Is ISIS a Bigger Threat than Russia?
A bizarre debate played out recently on Fox News. In back-to-back episodes, host Tucker Carlson lambasted two national security experts for their hawkishness toward Russia. Carlson’s guests—retired U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Peters and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot—argued that the Trump administration is wrong to seek cooperation with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. For his part, Carlson argued that cooperating with Russia against ISIS would be no different than cooperating with the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany—before countering his sparring partners by claiming they had no credibility because of their support for the invasion of Iraq (a war Carlson himself initially supported before quickly turning against it).
Liberal writer Peter Beinart is right to point out that a healthy debate over national security threats—rather than reflexive hawkishness—is long overdue on the political right. Yet the debate that took place on Carlson’s show hinges on poor historical analogies. To put it on a solid foundation, two questions need to be answered: Is the threat of either Russia or ISIS analogous to that of Nazi Germany? And is ISIS or Russia the bigger threat today?
As noted above, Carlson thinks cooperation with Moscow today against ISIS would be akin to the Anglo-American alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Peters, pushing back against Carlson, claimed that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was basically identical to Adolph Hitler.
One need not have any sympathy for Russia’s leader to find Peters’ comparison risible, but Carlson’s comparison of a potential U.S.-Russian anti-ISIS collaboration with the “Grand Alliance” of World War II is silly as well. Nazi Germany was one of the leading industrialized powers in the world. Prior to the war, according to data from the World Bank, Germany had the second largest economy in the world. It possessed a manufacturing base that could produce world-class tanks, planes, and submarines. The leadership of the Wermacht also included some of the leading military thinkers and practitioners of the time—generals such as Heins Guderian and Erwin Rommel—who created doctrinal and tactical innovations that enabled the German conquest of France in less than six weeks. It is easy to overstate the Wehrmacht’s prowess. German military doctrine failed on the eastern front, stymied by the Red Army and Hitler’s recklessness. But Germany was a formidable opponent nonetheless that nearly completed the total conquest of Europe. In doing so, it could have linked up with its Japanese ally for complete control of Eurasia. These two authoritarian superpowers might have then directly threatened the United States.
Fast-forwarding to today, the material threat posed by neither the Islamic State nor Russia is equivalent to that posed by Nazi Germany. But one is clearly a much larger threat than the other.
To begin with, Putin’s Russia has a per capita gross domestic product that’s smaller than Italy’s. And while the total size of the Russian economy is only slightly smaller than Germany’s, the combined economies of America’s major European allies alone—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—more than double it. Moscow also faces insurmountable demographic challenges. Putin himself, while overseeing a brutal military campaign in Chechnya early in his tenure, and creating a repressive state in which a number of journalists and critics of his have been murdered, has wracked up nowhere near the body count that Hitler did—with little evidence available to suggest he intends to do so.
But while it is highly unlikely Putin’s Russia poses the material threat of Nazi Germany, it does maintain a formidable military. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, the Russian military boasts 831,000 active duty personnel with another two million in reserve. The Russian military has also undertaken a significant modernization effort over the past decade, though its economic woes will continue to challenge its ability to fully modernize. More importantly, Putin has at his fingertips 1,950 deployed strategic nuclear weapons—with another 1,350 warheads in reserve—as well as a vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
So even if Putin’s Russia does not pose the same type of material threat as Nazi Germany, it remains a far greater threat than ISIS does. The self-proclaimed “caliphate” has continually lost territory since its initial round of conquest in 2014, with Mosul now back under control of the Iraqi government and the Islamic State’s “capitol” in Raqqa is likely to follow soon. Estimates of the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have varied widely, with one claim in 2014 that there were upward of two hundred thousand. However, it has undoubtedly lost a great deal of personnel to attrition and desertion—with a 2016 estimate putting the number of fighters in ISIS controlled territories as low as 15,000. The economic base of the Islamic State is reportedly based on plundering the territories it conquered, heavy taxes on goods, and criminal activities such as kidnapping and ransom and human trafficking. And while Russia’s military power projection capabilities are limited in comparison to the Wermacht or Red Army, those of ISIS are non-existent.
Of course, ISIS has inspired terrorist attacks in the West, and it will likely become more of a networked threat as it continues to lose territory—with affiliates already existing beyond Iraq and Syria. But terrorism in general poses a relatively minor physical threat. The average American has a greater chance of being killed by drowning in a bathtub or being crushed by furniture than he or she does in a terrorist attack. Obviously terrorism—whether by ISIS, al Qaeda, or any other group—is not a non-existent threat. As Justin Fox of Bloomberg recently noted, bathtubs and furniture serve a social purpose while terrorists do not. So deaths that result from one are not equivalent to deaths that occur via the other. However, even at the height of its power, ISIS could not come close to the potential death and destruction Moscow could wreak should it so choose.
And, of course, that decision is ultimately a political question. As noted in a recent scholarly exchange on whether ideological differences matter in threat perception, if material factors were all that mattered in determining threats, Germany today—given its economic, and thus latent military, power—would be just as threatening as Nazi Germany was more than seven decades ago. Yet Germany now is not considered a threat because of its liberal democratic government and the fact that it is embedded in a number of political, economic, and security institutions that facilitate cooperation with the other power of Europe it once threatened.
ISIS and Russia both possess ideologies hostile to Western liberalism. These ideologies differ significantly in character and are, in many ways, just as hostile to one another as they are to the United States. While Carlson might not see Russia as a threat, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility toward Europe and the United States. Putin’s goal, according to Thomas Wright of the Brooking Institution, is “to dismantle and weaken the Western order and replace it with a spheres of influence system in which Russia enjoys a much greater say over Eastern Europe.” Russian cyber and information operations during the 2016 elections are the latest attempt to undermine the faith of Western publics in their governing institutions.
Russia’s hostility to liberal institutions, married to clear material superiority, makes it a bigger threat than ISIS. While the threat from Moscow is no way equivalent to that posed by Nazi Germany—and while Vladimir Putin does not warrant Peters’ comparison to Adolph Hitler—to claim instead that a U.S.-Russian alliance against ISIS is comparable to the alliance with the Soviets against Nazi Germany is just as ludicrous. Neither Russia nor ISIS is Nazi Germany, so it is important to keep the threat either poses in proper perspective. But one is clearly a bigger threat than the other, and it is not the Islamic State.