish troops were supporting the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.

Russia has a mixed record on negotiating with terrorists — the hostage taking in the Stavropol region city of Budyonnovsk in 1995 was widely seen as a turning point in the first Chechen War by forcing the Kremlin to return to the negotiating table with Chechen rebels.

But since Putin took the helm in 2000, there has been an unbending policy of non-negotiation with terrorists, said Saradzhyan.

Putin stood firm in refusing to give in to Chechen separatists even after the 2004 Beslan school hostage taking that shocked the world, in which over 350 people were killed, more than half of them children.

“Even if the Islamic State manages to stage successful attacks on Russian soil, it will not change Russian policy [in Syria],” Saradzhyan said.

Prolonged Threat
Most analysts said the air strikes were unlikely to translate into immediate terrorist attacks. However, the danger will grow if Russia is drawn into a long conflict.

“The question is whether the Kremlin gets seduced into the pattern, so often visible when countries embark on interventions abroad, of thinking one more push, one more expansion of forces will make a difference,” Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security services and a professor at New York University, told The Moscow Times in written comments.

And while Moscow’s air strikes could eliminate some of its enemies, it could also sprout new ones.

Western leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that Russia is targeting not only the Islamic State, but also U.S.-backed groups like the Free Syrian Army.

Broadening its line of fire to include moderate groups will not win Russia new friends and could sow the seeds for a new wave of violence, Saradzhyan said.

“Inevitably, these groups will develop grievances vis a vis Russia and will try to avenge,” he said.

More immediately threatened could be Russians based in Syria: both military specialists and “ordinary Russians who reside in Damascus and other cities,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert.

“I also think that Russia’s involvement in Syria may be risky for Orthodox Christians who live in Syria’s coastal region,” he added.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, publicly backed the air strikes last week, and Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, called the fight against terrorism in Syria “a holy war.”

“The endorsement of the Syria operation by the Russian Orthodox Church gives extra impetus to the extremists,” Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser for Gulf State Analytics, a consultancy, told The Moscow Times.

Ukraine seeks foreign investment in agriculture

Ukraine is about to open up as a uniquely attractive farm and agri-development opportunity for potential investors from the EU, according to the country’s deputy agrarian policy minister Vladyslava Rutytska, according to Ireland’s news portal Agriland.

“Both land leasing and purchase options are now available,” she said, according to the report.

“The Ukranian government has introduced a series of measures which make land ownership more transparent while, at the same time, clamping down on issues, such as corruption,” Rutytska said at a Ukrainian investment conference held in London, which was co-hosted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“Our government is creating a stable and sustainable business environment, which will make international investment opportunities in Ukraine extremely attractive,” she said.

The deputy minister confirmed that Ukraine has vast acreages of highly productive land.

READ ALSOEBRD boosts investment in Ukrainian food and agriculture
“But we want to build on this for the future,” she said.

“Four large scale irrigation projects, planned for the south of the country, will allow farmers in these regions to double crop yields. These initiatives are backed by the likes of the World Bank and the European Investment Bank.

“The projects are part of a complete overhaul regarding the effectiveness of the national irrigation system in Ukraine.”

READ ALSOExplained: How to turn Ukraine into the breadbasket of Europe
Farming and food products account for 6.6% of Ukraine’s total exports. One fifth of the Ukrainian work force is employed within the farming industry.

“During the first seven months of 2015, agriculture accounted for US$7.7 billion of export sales,” said Rutytska.

“This figure accounted for 35% of foreign currency earnings. We expect the value of our agri food exports to double over the coming years. This will be achieved on the back of our current reform policies and a commitment to secure higher levels of inward investment.

Ukraine exports 950,000 tonnes of wheat, 400,000 tonnes of maize and 250,000 tonnes of barley to the EU, courtesy of a quota system. The Netherlands is a major importer of Ukrainian maize with trade in this commodity amounting to $158 million so far this year. Italy imported $53 milloin of Ukrainian wheat during the same period.

Up to the end of Septembers Ukrainian farmers had harvested 38.618 million tonnes of grains and pulses, taking in an area of 10.68 million hectares. The equivalent figures for maize and oilseeds are 1.065 million tonnes and 3.34 million tonnes respectively, taking in a combined area of almost 2 million hectares.

Over recent weeks, Ukrainian cereal growers have planted out just over 1 million hectares of winter wheat plus half this area again of winter oilseeds

Rutytska admitted that the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia has had an significant economic impact.

“We estimate total agricultural losses, in terms of both revenues and property, at approximately $1billion,” she said.

“As a result of imposed restrictions, Ukraine’s agricultural exports to Russia decreased by 50% from $2 billion to $1 billion.

“But this will have no impact on the investment opportunities that now exist in Ukraine. A combination of government and land reforms will ensure a totally transparent system of governance where all aspects of land ownership and management are concerned,” said Rutytska.

Putin’s Pianos

The largest audience for Putin’s Syrian concerto isn’t in the Middle East or the U.S. but in Europe.

Though Russian jets streak over Syria, dispersing ordnance against the remnants of the U.S. trained anti-Assad resistance forces, Putin’s main strategic target lies outside the MENA region. In immediate terms, Putin’s play in Syria is about the survival of the Assad regime and the positioning of Russia to play a key role in the final settlement in Syria. But the score for his “Syrian Concerto” is intended to be played on several pianos at once. Although his audiences in MENA and Washington are important, Putin’s primary audience and his largest concert hall are in Europe. Through his actions, Putin has linked Syria to Ukraine and raised exponentially the stakes for the Europeans. Putin’s message is that the European Union should make a deal on Ukraine, for if it seeks to continue isolating Russia and opposes the lifting of sanctions, he can further destabilize the Middle East.

By striking into Syria, Putin has made his position clear that there can be no resolution in the Middle East without Russia, and that to achieve this goal Moscow is prepared to brush aside Washington’s objections. He has directly inserted Russian power into an issue that is now at the heart of the increasingly troubled EU project: the flood of migrants entering Europe from the Middle East driven by the war. Even if Putin ultimately fails to save Assad in Syria, he has already accomplished a major gain: Although no European official will say so publicly, Putin has established a linkage between Syria and Ukraine, having just secured at the Normandy Group meeting the de facto endorsement by Germany and France of his goal to change Ukraine’s constitution by federalizing the country’s East. He is now positioned to extract further concessions from the EU when the sanctions against Russia come up for review.

The most significant deliverable from Putin’s latest visits to New York and Paris is that he has broken out of international isolation, or rather, that the purported isolation of Russia—notwithstanding the public ostracism of Putin—was largely a lark. This is about much more than Putin’s speech-making in the UN, his brief handshake with President Obama, or his interview with Charlie Rose. Having been repeatedly condemned, shunned, and ridiculed by the West, with economic sanctions cutting deeply into his bottom line, Putin has turned the tables on his critics, defiant in his tone and action, and confident that his adversaries in the West will break before the Russian people turn against him. Instead of caving in to the West on Ukraine, as many have been predicting, Putin has linked Syria and the larger MENA crisis to a settlement on Ukraine along largely Russian terms. By abruptly challenging the United States in Syria and leaving the Obama administration to scramble for a response, Putin has again seized the initiative and rendered further talk of Russia’s isolation largely a moot point. The most enduring impact of Putin’s Syria gamble will be felt in Europe. The Europeans are being sent a message that if a solution to the migrant flows into Europe is to be found, Russia must have a say in the matter (read: if you are in Kiev, think long and hard about what the “final settlement” of the Donbas crisis will look like).

Russia is positioning itself again as a global player, either as an enabler or as an obstructionist power. Sounding like a 21st-century version of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who used to proudly declare that nothing in the world could be decided without the Soviet Union taking a position on the issue, Putin has confronted the United States directly, sending a message to the states in the Middle East and to Europe that Russia’s priorities as a great power must be factored into any decision. To appreciate the effectiveness of his approach, one need only look at the attention he has been getting, from Israel through Saudi Arabia to Iran, Berlin, and Paris. His message to the United States is that Russia is back as a great power, and that it will continue to assert itself at the United Nation or elsewhere, unafraid to move militarily against U.S. proxy forces in Syria.

The danger of Russia’s campaign in Syria, notwithstanding the attendant risk that it will spiral out of control, lies with his timing. Putin has been betting on America’s intervention fatigue, and thus far his calculation seems to add up. Even more importantly, he has gauged the deepening crisis in Europe, which had already been shocked by his Ukraine venture, shaken to the core by the Eurozone crisis, and now is being rocked by waves of migration from the Middle East that it cannot control or even manage effectively.

Last but not least, Putin has again dealt a blow to U.S. credibility. If there ever was a classic “in your face” foreign policy, Putin’s actions against American interests in MENA are just that, with the goal of further undermining U.S. influence with its allies.

For Moscow, Syria and Ukraine are parts of the same strategic design: to target the Transatlantic security link, to undermine U.S. influence in Europe, and ultimately to dismantle the NATO alliance. Regardless of whether the Russians will ultimately succeed in saving Assad, Putin’s decisive move into Syria against rebels trained and supported by the U.S. has delivered a powerful message to the Europeans: America lacks the resolve to act, even in areas as important to its global position as the Middle East. The Europeans, especially the allies along the northeastern flank of NATO, will not miss this lesson.
There is a larger point to be made as the Obama Administration considers its options in Syria. The United States’ risk aversion has become an important variable in Putin’s strategy. The lesson the White House has drawn from the past decade of American intervention has been to minimize the risk of negative outcomes emblematic of Iraq and Afghanistan—that is, events that would fit the famous line by Colin Powell on Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” But Putin’s gamble in Syria is predicated on the assumption that, while there is indeed always the risk that an outcome may turn out badly, there is also another side to Powell’s dictum, namely that the payoff of a forward-leaning if admittedly risky policy can be substantial.
It is time we appreciate the larger stakes of the war in Syria for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East, our relations with Europe and the cohesion of the NATO alliance. It is time we make sure Putin’s piano is not the only one to sound a tune in Syria.

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