The good news is that the sanctions on Russia seem to be working. The bad news is that those sanctions also seem to be helping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Sanctions are designed to inflict pain in order to change behavior. There is no question that pain is being inflicted on Russia. It runs the gamut from the unavailability of French cheese to delays in developing the oil resources of the Arctic. However, the Russians who consume French cheese are the urbane types who are usually anti-Putin, though many have become more fiercely patriotic as the pressure mounts from the West. Note that the French cheese manufacturer is also hurt by the sanctions, not to mention the French shipbuilders who will not get any more contracts from Mistral assault carriers after canceling out on the first 1.2 billion-euro contract.
So far, at least, the bottom line is that the pain is being inflicted, but Russian behavior hasn’t changed.
But how are the sanctions helping ISIL? Part of it is simple math and is exemplified by the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. A bit smaller than Wisconsin, Tajikistan has 8 million people, more than a third of whom live beneath the poverty line. For that reason, more than a million young Tajik men have travelled to Russia in search of jobs. They do the work — repairing streets, construction, shoveling snow, driving cabs — that Russians are reluctant to do. Last year, the remittances they sent home accounted for 36 percent of Tajikstan’s GDP, a frighteningly high percentage. (Tajikstan sends the most young men to Russia but some of the other “stans” send them as well, with “Tajik” becoming something of a shorthand for guest workers there.)
The sanctions that have inflicted pain on the Russian economy mean there is less work for the Tajik guest workers to do. Something like 200,000 have returned home: Forty percent less money is being sent back than in previous years. That alone means a 16 percent drop in GDP. Nearly a quarter of a million young men are returning to Tajikistan to a situation that will only be made worse by their arrival. They will find no opportunities at home and will thus be vulnerable to the appeal of the Taliban and ISIL.
Some Tajikistanis have already joined the Taliban in Afghanistan, easily crossing the 850-mile-long border with that country. ISIL’s appeal is spreading quickly throughout the former Soviet Union, though repressive leaders also exploit the danger to justify crackdowns. Most of the Chechen rebels, Russia’s arch-enemies, have sworn allegiance to ISIL.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow said that “the flurry of activity” of the Taliban and ISIL now “poses a threat to the whole Commonwealth.” In addition, to fighting the actual ISIL threat, the leaders of Tajikistan and the other Central Asian countries will often exaggerate that threat in order to receive more aid from the great powers and also to justify any crackdown they may impose on domestic opponents.
The U.S. has given Tajik security forces 80 all-terrain vehicles to patrol the mountainous border with Afghanistan. The Russians already have a serious presence there, a motorized rifle division that is now being beefed up from 6,000 to 9,000. The first gun battle between ISIL and authorities took place in Tajikistan’s neighbor Kyrgyzstan in July.
Even more ominous was the disappearance in mid-May of the head of Tajikistan’s Special Assignment Police Force, Col. Gulmuro Khalimov. When he reappeared on May 27 it was in an ISIL video in which he promised to wage violent jihad against Tajikistan. He taunted his fellow countrymen as “the slaves of non-believers” and hurled them a challenge: “I am ready to die for the Caliphate — are you?”
This all could appear as minor events in distant lands, except that Central Asia could easily go up in flames soon. The leaders of the two largest Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — are men in their mid seventies who have been ruling since Soviet times and have neither male heirs nor known successors. Turmoil, especially in Kazakhstan, which borders China’s western border and is critical to Chinese trade, could cause serious problems to China’s economy and thus the world’s. A Central Asian version of the Arab Spring with ISIL playing a role is very much in the cards.