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Islamic State brings Russia and West together

This week's rapprochement between Western governments and Russia appears to be gaining pace as both sides step up their strikes against a common enemy: Islamic State.

The terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday and the recent downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt were both claimed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group and have brought about a sense of renewed cooperation and closeness between Russia and the West.

After Russia's security service confirmed that the Russian Metrojet airliner which was downed in Egypt in late October was the result of a homemade bomb detonated on board, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would "punish those responsible." Seeming to confirm a renewed sense of cooperation, early on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted that he "firmly believed" that Russia and the west "must join forces" in defeating ISIS.

The rapprochement comes after a prolonged period of estrangement and tense relations between Russia and the west. Relations between regions deteriorated following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its role in the uprising in east Ukraine, which prompted the west to impose sanctions on Moscow.

The latest geopolitical row came this summer after Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war, ostensibly to prop up the controversial regime of Bashar Assad rather than to help western countries defeat ISIS.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin prior to a working session at the Group of 20 (G20) leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 16, 2015.
REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Pool
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin prior to a working session at the Group of 20 (G20) leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 16, 2015.

While Russia had been something of a "persona non grata" in terms of international relations over the last couple of years, news that ISIS orchestrated the downing of a Russian passenger jet in October means that the U.S., Russia and France now have both a common enemy.

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Common enemy

Since the confirmation of ISIS' involvement in the Russia jet attack, everything seems to have changed for Russia with the country's President Vladimir Putin vowing retribution for what he called "one of the bloodiest crimes" and "the murder of our people in Sinai," AP reported Tuesday.

In addition, Russia's security service, the FSB, offered a $50 million reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible while Putin said Russia would be relentless in its pursuit of those responsible for the deaths of 224 people on board.

Backing up its words with actions, Russia pounded ISIS targets in Syria with airstrikes on Tuesday, appearing to be concentrating on the terrorist groups rather than the non-affiliated Syrian rebels who have been previous targets.

Signs of a warming of relations came earlier in the week after Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met at a Group of 20 leaders' conference in Turkey. There, the leaders reportedly reached an agreement on the need for "a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition" and that negotiations aiming at such could be led by the United Nations.

In addition, France's President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday that he would meet with Putin and Obama in the coming weeks to discuss forming a "single coalition" to defeat ISIS.

Shifting geopolitics

Analysts see the turnaround in relations as heralding a "broader geopolitical shift" both in the countries' cooperation in Syria and beyond. "The main "winner" from the episode is Russia, as over the next few months, Moscow will gain more support for its diplomatic and military effort in Syria," analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note Tuesday.

Other analysts agreed that this was Russia's chance to come back to the international table and that military intervention in Syria could improve as a result.

"Prior to the attacks, Russia and the West had been able to accomplish little beyond establishing protocols for 'deconfliction' of their forces in the (Syrian) region – e.g. agreeing to keep out of one another's way," Daragh McDowell, Principal Russia Analyst at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note Tuesday.

"But since the Paris attacks on 13 November, the potential avenues for cooperation have expanded rapidly," he said. The path of friendship is not bound to run smoothly, however, he warned, given that Russia wants to retain influence over a Syrian resolution and wants to return to prominence on the global stage.

"Moscow's broader geopolitical ambitions and the acceptance of Russia as a 'great power' on Russian terms will be much harder to swallow. The Kremlin envisages a world order determined by great powers, in which weaker states…are fundamentally subordinate and less than sovereign. This is ultimately incompatible with the Western liberal order," he said.

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