Two-Front Disaster

Most observers who study the world wars conclude that having to fight a two-front war significantly impaired the Germans. These circumstances permitted the allies alternately to concentrate forces and conduct attacks on one front or the other, forcing the Germans to shift their focus and reserves between the fronts on a timescale not of their choosing.

This is why I was puzzled and then disappointed by the treatment of Russia after the 9/11 attacks. Even though the Cold War had ended, a lingering mistrust characterized the Russia-US relationship, particularly after the 1999 Kosovo War. When Putin emerged, he made various gestures of rapprochement to the West, including, as he told it, reaching out to see if Russia could become a NATO member. But he was repeatedly rebuffed.

After the 9/11 attacks, Russia expressed not only its condolences but also offered its assistance, opened its air corridors to transport supplies, and requested that former Soviet republics in Central Asia permit the American military to use their airfields. Putin and George W. Bush also got along well personally, with Bush controversially saying he had a sense of Putin’s “soul.”

While those conciliatory moves were underway, officials within the United States continued to speak with a forked tongue. Fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and other jihadis in Iraq, the State Department was still very critical of Russia’s ongoing fights with its own jihadis in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. In 2000, the second Chechen War began, this time with a large number of foreign jihadis among the nationalist Chechen ranks. Atrocities against Russians, including the beheading of a border guard unit, galvanized Russian public opinion.

Later attacks on civilians, including the Nord Ost theater attack in 2002 and the Beslan School massacre in 2004, demonstrated that militant Islamic terrorism was not just a problem for the United States or the Middle East but truly a worldwide problem. While the sympathies of the American people for Russia were very high after each of these incidents, the United States government continued, as a practical matter, to oppose both the Russian state and Islamic extremists. In other words, we voluntarily chose to fight a two-front war.

This is the reason the United States’ criticism of anti-Russian jihadis has always been muted. Instead of recognizing an opportunity for the West and the Orthodox World to unite against a common enemy, instead we pushed the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems into Eastern Europe, interfered with the internal affairs of Russia and its neighbors in the name of democracy, and made common cause with jihadis in our extensive, public criticism of Russian tactics in Chechnya and the Caucuses.

We later assisted jihadis in Syria when Russia came to the rescue of its ally. There is substantial evidence that different parts of the American government simultaneously funded jihadist rebels, including al Nusra and ISIS, while other branches of the government funded their opponents in the so-called Free Syrian Army.

In spite of all this history, Russia continued to share intelligence about Islamic terrorists with the United States, including passing along warnings about the Tsarnaev brothers, who would eventually perpetrate the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013

This unfortunate history should not be forgotten when trying to understand the recent attack on the Crocus City Hall in Moscow. The attack is horrible. The images of the people out shopping and being trapped in a theater are reminiscent of the Bataclan Massacre in 2015. In the latest, ISIS claimed responsibility, and the perpetrators so far appear to be from Tajikistan. The raw video of the attacks—widely available because of smart phones—highlighted the callousness and violence of the event. As of this writing, at least 130 are confirmed dead.

At this early stage, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Never deterred, a lot of foolish people have already announced, with no evidence, that this had to be a false flag orchestrated by Putin to garner sympathy for Russia. Others say it had to be CIA or Mossad. Many authorities, including the United States, have said it was ISIS without qualification. Finally, protests that the United States does not approve any Ukrainian attacks on civilians in Russia suggest maybe our client state is trying to force our hand, as well as the world’s, and somehow had a role in this attack. Anything is possible, but without some specific evidence, the definitive answer remains to be established.

So far, Russian authorities have been noncommittal. The brief field interrogations of the accused have suggested they were Tajiks recruited on Telegram and paid by unknown parties to carry out the attack. Whether they got assistance or funding from Ukraine or one of Russia’s many other enemies, and whether they had any formal training with ISIS, is not clear.

Local police arrested the perpetrators in Bryansk, a small city southwest of Moscow, which is less than an hour from Ukraine, which appears to have been their destination. But this by itself does not necessarily mean the Ukrainian state was involved. Notably, the United States issued warnings of an imminent terrorist attack in Russia only a few weeks ago.

Unlike the Paris attacks at the Bataclan Theater, you won’t see a lot of people putting Russian flags on their Facebook profiles. The western media has demonized Russia for years and downplayed its struggles with Islamic jihadis. International terrorism is a problem that ebbs and flows, but one of the reasons is a lack of solidarity among states targeted for terrorism.

Many countries would rather engage in struggles with other states, which are comparatively predictable, than cooperate against the stateless, barbaric, and mostly unpredictable jihadis. In some cases, as with the Syrian War and the Second Chechen War, certain elements within western intelligence communities have made common cause with extremists in order to pursue their realpolitik goals against perceived hostile states. Finally, many will make excuses for terrorism when they oppose the victim, whether it is a state like Columbia, Israel, or Iran.

Russia did not undertake the 9/11 attacks, the Bataclan Massacre, the French Riviera truck attack, the San Bernardino or Fort Hood shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, or any number of recurrent acts of Islamic terrorism. In fact, it has been the victim of similarly horrific attacks by the same groups. If we had been more open to working together to defeat his common enemy, the threat could have been eliminated, and we would have had an opportunity to create pathways for more durable cooperation and peace in other areas.

Instead, because of the grievances and hubris of the neoconservatives, we have voluntarily undertaken a two-front war against both Islamic extremists and Russia, with a predictable lack of success.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Flowers are seen left by the burnt-out Crocus City Hall concert venue in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, on March 25, 2024. At least 137 people were killed when gunmen in camouflage stormed Crocus City Hall, shooting spectators before setting the building on fire in the most fatal attack in Europe to have been claimed by Islamic State jihadists. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP) (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)