Following the terrorist bombings in Boston, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to intensify bilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism. That can be useful in some ways, particularly when it comes to intelligence sharing. But Americans should have their eyes wide open about any counter-terrorism agreements with Russia.
First, Russian and American counter-terrorism operations are based on completely different principles; and second, President Putin’s regime itself engages in state terrorism against unarmed civilians.
The terrorist attack in Boston was allegedly carried out by two ethnic Chechen brothers, living in the United States for about a decade. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout with police last week, and Dzhokhar, his younger brother and a US citizen, was captured and is in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.
Tamerlan spent six months in Russia during 2012, and was interviewed by the FBI – at Russia’s request – before his trip. The FBI says it found nothing suspicious. Tamerlan’s father says his son stayed with him in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the troubled North Caucasus region.
Dzhokhar has indicated from his hospital bed that the two brothers acted alone. Leaders of the main insurgency movement in the North Caucasus, the Caucasian Emirate, who do not shy away from claiming credit for terrorist acts, also denied that the Tsarnaev brothers are linked to them – and characteristically pointed the finger at Moscow.
Washington and Moscow engage in two radically contrasting modes of counter-terrorism, as the massive police operation in Boston clearly underscored. US police and other law enforcement agencies saturated the neighborhood in Watertown, Mass., where one of the terrorist fugitives was hiding, and avoided any bombings or shootings that could have harmed unarmed civilians or unnecessarily resulted in the destruction of property.
The Russian equivalent would have been a massive operation to eradicate an entire neighborhood or other location where the suspects may have been hiding. A few hundred civilian casualties would have been dismissed as unavoidable. This strategy was evident with the police storming of the school taken hostage in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004, when 380 people, mostly children and teachers, perished. It was also evident in the gassing of 130 civilians in a Moscow theater by Russian special forces in October 2002 to eradicate terrorist hostagetakers. Such actions simply inflame further insurrection from among North Caucasus separatists.
Guerrilla terrorism in the North Caucasus has been a direct response to Russian state terrorism following the crushing of Chechen independence in 1999 and the killing of tens of thousands of civilians by the Russian military. Moscow is primarily responsible for fanning religious radicalism and violence through its brutal pacification programs in which entire villages have been targeted for repression and family members of suspected terrorists are kidnapped, tortured, and killed.
For instance, widespread torture in secret prisons and the murder of civilians who may sympathize with the insurgents has occurred under the watch of the Kremlin-appointed president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, according to human rights, journalist, and victim reports.
Moreover, the entire North Caucasus is characterized by corrupt and abusive governance by Moscow-endorsed officials, high rates of unemployment, widespread poverty, and the breakdown of social infrastructure. All these factors exacerbate opposition both toward Moscow and the republican authorities.
Despite and because of the mass repression, the stability of the entire region remains precarious. Terrorist attacks and guerrilla activities in combination with local conflicts over territory, statehood, political representation, and religious authority, are escalating into regional insurrections.
Russian counter-terrorism has created the very enemy that Moscow was supposedly seeking to eliminate. Chechen nationalism has been transformed into a pan-Caucasian insurgency in which Islamic radicals from various ethnic groups engage in acts of terrorism in all the North Caucasus republics. Violent jihadism provides a mobilizing ideology across ethnic lines, where the systematic brutality of the Russian-backed security forces against civilians has fueled vendettas and recruits for insurgency movements.
In what is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more brutally the Kremlin tries to stamp out separatism, the more likely that Russia will fracture and lose the North Caucasus.
There are two main reasons for the Kremlin’s current outreach to the American government. First, it wants to depict anti-American terrorism as equivalent to anti-Russian terrorism and thereby avoid US criticism of its brutal anti-terrorist operations.
Second, it is signaling that any planned disruption of the February 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in the North Caucasus, in which Putin has staked so much of his personal prestige, will be ruthlessly suppressed. As the Olympics approach, the zeal of the security services is likely to increase and may provoke the very response that counter-terrorism is supposed to prevent.
Janusz Bugajski is a foreign policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States, and has published 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.