Terrorism, Putin and the Cold War legacy
Terrorism always complicates diplomatic relations.
Since the Boston Marathon bombing, the suspected handiwork of two brothers of Chechen background, Russian and American security officials have focused on a blame game.
Could better cooperation between the FBI and the FSB (successor to the KGB) have averted this bombing? Which country is responsible for the carnage? The United States, which Russia warned in 2011 about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who was killed in the police shootout a few days after the bombing? Or Moscow, which gave Washington scant evidence to pursue in that query?
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States regarded each other with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. This continuing legacy may be the reason for the two intelligence services’ failure to communicate here.
The Americans, convinced the other side was withholding information, appear to have mistrusted the inexact Russian data. So the FBI may have decided to do the bare minimum. Even Boston’s police department was reportedly not informed of what we now read was a cursory investigation by the FBI of the elder Tsarnaev in 2011.
Washington and Moscow’s historic political disagreements may have helped lead to the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, where three people were killed and hundreds more injured. The surviving younger Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar, now faces charges of using a weapon of mass destruction and a potential death sentence.
One key reason Washington does not trust Moscow is Vladimir Putin. Washington views the Russian president, a former KGB colonel, as notoriously untrustworthy. For decades, U.S.-Russian relations have resembled a swinging pendulum – with Putin now considered as dishonest and manipulative as Boris Yeltsin, his anti-communist predecessor, was viewed as big-hearted and forthright, if chaotic in his capitalist aspirations.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the United States and Yeltsin’s Russia bonded as (sometimes uneasy) allies over issues ranging from the Balkan wars to creating a capitalist system in Russia. The West even treaded lightly in dealing with the “first” Chechen war – when Yeltsin in 1994 ordered the invasion of Chechnya, a Russian republic vying for independence, to bring his democratic revolution there at the barrel of a gun. For Washington, Yeltsin’s intent to spread democracy was more important than any localized domestic brutality.
But when Putin waged his own Chechen war in 1999, the international outcry was overwhelming. That war, like Yeltsin’s, flouted humanitarian conventions. But this fight was very different – Chechnya became a scene of economic and political anarchy, with Islamist warlords seeking to create a caliphate across the North Caucasus. And no country wants a fundamentalist state within its borders.
This message from the Russians was particularly useful for Washington following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
But Putin’s human rights record – show trials against the oil tycoons, journalists killed and protesters prosecuted – trumped any defense offered for his actions in Chechnya. Though there was a clear shared security concern, suspicion against Putin dominated.
Washington treated Chechnya as a uniquely Russian affair – an oppressed ethnicity fighting for independence from its imperial master. Initially, the United States had accepted a Russian offer for cooperation following the invasion of Afghanistan, but by the mid-2000s then-Vice President Dick Cheney brought relations back to their default Cold War position of mutual recrimination. He denounced Putin’s Russia, saying it “unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people.”
Putin, feeling betrayed, responded with vehement anti-Americanism. He equated President George W. Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East as a new form of colonialism.
In 2009, President Barack Obama attempted his famous “reset” with Russia, but there was little positive outcome. In 2010 another scandal erupted – Washington uncovered 12 Russian sleeper spies, planted by the Russian FSB a decade earlier. The Cold War cloak-and-dagger games were back, dimming the chances of any Moscow security demands being taken seriously.
It was close to the discovery of the spy debacle that the FSB sent its request to the FBI about investigating Tamerlan Tsarnaev. That inquiry went unanswered – at least according to the North Caucasus chapter of the Russian Center for Combating Extremism.
In the FBI’s version, Tsarnaev was investigated as a suspect linked to terrorism. But with no tangible connections found, and the FSB offering no additional information, his case expired.
That’s where being on speaking terms could have made a difference between life and death. Americans didn’t want to listen, and Russians failed to explain that they, too, had little information to go on.
First, Moscow reportedly only uncovered Tamerlan’s Internet exchanges with a few Islamic radicals from the lawless mountain woods in the Caucasus. His 2012 trip to Dagestan, where for six months he tried to join the insurgents, has yet to be fully analyzed.
Jihad by Facebook isn’t how the game is played in the Caucasus. When Tsarnaev’s two contacts – Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, a Dagestani jihadist, and William Plotnikov, a Russian emigrant to Canada turned Islamic militant – were killed last year in military raids, Tsarnaev returned to the United States.
Today, Moscow and Washington both claim that their lack of cooperation was a legal misunderstanding. In the United States, for the most part, this lack of hard evidence means no case. Though it seems strange that the FBI would not have recognized that the Russian warning, and Tsarnaev’s visit to Russia, might constitute a case for keeping an eye on him.
For the Russians, who have often been lax where legality is concerned, any connection to the Caucasus insurgency was a solid source for real watchfulness.
But legal or not, had similar information come from, say, Pakistan, which is playing a double game of both supporting and suppressing jihadists, the FBI may well have reacted far differently.
“Pakistani terrorists” now capture the American imagination and warrant exhaustive investigations, accounting for some successful preventions – like the Pakistani-American who failed to blow up New York’s Times Square.
The big question for the United States, now confronted with Islamic fundamentalism among its own citizens and residents, is: Can Washington afford to remain focused on Putin’s KGB past and the Cold War legacy?
Russia and the United States may not be able to manage an all-encompassing reset, but two professional secret services ought to be able to find a way to share reliable information.
After all, when Cold War rules still applied, Americans warned Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when their embassy in Moscow uncovered Communist hard-liners plotting a coup in 1991.
PHOTO (Insert A): Suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 in handout photo released on the FBI website, April 18, 2013. REUTERS/FBI/Handout
PHOTO (Insert B) (From L to R) Russian spy suspects, Anna Chapman, Vicky Pelaez, Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy and Juan Lazaro, in a courtroom sketch during an appearance at the Manhattan Federal Court in New York, June 28, 2010. REUTERS/Jane Rosenburg
PHOTO (Insert C): Main headquarters of the FBI, the J. Edgar Hoover Building, in Washington on March 4, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron