The limits of cooperation with Russia

Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits a navy ship in the Barents Sea Russian naval base of Severomorsk , on January 10, 2013. AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI ...
Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits a navy ship in the Barents Sea Russian naval base of Severomorsk , on January 10, 2013. AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI ...

In the wake of the Boston bombings, some have speculated whether cooperation on counter-terrorism could put the U.S.-Russian relationship back on a more stable footing at a particular tense moment in bilateral relations. This will not be an easy task, even if both President Putin and President Obama are willing to try.

When Vladimir Putin became Russian president in the 2000s, coordination on anti-terrorism efforts was his central idea for Russian-U.S. cooperation. Chechnya was an integral element for Putin. Even before the events of September 11, 2001, Putin repeatedly warned the United States of the connection between Russia’s Chechen insurgency and international terrorism. Now, 12 years later, when terrorists of Chechen ethnicity have struck the United States itself, that connection appears to have been made for him.

On Tuesday April 16, right after the Boston bombings, Putin was quick to extend his condolences to Obama and to try to revitalize Russian-U.S. cooperation on counter-terrorism. In fact, Putin’s message to Obama in response to the Boston bombings is almost identical to his message to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, when Russia extended similar offers of intelligence-sharing in Afghanistan.

The first question the U.S. intelligence services asked after word of the bombs was: did we pick up any “chatter” from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that would hint at this? Now we’re asking, did the Russian FSB (the successor to the KGB) pick up chatter from Chechen groups or other extremist networks in Russia, especially given the FSB’s already-established interest in Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers involved in the Boston bombings?

And if Putin asked that question as soon as he heard about the bombs, might he have had an inkling already on Tuesday morning, even as he sent his condolences to Obama, that there might have been a Chechen link? Putin himself was a special services operative. He knows how counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism operations work at the field level as well as at the top.

As president he receives regular briefings on these topics. In the 2000s, the Russian special services (not the Russian military) were directly in charge of leading Moscow’s counter-insurgency operation against militant groups in Chechnya, including infiltrating the associated terrorist networks. The second war in Chechnya was termed “Putin’s war” by many in Russia, given his close association with and personal interest in dealing with the conflict. If U.S. investigators do uncover specific networks the Boston bombers were involved in that link to Chechnya and Russia more broadly, it will be the Russian intelligence services and Putin who have most information about them.

Working with the Russians on counter-terrorism, however, has been and still is a sensitive issue. Beyond intelligence sharing in Afghanistan and some other limited cooperation, efforts have repeatedly foundered over US protests about Russia’s methods of dealing with Chechnya. Americans find Russian methods, including the mass round-up and detention of relatives and associates of accused terrorists, very hard to accept. They see the U.S. as hypocritical, given our own methods of dealing with terrorist suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They have conducted targeted assassinations, we have conducted targeted assassinations. They have used car bombs and missiles, we use unmanned drones. We accuse them of abuses. They accuse us of the same abuses.

Most crucially, both intelligence services continue to conduct intelligence and counter-intelligence operations against each other. The level of Russian operatives in the U.S. has not diminished with the end of the Cold War. The U.S. counter-intelligence services, including the FBI, still find themselves tied up in knots keeping tabs on Russian operatives in the United States. It was only three years ago that Anna Chapman and other Russian intelligence service “sleeper agents” were arrested—including a couple who lived in Boston–after a lengthy FBI investigation. All of these agents have gone back to Russia. Anna Chapman has become a prominent media figure. “Donald Heathfield,” the former Boston resident, works for Russia’s top oil company Rosneft under the name he assumed in the U.S.

The Russian services still see the U.S. as the “main opponent”––a term often used by Vladimir Putin [the glavnyy protivnik in Russian]––that must be countered. This level of mutual mistrust is a significant barrier to the kind of operational information sharing that would be required in pursuing the Boston bombers Chechen connections and other potential cases.