Can cooperation on Boston bombings bridge US-Russia distrust? It will be hard. (+video)

Since the Boston bombings, Russia has shared intelligence and Putin and Obama have pledged to cooperate. But US-Russia distrust runs deep, experts caution.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012. After the Boston bombings, Putin and Obama pledged in a phone call last week to improve information sharing, concerns and doubts about the other side's motives.
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Recent developments in the investigation into the Boston bombings suggest an easing in the decades-old distrust that has marked US-Russia counterterrorism cooperation.

No less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin – perhaps with one eye on the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi and mindful of how the Boston Marathon bombings targeted a high-profile athletic event – is calling for his country and the US to overcome old suspicions, saying the two countries are confronting the same terrorism.

But even after Mr. Putin and President Obama pledged in a phone call last week to improve information sharing, concerns and doubts about the other side’s motives are likely to hamper future cooperation, some US officials and experts in US-Russia relations say.

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“We’re seeing the Russians pass on what information they have, and we’re seeing some notable atmospherics [such as the Putin-Obama phone call] as well,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert in US-Russia security and intelligence cooperation at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “But we’ve also seen in the past even dramatic increases in intelligence cooperation – that didn’t last.”

One such surge in cooperation occurred after the 9/11 attacks, he notes, when US concerns over Al Qaeda led to a more singular perspective between the two countries on the threat of Islamist extremism. “But then we saw a fairly rapid deterioration in cooperation, too,” he adds.

More broadly, the two countries are unlikely to overcome their sharp differences over whether the rebellion in Russia’s North Caucasus region is a fight for independence from a repressive central power, or is the work of Islamist terrorists.

That same divide is also apparent in the two countries’ perspectives on the civil war in Syria – where Russia sees Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under attack from Islamist terrorists, many of them foreigners, while the US takes the Western perspective on Syria of a ruthless leader battling a legitimate but fractured insurgency with Islamist extremist elements.

The US and the West are unlikely to shift to Russia’s thinking on Syria as a result of the Boston bombings. But what could occur is a greater willingness on the part of the US and its allies to at least take Russia’s perspective into consideration, Dr. Galeotti says.

“There’s been a tendency to almost automatically discount the Russian point of view [on Syria], and that has made the West slow in the understanding that the rebels aren’t all the most savory individuals and some of them are closely affiliated with Al Qaeda,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we’ll see the US adopt the Russian point of view, but as long as the Russians don’t push too hard I do think we’ll see a greater understanding of their position.”

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, where the two suspects are immigrant brothers from Russia’s war-torn North Caucasus region, there are some signs of improved cooperation. Russian officials told US investigators that their concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two bombing suspects who was killed in a shoot-out with police, were based in part on a wiretapped 2011 phone call between Tsarnaev in the US and his mother in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan.

Russian officials shared their concerns about Tsarnaev with the US in 2011, claiming at the time that the Russian identifying as an ethnic Chechen had radicalized and planned to return to the North Caucasus region to meet with extremist groups.

But it was not until after the Boston bombings that the Russians revealed that their concerns were based on intercepted phone calls where “jihad,” which can mean holy war, was discussed. A second conversation involved Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, and another person in Russia.

Some Russian officials now say that Russian intelligence agents informed the FBI last fall that Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with militants in Dagestan when he visited the hotbed of Islamist insurgency last year.

Some intelligence experts have speculated that one of the militants may have been Shakrudin Askhabov, who became known by the Russians simply as “the bomber” after he was implicated in a series of bombings in Dagestan last year.

Mr. Askhabov was one of two suspected rebels killed Sunday by Russian security forces carrying out a counterterrorism operation in Dagestan. Askhabov had risen in prominence after the leader of the militant group he followed, Abu Dujan, was killed in December by Russian forces.

When Tamerlan Tsarnaev returned to Boston last fall from his six-month-long trip to Dagestan he linked to Youtube videos featuring Abu Dujan, but it is not yet clear if his connection to the militant leader ended there.

With no clear evidence that Tsarnaev had met with or somehow had the backing of extremist groups, most experts still favor the theory that the Tsarnaev brothers were “lone wolves” whose radicalization took place largely between themselves and through contact with radical websites.

NYU’s Galeotti says this scenario is one that Russian intelligence will want to probe and understand, because Russia’s experience with Islamist terrorism up to now has largely been with attacks perpetrated by groups such as Chechnya’s Islamist insurgents.

“The one thing the Russians aren’t prepared for is the lone-wolf attacks, they haven’t been thinking about the 19-year-old Muslim who’s increasingly angry and who has an Internet connection,” Galeotti says.

Noting that just in recent days Russian authorities have made a series of large-scale arrests – such as the detention for questioning of 140 worshippers at a Moscow mosque (most of whom were later released) – he says the Russians may already be acting on the concerns prompted by the Boston bombings.

“The Russians,” he says, “are showing signs of learning the lessons of Boston.”

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