In the wake of last month’s Boston Marathon bombings, Russian president Vladimir Putin chastised Western powers for underestimating the Chechen terrorist threat in the Caucasus from which the two suspected perpetrators hailed.
“I have always felt outraged when our Western partners, as well as your colleagues from the Western media, referred to our terrorists who committed brutal, bloody, appalling crimes on the territory of our country, as ‘insurgents’,” Putin said during a five hour television appearance in which he took questions from viewers.
He cited the April 15 terrorist attacks in Boston, which killed three and injured nearly two hundred runners and spectators, as proof that Russia and the United States should “cooperate with each other more closely” to combat the threat that emanates from the Caucasus.
The Russian leader rejected suggestions that American or Russian policy was responsible for radicalizing the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev who are believed to have carried out the bombings. “You can speculate all you want,” he said, “but does it have to do with the United States? What did they do to deserve this? It’s not about nationality or religion, as we have told them a thousand times. What is at issue here is extremism.”
Putin is probably right to reject American culpability — what did the United States ever do to the Chechens? — but to dismiss Chechen violence as incomprehensible “extremism” that doesn’t have any root in nationalism or religious is deceiving.
The Chechens have a long and troubled history with Russia. The “defining moment,” writes Oliver Bullough, formerly a Moscow correspondent for the Reuters press agency, in Foreign Policy, came in 1944 when the Chechens “were wrenched away from their mountains and dumped like rubbish in an unfriendly land with a flat horizon” as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s ethnic policy. Estimates are that 35 percent of deportees died in the relocation to Central Asia.
“Even the Russian government has recognized this was a genocide and yet few Russians today appreciate the trauma it caused,” according to Bullough. Putin argued that the Chechens weren’t the only victims of repression. “The first and the biggest victim was the Russian nation,” he said, “which suffered the most as a result of repression. This is our common history.”
Putin ignores that many Chechens’ mindset was shaped by this “common history” — and quite differently from Russians’.
They were kept together by their faith, by their Sufi Islam with its closed brotherhoods and secret rituals. The generation that grew up in Kazakhstan nursed a seed of grievance. That seed grew in the fertile soil of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and flowered into a declaration of independence in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s own, brutal campaign against the Chechens in the 1999-2000 war, in which somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand Chechens are believed to have been killed, did little to improve relations. Indeed, Chechen terrorist attacks in Russia became more deadly thereafter. The 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan left 386 dead. Suicide bombings in the Moscow metro in 2010 killed forty. 37 more were killed in the bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport the following year.
To what extent the Tsarnaev brothers were inspired or guided by the Chechen separatist struggle remains to be seen. The younger brother’s Internet postings suggest that he was Muslim and sympathized with religious extremists fighting in the North Caucasus as well as Syria while the older brother described himself as “very religious” in an interview with a local photographer in 2009. Jihadist groups in the region have denied involvement, however.
The United States have designated Chechen separatist fighters as “terrorists”, in spite of Putin’s complaint, but counterterrorism cooperation between the two former Cold War rivals is lacking, writes Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in The National Interest. Hardliners in the United States tend to see Putin’s Russia as a reinvention of the Soviet Union while their counterparts in Moscow criticize what they see as America’s penchant for interventionism, most recently in Libya.
It is in the interest of both nations, writes Markedonov, that such animosity and mistrust is overcome for the Chechen separatist and radical Islamist threats in the Caucasus, which appear increasingly morphed into one, are just as dangerous to Russia as to the West.
Among the Chechen separatists and radical Islamists who have led the anti-Russian movement since the late 1990s and early 2000s, anti-Western and anti-Semitic sentiment has been strong, acting as motivation alongside the goals of the “anti-Imperial fight.” When in 2007 Doku Umarov, the so-called president “of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,” made a statement announcing the establishment of a “Caucasus Emirate,” he declared not only Russia but also Israel, Europe and the United States as enemies of his movement.
It may be premature to declare the Boston Marathon attacks the first proper Chechen strike against the West — although Markedonov argues that the Tsarnaev brothers’ links to radical groups in the Caucasus matter less than their ideological motivations — but that shouldn’t weigh against deepening security cooperation between Russia and the United States.
Almost two years before he carried out the Boston bombings, the older Tsarnaev brother was identified by the Russian Federal Security Service FSB as a radical Muslim. The Russians relayed their suspicions to the American FBI which interviewed Tamerlan and relatives of his but found no evidence of terrorist sympathies. An FBI request for more information was apparently ignored by the FSB — which isn’t particularly keen on sharing information in the first place. The FBI subsequently closed the case.
Tamerlan traveled to the North Caucasus a year later where he stayed for six months. His precise activities there remain ambiguous but they do not appear to have drawn the attention of national security services in either Russia or the United States. When Tamerlan applied for American citizenship upon his return, Homeland Security did hold up the application when they found a record of his 2011 interview with the FBI.
Neither the American nor Russian agencies seem to have determined that Tamerlan was a threat. It is hard to say whether a better sharing of information would have led them to reach a different conclusion. But that information could have been shared better seems certain.
Russian intelligence remains somewhat distrustful of the United States which it sees less as a partner than a strategic competitor. The Americans — to Putin’s chagrin — might dismiss Russian warnings of Chechen terrorism as hyped, interpreting violence there less as extremism than part of an independence struggle, one that only affects Russia, moreover.
Both sides can learn from their failure to jointly detect the Tsarnaevs. Putin may be right to complain that Americans underestimate the Chechen threat but his own security services must take cooperation seriously as well if they want the United States to appreciate that unrest in the Caucasus does not leave it unaffected.