Russia and the US: friends at last?

The former rivals form a politically symbolic alliance over a shared problem: Afghanistan.

The ancient Chinese proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been a cornerstone of realist statecraft since the dawn of, well, realist statecraft. For example, Britain formed an alliance with its long-standing enemy, France, in order to counteract the Germans during the First World War. Responding to criticism of his Second World War allegiance to Stalin's Soviet Union, Winston Churchill claimed that "if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make positive reference to the devil in the House of Commons".

Comparatively, during the cold war, liberal-democratic states often formed alliances with non-communist dictators, such as Mobutu of Zaire. The Soviet Union provided financial assistance to a handful of anti-communist states to strengthen their cold war sphere of influence. The US supported the Afghan mujahedin during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

However, the principle alone may serve as a weak basis for alliance: after the break-up of the Soviet Union some of the mujahedin spawned the Taliban and turned against the United States.

Now, in a twist of fate, a partnership between Russia and the United States is materialising, based on this timeless principle.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that, like the Soviet Union 21 years earlier, Nato would not be able to beat the Taliban. The 79-year-old former president claimed that no feasible increase in troop numbers could ever improve the situation for the US, and that Afghanistan is at risk of turning into "another Vietnam".

It seems that the Russians, thus far passive observers of the war raging in their backyard, have decided to contribute their topographical expertise in the area. Ironically, both countries are said to be articulating the definition of the alliance at Nato's Lisbon Summit on 19 November. This has been received with speculative cries in the field of international relations, Foreign Policy dubbing it "Nato 3.0".

Despite the cessation of the cold war, Russia has not extended its hand to the US in this way before. Nonetheless, Russia has not necessarily offered a hand of friendship, and there is speculation that Moscow's concerns are solely interest-fuelled.

It has been widely reported that the Russians agreed to assist the Americans with their operations in Afghanistan because Russia has one of the worst heroin addiction rates in the world. Its two million heroin addicts consume 21 per cent of the world's supply, and Russia blames the severity of the problem on the US's failure to spray poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Last Friday, Moscow announced that a joint narcotics raid with US forces had destroyed four drug laboratories and one tonne of heroin.

This sudden change on the international playing field invites a host of fresh and important questions for foreign policy experts. If Russia and the US achieve their common goal, will the alliance between them survive? Do these former rivals share enough common ground to be considered friends? And what is the true nature of this politically significant alliance?

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.