Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Moscow Terror Attack: Is Ukraine Responsible?

It took Vladimir Putin days before he conceded that the terror attack on a concert hall in Crocus near Moscow was the work of ISIS operatives from Central Asia. Yet, he continued to fly his earlier kite about Ukraine being responsible.

The claim in the sense the Russian leader intends it is too ridiculous to merit rebuttal. Nevertheless, examined from other angles it contains more than a grain of truth.

For more than two years Ukraine has held the Russian state machinery hostage, preventing it from performing key duties of any well-organized state including ensuring the security of citizens. The men who run FSB, Russia’s security service, have diverted resources to chasing shadows linked to Ukraine in a fantasy world.

Special units have been sent to Kazakhstan, Türkiye, Serbia, Cyprus and Slovakia where an estimated 2.2 million Russians have fled to avoid being drafted into a war they disapprove of.

Some of those units were transferred from Syria, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where they had been keeping watch on Islamist terror groups since the insurgencies in Kolyab and the Fergana Valley two decades ago.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia maintained a 2,000-man “assistance force” in Tajikistan close to the Afghan frontier to keep watch on movements from the badlands south of the Oxus.

Over the past two years that force has been cut down to a skeleton barely capable of defending itself. Most of its members have been brought home to fill gaps or sent to fight Ukraine.

Russia had an even larger force in Armenia to keep an eye on Transcaucasia to prevent terror groups to infiltrate Chechnya and Dagestan via Georgia. But that force too has all but evaporated, leaving behind a symbolic presence on the Armenian-Iranian border and in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Russia has also radically curtailed its presence in Syria which still hosts ISIS fighters in an archipelago of villages controlled by self-styled “caliphs.”

The Russian retreat has also reduced the presence of forces still loyal to Bashar al-Assad and mercenaries hired by Iran.

That means a sharp drop in the information available to Moscow and its allies in Damascus and Tehran about the activities of ISIS and kindred groups.

At home Putin has diverted huge resources to curbing and crushing real or imagined political rivals, allowing real enemies to rebuild themselves not only in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan but even in the Urals heartland.

A month before the Crocus attack Islamist militants briefly seized control of the airport at Makhach-Qala, capital of Dagestan, threatening to kill all passengers of a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.

Obsession with Ukraine has been upgraded as a secular state religion.

According to information that is hard to confirm but sounds plausible Putin doesn’t want to hear anything that isn’t related to Ukraine.

Last week his spokesman Dimitri Peskov, ignoring the initial cliché about “special operation” that would end in one week, upgraded the attack on Ukraine to “an all-out war by the West” and an existential threat to Russia.

If you identify the West, whatever that means, as an existential threat, how could you trust its secret services when they inform you that an ISIS attack is about to hit you at a concert hall near Moscow- which is what the US warned Putin a month earlier?

Putin mentioned the American message at the time but dismissed it as part of a Western psychological war against Russia.

Anti-Westernism, sometimes known as Slavophilia, has been present in the Russian politico-cultural debate since Russia emerged as a recognizable nation under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.

Slavophils, however, saw the West as a competitor or rival in religious, cultural and empire-building domains rather than an enemy to fight to the death.

All politics, as Karl Schmidt observed, is about the choice between friend and foe.

But there are occasions when the choice should be made a la carte, so to speak. At certain times, a friend could behave as foe and even wage war on you. Didn’t the First World War start as a duel between two grandsons of Queen Victoria? At other times, a foe could be cast as friend even in unlikely circumstances. Didn’t Stalin switch alliance from Hitler to Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to cast himself as a cuddly “Uncle Joe”?

The status of friend or foe is acquired via a long process.

A merely polite relationship could develop into good neighborliness, collaboration on certain issues, partnership, alliance and eventually friendship. A foe could start as someone who merely sees things differently before morphing into a competitor, a rival, an adversary and eventually an enemy.

In both cases, the process could be reeled back, a friend could become a foe and vice versa-hence the cliché about nations having no permanent friends or foes.

Thomas Jefferson, however, distinguished a category above that of a foe: hostis generis humanis (enemy of the humankind).

He used that HGH to describe terrorists, hostage-takers and all those who don’t demand something specific from you but fight to enslave or murder you.

ISIS and kindred terror groups belong to that HGH category.

Thus it makes sense to cooperate even with real or imagined foes of the time to defeat and destroy them.

One must be delusional to think that the West, whatever that means, wishes to destroy Russia which, whether anyone likes it or not, has been a member of the European family of nations, albeit at times as a problem child. It is equally delusional to think that Ukraine, where Russia was first invented as a concept, is an enemy of Russia.

Putin made a huge blunder by invading Ukraine rather than trying to woo it as a friend if not an ally. He started a war that even if he wins, which he is unlikely to do, could trigger political, cultural, demographic and security consequences that Russia might not be able to handle.

Throughout the Cold War, Russia acted as a foe for the US but it was Al-Qaeda, the Middle Eastern version of hostis generis humanis, that launched the 9/11 attacks. Other HGH groups have attacked France, Germany, Belgium and a dozen African countries not to mention Iran, Iraq and even portions of Afghanistan under their ideological kith-and-kin the Taliban.

Putin needs a course in anger management to begin thinking who Russia’s real enemies are.