Dmitry Polikanov - Vice President of The PIR-Center and Chairman of Trialogue International Club
Resume: Russia and the West fundamentally differ in their interpretations and responses to the crash of a Russian civilian airliner in Egypt. As a result, they are losing another opportunity to unite against the global threat posed by ISIS.
The crash of the Russian A321 in Egypt has become another apple of discord for Russia and the West. Contradictory versions of the accident serve mainly political purposes and, contrary to the position of Moscow in 2001 when it responded to the West’s call for solidarity in the global war against terror, Russia these days sees little solidarity from the transatlantic community on this matter.
Whatever the reasons for the accident are – whether it is a technical issue or the result of an explosion - the economic and political implications of the crash are much more important. The tragedy is broadly covered in the media and the interpretations of the tragedy have great impact on the decisions that are taken. It is clear that Russia and the West are captured by their own myths and legends and each party strictly follows its own “true version” regardless of the arguments of the other side.
In the West, the dominant point of view is that the terrorist attack was caused by Islamic extremists supposedly based in Egypt and, perhaps, with some British roots. There is little sorrow about the fate of more than 200 people – no manifestations of grief in Western capitals, like there was over the shooting in the offices of Charlie Hebdo or the crash of Flight MH17 in Ukraine. We can see no appeals to set up a tribunal and to bring the culprits to justice at the international level.
The Western media narrative is totally different. It is necessary to describe the A321 story as a logical outcome of Russia’s completely wrong policy in Syria, leading to the types of civilian casualties that the West warned Moscow about. Besides, it is easy to “prove” that the regime in Kremlin is “lying again” to its citizens and to the rest of the world by inventing and promoting other “incorrect” versions.
Another reason behind the media coverage may be the need to protect the interests of the large aircraft-building corporations – if the accident was a result of improper repairs and problems with the tail, this could mean bans on repaired Airbus planes and a significant blow to the reputation and markets for the European manufacturer as well as for Boeing.
Finally, some conspiracy theories indicate that it could be a good chance to hit Egypt through its major asset – tourism – and to block its potential alliance with the Moscow-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The Western media, opinion-makers and politicians have completed this puzzle. It fits into their picture of the world and explains their vision of Russian policy. Hence, it makes little sense for them to step away from the terrorist attack version, whatever evidence Russia and international would present in the near future.
The line of behavior is clear as well – to extend the sanctions, to supply more weapons to the Syrian opposition, to reinforce them with U.S. special units, and to condemn Russia publicly as a security threat shaking the foundations of the existing global order.
ISIS should be happy as well. It no longer matters whether they are responsible for the alleged explosion or not – they were the first to claim the responsibility for the crash. In fact, this tactic is not new – it was extremely popular with the Chechen terrorists in the 1990s and early 2000s when they grasped every opportunity to prove their combat status.
Thus, such a message sent to the general public is intimidating enough – by making it, ISIS pretends that any object in any country can be a target. It sounds strange that the alleged attack occurred in Egypt and not somewhere in Central Asia or in Russia, which would be even more frightening.
It is noteworthy, too, that it did not happen in Turkey. On the one hand, Ankara is in the U.S.-led coalition; on the other hand, it fights Kurds rather than ISIS and most probably serves as a transit route for many ISIS-plundered assets – from oil to pieces of art.
The future actions of ISIS are evident, too. Several more incidents like this (claimed responsibility should be enough) could be quite convincing for many countries to stop their anti-extremist campaigns and, perhaps, even to suspend Russia’s relatively successful airstrikes, which, if they last for another month, could become a game-changer in Syria before the desert storm season starts.
It may sound strange, but the results of the investigation will hardly have any effect on Russian policy either. So far Moscow’s official line is quite prudent – the Kremlin does not favor any specific version, does not reject the possibility of a terrorist attack, and emphasizes the need for fact-checking and patience. Therefore, the state formally does not deceive the Russian public.
If eventually it turns out to be a flight accident, Russia will be able to take extra measures to regulate the airlines and to provide for further centralization of the market in favor of the state-run carrier – Aeroflot. If the tragedy is a terrorist incident, the Kremlin is also in a good position. Russia will gradually take out all its tourists from Egypt and suggest that the airstrikes should continue as a preemptive move against the terrorists.
The attack version would mean that the authorities were right when they started the operation in Syria to prevent a terrorist offensive on Russian territory. Moreover, this would be a trump card for the Kremlin to intensify the bombings with the full consent and solidarity of Russian society.
Ultra-patriots and domestic business may also benefit – they were allegedly right when they persuaded Russians to spend vacations at home, so during the long New Year holidays more money will stay within the Russian borders and not abroad. Besides, the crash, if proven to be the result of an attack, would be a good pretext for criticizing the West, both for its insensitivity to Russian victims in the crash and for taking the Kremlin to task for its ineffective struggle against ISIS.
The worst thing about all this is the habit of taking catastrophes and then politicizing them in the public discourse. Unlike in 2001, when both the U.S. and Russia were driven by human feelings in their decision-making, now the developments follow the line of pragmatic reasoning and only aggravate the differences.
It’s a real pity that even the global evil of ISIS cannot help Russia and the West to overcome their ambitions and form a new “anti-Hitler coalition,” as it was in the previous period of a deep ideological gap between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world.