A month ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the United Kingdom announced the first visit of a British foreign secretary to Russia since 2012, which was scheduled for late March. Intrigue over this decision stemmed from the fact that the current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had repeatedly and publicly criticized Moscow’s foreign policy, and the meeting was expected to be a tough one.
As it turned out, the planned trip was unexpectedly postponed, and the reason for that decision was that a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers had just as suddenly been rescheduled to March 31 at the initiative of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
This prioritizing is explainable, since Johnson obviously needed to take to Moscow a common stand on the most contentious issues. But what conclusions can be drawn from the event held in Nato’s headquarters? Apart from the traditional Russia-bashing, a question of the necessity to boost Nato allies’ defense spending was raised. Tillerson argued that all Nato members should spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on their military, a requirement met only by some members of the alliance.
Another key point for discussion was the expansion of the alliance’s role in combating terrorism. I have no doubt that addressing the terrorism threat must be an unconditional priority, but I have reason to suppose that in this particular case the US has chosen tactics that will fail.
“One of our best tools in the fight against terrorism is training local forces,” Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said. But wait, isn’t that where the US, the alliance’s main actor, has failed? Let me remind you of a notorious affair involving the US-trained Division 30, which betrayed its American sponsors and surrendered to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in 2015.
The Pentagon-trained rebels handed over their weaponry to the terrorist group, and US Central Command confirmed the defection of about 70 graduates of the Syrian “train and equip” program. Apparently, the matter did not concern insufficient financing, which was actually quite generous – the program cost US$500 million. In my view, the reason was the inability of the US to assess adequately the complexity of the relations among the various opposing groups in Syria, as well as the situation in the country at large.
The East is a subtle matter, as we say in Russia.
Back on the topic of the British foreign secretary’s visit to Moscow. As far as I know, now it is expected to take place in April. What issues should Johnson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov dwell on over the course of their meeting? According to a statement published on the website of the British government in early March, the discussions would, in particular, focus on Syria, where Moscow and London “continue to have significant differences”. As the FCO spokesman put it, the UK intended to keep pursuing an “engage but beware” policy toward Russia.
These differences mostly refer to what I would call “heavy politics”, but I would warn both sides against confining counterterrorism efforts to the war in Syria and the issue of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Not least important is what is happening at home, in Russia and the United Kingdom, especially in light of the latest terror attack in Westminster.
In this regard, I should mention an increasing terror threat posed both by jihadists returning from conflict zones and by home-grown terrorists and radicals, who have become entrenched in our societies largely by merging with criminal social networks and environments.
At the same time, we should take into account that present-day domestic terrorism is increasingly taking on a global dimension. Even lone terrorists who plan and carry out attacks on their own have been nourished in the environment of global jihadist propaganda and most likely have been contacted by foreign recruiters via the Internet in a certain period of their lives.
Just to back my argument, I will mention as an example the Westminster attack. As it turned out, several weeks before the attack near the British Parliament, ISIS supporters used the Telegram messaging app to call on “lone wolves” to perpetrate a massacre in the UK, having outlined a list of “perfect targets”. Jihadis also resorted to this communication platform, which uses end-to-end encryption, before the attacks on Nice and Berlin.
Would there have been more chances to disrupt that propaganda if there had been more concerted efforts at the international level? I’m sure that stronger cooperation would yield fruit. Same deal with countering the financing of terrorist activity, something that is especially crucial for London, as it remains Europe’s financial hub.
These are the topics that Johnson, in my view, should first of all negotiate with his Russian counterpart during his visit to Moscow.
There are many such issues that should become subjects of constructive dialogue and deepening cooperation between Moscow and London. Let us have a look at the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy adopted in 2006. According to that document, the UN member states agreed to undertake a number of measures, such as ensuring the prosecution or extradition of terrorists; encouraging the strengthening of counterterrorism mechanisms; exploring ways “to use the Internet as a tool for countering the spread of terrorism”; exerting efforts over the protection of identity and travel documents, and so on.
Let’s not forget that the post-Brexit United Kingdom has to forge a new set of security arrangements and elaborate new security policy. At the same time, Europol director Rob Wainwright has warned that the UK could be more vulnerable to terrorism after Brexit, and while terrorism as a phenomenon was increasingly globalizing, what was required was greater international police and intelligence cooperation.
Given that Russia faces the same security challenges, I strongly believe that it is high time for London and Moscow to put aside their differences and start to work together.