In the heaviest Russian strikes against the Islamic State to date, the Russian air force and navy deployed dozens of cruise missiles and other weaponry against Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday, particularly in and around Raqqa, the militants' self-proclaimed capital. Russian Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M strategic long-range bombers flew their missions from bases in southern Russia, while the Russian cruiser Moskva fired a number of cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea. In a signal that this was just the start, Russian army Gen. Valery Gerasimov has indicated that Russia is allocating 25 strategic bombers for the Syrian mission.
Since Russian airstrikes began in Syria on Sept. 30, Moscow's attention has been focused largely on striking non-Islamic State rebels, some of whom were actively supported by other Arab States, the United States and Turkey. The Russians in effect reinforced the Syrian loyalist strategy of designating the non-Islamic State rebels as the primary threat and sought to reduce these rebels' ability to threaten the core city of Hama as well as the Syrian coast. Over time, Russian efforts did begin to include more Islamic State targets. For example, Russia provided active air support to loyalist forces advancing toward the previously besieged Kweiris air base and the Islamic State-occupied ancient city of Palmyra.
The overwhelming Russian focus on the other rebels in lieu of the Islamic State appears to have shifted even more after the Oct. 31 crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 in Sinai, in which 224 (mostly Russian) passengers and crew were killed. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down the aircraft — a claim Russia finally confirmed on Tuesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify airstrikes against Islamist extremists in Syria.
Recent events in France may also give Russia more leverage with the Europeans. Fully aware of the effects of the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, Russia will use the attacks to highlight the necessity of Russian-European cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State. Under French President Francois Hollande's stewardship, France has already suffered one major attack in January. Now the president's main concern is not to appear weak, especially considering that his two main rivals — center-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy and the far-right's Marine Le Pen — are traditionally stronger on security issues. Sarkozy and Le Pen also have ties to Russia and have urged Paris to strengthen its relationship with Moscow.
The French have also significantly ramped up their air campaign against the Islamic State over the past two days, and Hollande is set to meet with Putin on Nov. 26 in the wake of the French president's call for a global campaign against radicals. Moreover, Putin has given orders for Russian forces to link up with the French. The Kremlin announced that Putin had spoken to Hollande by telephone. He then ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat the French forces as allies.
Though the common cause of fighting the Islamic State may cause Russia and the West (particularly France) to collaborate more closely in Syria, there are still very real limits to that cooperation. Russia is ramping up its campaign against the Islamic State, but overall it is likely to remain focused on fighting non-Islamic State rebels. After all, Russia is trying to maintain its strategic position in Syria, and in its view, to fully address the Islamic State threat the country first needs a viable government. So long as these rebels continue to pose a critical threat to the Syrian government, Russia will continue supporting its loyalist allies on the ground against rebel advances. This dynamic will only reinforce U.S., European, Turkish and Sunni Arab support for the rebels, undermining the potential for a credible and lasting cease-fire.
Beyond Syria, the limits of Russia's cooperation on the Syrian battlefield will keep Moscow from getting all the concessions it wants from the Europeans, including relief from the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. So far, the United States and its European partners have not let the Russian government link cooperation in Syria to the ongoing Minsk negotiations over Ukraine. Russia may have better chances with France at this stage to try to strike a broader bargain, but even its newfound leverage is probably insufficient. Sanctions removal would require a unanimous European decision, and there are still enough European nations backed by the United States in their opposition to easing restrictions, that for now any efforts to give Russia sanctions relief will likely fail.