When French President Francois Hollande meets President Barack Obama Tuesday, he will ask Washington to support his vision of a grand coalition to defeat ISIS. The administration will no doubt repeat its commitment to a coalition that includes enhanced intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation as well as support for strikes in Syria against the Islamic State. The two countries also are likely to discuss their efforts to halt terrorist financing. But when Hollande flies directly from Washington to Moscow, Obama must ensure that Hollande takes a clear message to Russian President Vladimr Putin: Russian help against ISIS will not change western sanctions over Russian aggression in Ukraine.
In the wake of ISIS downing a Russian airliner and the Paris attacks, we have heard a lot from Putin about his determination to aggressively target the terrorist group. But we have heard this line before only to discover that Russia has spent the bulk of its energy targeting the population and fighters we support inside Syria. Regardless of what Putin says, the truth is that he continues to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and help the regime regain territory. And Russia continues its destabilization of Ukraine, which cannot be ignored, regardless of what happens in Syria.
The enemy-of-my-enemy logic against ISIS can make many strange international bedfellows: Russia and the U.S., Iran and Arab states, Assad and the Syrian forces fighting him all want to defeat ISIS. But any cooperation against ISIS cannot be traded against broader strategic interests.
After declaring war on the terrorists who savagely massacred 129 people in Paris, Hollande turned to the European Union, not NATO, for additional support and solidarity. The reasons for this were multifold. For one, the EU is better equipped to deal with law enforcement and border security issues. Two, article 42.7 in the EU Treaty enables France to work bilaterally with allies and does not force France to turn its fight against ISIS into a large bureaucratic exercise run by 28 veto-wielding EU members. Turning to the EU also avoids antagonizing Russia. All of that makes sense (although we wonder why Hollande didn’t turn to both the EU and NATO given that he declared that his country is “at war.”) But France’s decision to turn solely to the EU places additional pressure on France to show that transatlantic solidarity against Russian aggression in Ukraine will remain firm.
Putin may very well choose to be a constructive tactical partner in this acceleration against ISIS, but he remains a strategic rival. He wants several things from Europe and may see Hollande ready to bargain as he seeks global support. First, Putin wishes to be just as important as the United States in this effort. He will portray Hollande’s Washington-Moscow itinerary as equivalence between the U.S. and Russia. Second, he wants validation of his support for Assad as the best way to fight terrorism and avoid chaos. Third, he wants to fracture the U.S. and European consensus for maintaining sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. With this in mind, Putin may request a resumption of military and economic ties, perhaps offering cheap gas in return for restarting arms sales.
There is no evidence that Hollande intends turn a blind eye to Russia’s aggressive behavior in exchange for support against ISIS. He did, however, express his interest in lifting sanctions over Ukraine back in September, assuming the ceasefire holds and after elections are held in February. But Ukraine reported fighting as recently as Monday. Hollande remains acutely aware of Moscow’s pressure on neighboring states, as well as its increased incursions into the airspace and waters of European allies. So American leaders need to be blunt: The United States is ready to do everything necessary to welcome France into this fight and to make sure the global coalition against ISIS accelerates its efforts. The new wave of ISIS attacks beyond their strongholds in Syria and Iraq, to Paris, Ankara, Beirut, and elsewhere, requires a strong response from the core western allies.
America should support Hollande in building his grand coalition but make sure that does not weaken pressure on Russia’s occupation in Ukraine or support for Assad. Putin’s promises rarely materialize. Hollande must not trust that Moscow will turn its guns on ISIS and away from anti Assad forces. He must verify. And should help from Moscow materialize, he must not let that cooperation in one arena distract from Putin’s fundamental breech of international law and state sovereignty throughout Russia’s immediate neighborhood.