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Putin, Trump and terrorism

Fiona Clark, MoscowMarch 28, 2016

Following its withdrawal from Syria, Russia is turning its attention to a battle against terrorism closer to home. And then, as Fiona Clark reports, there's the issue of Donald Trump.

Image: DW/E. Burrows

The Economist Intelligence Unit rates Donald Trump as a greater threat to the world economy than Britain leaving the EU or Russia's intervention in Syria and the annexation of Ukraine combined. In fact the ranking scale of 25 rates the possibility of a Trump presidency at 12, alongside "the rising threat of jihadi terrorism" in destabilizing the global economy. Russia's activities in Syria and Ukraine acting as a precursor to a new cold war come in at No. 16.

But some Russians don't seem to be worried about a Trump in the White House - in fact, according to the country's chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov, they should be looking forward to it. Kiselyov, perhaps best known for saying gay people's hearts should be burned, his enthusiastic endorsement of Russia's annexation of Ukraine, and claiming that Russia could reduce the US to radioactive dust, is a presenter on a news review program aired one of the country's most popular TV channels. He also heads up Russia Today.

But it seems the propaganda king, who is on the list of people sanctioned by the US because of his proximity to the Kremlin and his position on Ukraine, has found at least one person he can get along with in the US - Donald Trump. Spotting an emerging conspiracy he said Trump was an "anti-establishment" candidate that forces in the US were trying to thwart because they feared he and Putin would get along.

man speaking at event copyright: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Putin thinks he and Trump would get along fineImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. D. Franklin

Threats closer to home

But this infatuation may be short lived. While Trump says he thinks he and Vladimir Putin would get along, his most recent ad released on twitter reveals another view of the Russian leader. The ad aims to show Hillary Clinton as incapable of dealing with the real issues facing the world today - "strong leaders" like Putin and Islamic terrorism. The video shows Putin throwing an opponent over his shoulder while doing judo followed closely by the late Jihadi John brandishing a gun at the camera. Next is Clinton yapping like a small dog and Putin laughing. It might be a little difficult to shrug this off as 'it's just politics, it's not personal' when you've just put a country's president side by side with a man who cuts people's head off - and who incidentally represented an organization that poses a significant threat to Russia itself.

While Putin has surprised the world by pulling out of Syria - to an extent - he's now turning his attention to the Tajik-Afghan border area. A joint military operation along the country's 1,300-kilometer-long border is underway involving some 50,000 Tajiki troops and 2,000 Russian soldiers backed up with 32 airforce combat and transport planes and more than 1,000 combat vehicles.

Over the past year or so Kazakhstan and Russia have become increasingly worried about "Islamic State" (IS) and Taliban activity along the border and the rise in radical Islam in the region. According to news reports, there have been repeated skirmishes along the "porous" border since the US pulled out of Afghanistan.

Last year a senior Tajik police commander, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, who received intensive anti-terrorism training in the US, defected to IS. An IS video released to announce his defection, urged Tajikis to stop being the "servants" of Russia and become "servants of Allah" instead.

Defectors to IS

It's estimated that between 4,000-7,000 fighters have left Russia or the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia to go and fight for IS in Syria and Iraq. According to the Sourfan Group, an organization that provides security intelligence services to governments and multinationals, about 500 have gone from Uzbekistan, 360 from Turkmenistan, 386 from Tajikistan and 2,400 from Russia. The vast majority of those are believed to be from the predominantly Muslim republics of Dagestan and Chechnya and even the Christian country of Georgia which borders both of those republics. One high-profile example is the recently deceased Omar al-Shishine, or Omar the Chechen. Despite his moniker he was Georgian and was thought to have been the mastermind behind many IS battles. The US had put a $5-million bounty on his head, but he is believed to have died in a US airstrike on March 4.

armed men posing for picture copyright: Screenshot/youtube/CATV NEWS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ5HdtBrUN8
A growing threat closer to home for PutinImage: Screenshot/youtube/CATV NEWS

Closer to home the Uzbek nanny who decapitated a four-year-old disabled girl left in her care in a suburb of Moscow was said to have been radicalized by her husband in Tajikistan. She told the court the beheading was in retaliation for Russia's involvement in Syria.

While shocking, it's unlikely this played a role in Russia's decision to end its $480-million operation in Syria. Analysts are still pondering theories ranging from saving money for the ailing economy to trying to curry favor in the West to get the sanctions lifted. Putin maintains his job is done - the president he supports is in a safer position, peace negotiations are underway and even if things do fall apart he can step back in at a moment's notice. Others have called Russia's involvement a branding exercise to boost sales for its military hardware in Asia and the Middle East or a dangerous game to destabilize the regional powers and boost Russia's influence in the region and its standing internationally.

Portraying the president as a kung fu king next to a jihadi killer is probably not the image he's looking to portray at this moment. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said "It is common knowledge that the demonization of Russia - let me put it this way - and everything related to it is regrettably a mandatory attribute of US election campaigns." He wasn't sure if Putin had seen the ad but added "We always regret this. We would like election processes to proceed without such allusions to our country."

It shows a serious misjudgement from the Trump camp. President George W. Bush once said he'd looked into Putin's eyes and had seen his soul. Clinton in her 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination quipped that he didn't have one. Putin's response was "as a minimum, a head of state should have a head." Trump, despite his hair, may have proved that he's bereft in that area.