The United States, Russia and Chechnya After Boston

When President Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, they’ll have a lot to talk about. Some things on the agenda will have prime importance: the crisis in Syria, talks with Iran, disarmament and nuclear weapons among them. Far less important are issues on the fringe, including the deplorable state of human rights in Russia and now, after the Boston bombings, terrorism.
Terrorism, all agree, is bad. But marrying the already-overblown US “war on terrorism” -- complete with drones, war in Afghanistan, and questionable treatment of suspects at home -- to Moscow’s heavy-handed, bloody assault on mostly Muslim rebels in the Caucasus just isn’t a good idea. There’s no doubt that Putin and the security services in Russia would love the United States to become an active ally in cracking down on radical and militant Muslim groups from central Asia to the Caucasus to, well, Syria, where the United States is supporting the very same radical Muslim insurgents that it opposes elsewhere, including in Iraq. But that’s a terrible idea.
Happily enough, at least one of the Chechnya-based extremist Muslim groups said, in a statement following the revelation that the Boston bombers were former Chechens, that is has no beef with Washington. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the Command of the Mujahedeen of the Vilayat in Dagestan said: “The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America. We are at war with Russia which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.”
The group went on to suggest that the Russian security services themselves might have had a hand in the bombings, although there’s no evidence to support such a conspiracy theory.
Incidentally, even though it has been widely reported that the Russians first alerted US authorities to the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother involved in the marathon attack, the Journal reports that Russia’s intelligence service, the Federal Security Service, itself says that it has been unable to find any connection between the Tsarnaevs and the Mujahedeen.
As the Washington Post reports: “The exact trajectory of Tsarnaev’s journey into radicalism is still emerging, but it first surfaced in 2011 when he somehow entered the radar of the Russian security services. It accelerated in late 2012 upon his return to the United States from a six-month visit to the Caucasus, when friends and relatives noticed a new religious and political fervor.” But, when they interviewed Tsarnaev in 2011, at Russia’s request, the FBI found nothing worrisome.
It isn’t clear how many Russians, Chechens or otherwise, have been flagged by the Russian security services to the FBI over the years, who then found themselves interrogated by the FBI. It’s impossible to believe that Tsarnaev was the only one. But, as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us, the very act of looking at something can alter it. Did the FBI’s interview of Tsarnaev in 2011 contribute to his radicalization? Could it be that the act of interrogating him, while he was already angry and distressed about Russia’s brutalization of Chechnya, intensified his anti-Russian feelings and broadened them to include an anti-American animus, too? Seems likely to me.
If so, it’s a perfect illustration of why the United States should stay out of Russia’s jihad against Chechnya.
What further complicated the United States-Russia relationship is America’s very own jihad against the government of President Assad in Syria. There, where Russia supports the government, the United States is quietly intensifying its support to Al Qaeda-linked rebels who are leading the other side of the civil war. (Of course, the United States says that it wants to ally with moderates in the war, not Al Qaeda, but that’s easier said than done!) Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say that they want a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and that necessarily would involve a US-Russian concert of power. But, as the Post reports, the aftereffects of the Boston bombs make it more difficult.
Says the Post:
The possible link between the Boston Marathon bombings and Chechnya’s struggle for independence from Russia is likely to harden Russian opposition to any outside intervention in Syria and complicate the question of whether to arm the Syrian rebels.
Russia fought two wars to put down Chechen separatists and is accused of ongoing brutality involving what it calls terrorist elements in majority-Muslim Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. The experience underpins Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his two-year fight to put down a rebellion he calls terrorism.
And the paper quotes Mark Katz, a Russia specialist, who says: “Moscow will undoubtedly point to the bombing to further its argument that terrorists are active in Syria as well as Chechnya.” If Moscow does indeed point to that fact, it will be correct.
The United States needs Russia’s cooperation on Syria, on Iran, and in other areas of strategic importance. But there are irritants.
One irritant in United States-Russia relations is, as always, the ill-conceived plan to place US antimissile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Last week, Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, traveled to Moscow to discuss the issue (among other topics), and it seems he didn’t make much progress. According to Reuters:
Russia and the United States remain at odds over US plans for an anti-missile shield in Europe following talks in Moscow this week with President Barack Obama's national security adviser, a senior aide to President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.
"There is no progress on missile defense," Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said, according to news agency RIA. … Ushakov said that US proposals laid out in a message delivered by Donilon contained little that was new and "did not make us very happy," though he added that Russia would examine them further.
Then there is human rights, a long-standing roadblock to better Washington-Moscow ties. The default impulse in Washington is jump up and down and demand that Russia give dissidents and others more political freedom, but inevitably that gets in the way of strategic cooperation.
In an op-ed in the New York Times today, veteran reporter Bill Keller writes of the case of Aleksei Navalny, an activist and blogger -- whose platform, Keller notes, backs “free-market libertarianism” -- who is being persecuted by the authorities. It’s easy to sympathize with Navalny, perhaps the most celebrated of Russia’s dissidents, and I do. But when he meets Putin in September, let’s hope that Obama doesn’t spend much time on Navalny and other victims of repression in Russia. As Keller himself says, after highlighting Navalny’s case:
For the United States, Navalny’s case calls for calibrated diplomacy. President Obama and Putin have a bilateral summit scheduled in September, and the administration is busily trying to salvage a relationship on the rocks. It would be wrong to let the case impede cooperation in combating terrorism (as the Boston-Chechnya connection reminds us) or the downsizing of nuclear arsenals or possible Russian cooperation in resolving the crises of Syria and Iran, not that much cooperation has been forthcoming so far. But it would be wrong, too, to pretend Navalny’s case didn’t matter.
Personally, I don’t care if the case “impede(s) cooperation in combating terrorism.” But solving Syria, Iran, North Korea, arms control, and many other critical issues already gives Obama a long agenda when he sees Putin.
By September, let’s hope, the Boston bombings too will be ancient history. Robert Dreyfuss, a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, is an investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. Copyright © 2013 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global