A new start for Russian-US counter-terrorism cooperation?

Anti_Terro_2 © Vladimir Astapkovich, RIA Novosti

A new start for Russian-US counter-terrorism cooperation?

SUSLOV, Dmitry, Valdai, 09/07/2013

The idea that Russia and the United States should work together to combat international terrorism is not new, and has already become a banality. But experience confirms time and time again that this cooperation is a must. The latest striking evidence of this has been provided by acts of terror in Boston and Makhachkala last spring. For all the differences between them, both are rooted in radical Islamism and Jihadism, and are a consequence of the existence of international terrorism. At a summit in Northern Ireland, Russian and American leaders emphasized the increasing importance of cooperation in combating international terrorism, and adopted a joint statement on this score. This creates grounds for certain optimism.

At the same time this statement does not contain any new ideas, but simply rehashes what Moscow and Washington have declared many times since 9/11 attacks. Thus, it once again states the need for close cooperation in combating terrorism both on bilateral (in the Bilateral Presidential Commission, for example) and multilateral levels. It also mentions exchange of information by security services and coordinated special operations as the preferred forms of anti-terrorist cooperation, and finally declares the intention of the two countries to fight Internet abuse for terrorist or other aims (this is the only relatively new provision of the joint statement).

This begs the following question: Will Russia and the United States manage to conduct genuine and steady anti-terrorist cooperation and what positive effect it will have on their bilateral relations as a whole? The problem is that since the entire period after the 9/11 attacks, the two countries have failed to build consistent cooperation that would promote the positive development of bilateral relations and prevent them from deterioration caused by contradictions on other issues.

Positive prerequisites for Russian-US cooperation

Positive prerequisites have emerged in the last few years, particularly during Barack Obama’s presidency. They include Moscow and Washington’s rapprochement in understanding the threat of international terrorism and determining what religious and political groups and movements fall into this category. The White House made an important decision by blacklisting Doku Umarov, a leader of the terrorist movement in the North Caucasus. In the past Washington has not included some Chechen separatist leaders on the list of international terrorists, which has considerably complicated bilateral anti-terrorist cooperation (this was partially due to inertia on Washington’s part, and partially because of bad relations with Russia in the late 2000s, and to some extent because part of the US political elite did not accept Russia’s policy methods in the North Caucasus, Chechnya included).

That said, Russia and the United States still have considerably different views on whom to list as international terrorists. Their diverging views on the situation in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring countries, especially Syria, are a graphic illustration of this.

The second positive development took place by the mid-2000s when the two countries realized that cooperation in the anti-terrorist struggle was not enough for the development of consistently good bilateral relations. Such illusions existed in the early 2000s, especially in Russia. Many analysts earnestly believed that the common goal of fighting international terrorism and the assistance rendered by Russia to the United States in Afghanistan, the main antiterrorist front at the time, would lead to a consistent Russian-US partnership, would compel Washington to listen attentively to Moscow and prevent it from taking steps that were unfavorable, not to mention dangerous for Russia. The joint struggle against terrorism seemed to make Russia no less important and significant (and even more) for the United States than its European NATO allies. These illusions were scattered in 2003 and 2004 and caused deep disappointment in Russia, becoming one of the factors in the aggravation of bilateral relations in the middle and latter half of the 2000s.

Now the sides are no longer trying to place anti-terrorist cooperation in the foundation of a positive agenda. They clearly understand that this is no more than one important element of this agenda. There is no reason to believe that it can make up for the negative influence of their different and even contradictory opinions on other issues.

Terrorism as such, including international terrorism, is no more than an instrument or method of political struggle. Much more important political, religious, social, psychological, foreign policy and value-based factors are always standing behind it. Russia and the United States far from always agree on these factors. Moreover, they do not have even a common understanding of what policy should be pursued in this regard in order to reduce the terrorist threat.

A vivid example is the discrepancy between Russia and the United States in assessing the link between rapid political democratization in the Middle East and North Africa and the terrorist threat. Even more graphic is the direct clash of their views on Syria, where each side insists that the policy of the other side is increasing the terrorist threat. In Washington’s opinion, Russia is contributing to the growth of this threat by supporting the regime that is fighting against its own people (US Secretary of State John Kerry openly said this in late June). In turn, Moscow blames the growing terrorist activity on the support of Syrian rebels by the United States and its allies. It points out with good reason that at least some of the commandos fighting against the regime are directly related to terrorist organizations and are using acts of terror in their struggle for power.

A third positive factor is the ability of Russia and the United States to conduct successful joint operations. Since 2011 they have conducted at least two anti-drug raids in Afghanistan. Although they were aimed at destroying drug labs and were not linked directly with anti-terrorist activities, these raids were important because they demonstrated their ability to conduct joint operations by security services. This is considered one of the most important forms of anti-terrorist cooperation. Moreover, the link between the Afghan drug industry and terrorist groups is well known. In this context these raids were important for Russian-US cooperation in counterterrorist activities, even despite the indirect link.

Fourth, despite the crisis of the reset and the general deterioration of bilateral relations in the past two years, the Counterterrorism Working Group of the Bilateral Presidential Commission continues to operate, as do the majority of other working groups. Moreover, at the recent G8 summit, Putin and Obama agreed to give it an additional political impetus.

Factors impeding bilateral cooperation

The main obstacle to fruitful anti-terrorist bilateral cooperation is the mutual mistrust that permeates the state machines of the two countries and their security services. Regrettably, this has not diminished in the last few years. There is growing alienation between the political classes and bureaucracies of Russia and the United States by virtue of numerous factors of a domestic, foreign policy and international character.

The Russian media, including pro-Kremlin media outlets, are again writing that the United States is going all-out in its attempts to weaken Russia, undermine its potential for strategic deterrence and engender “controlled chaos” on its borders. The image of the fifth column that is supported from abroad, primarily by the United States, does not promote mutual trust either. Needless to say, Russian security services are playing a major role in this policy. As a result, there is growing spy mania, growing demand for detaining illegal CIA agents in Russia and a search for any, even the smallest evidence, some of which is fake and far-fetched, of communication between Russian human rights champions and civil activists, and foreign intelligence services.

The attitude toward Russia as an unfriendly country is also growing in the United States. Washington blames Russia for undermining US interests and supporting its enemies, such as the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Iran and Venezuela. This does not prompt American security services to be more transparent with their Russian colleagues or to share sensitive information with them. A clear indicator of this mistrust is fierce resistance of the American military-political establishment, national security bureaucracy and Republicans (who largely reflect their interests), to the idea of being more open with Russia on the missile defense issue. Whenever the White House starts talking about this, they make accusations of defeatist attitudes and betrayal of US national interests. The Unites States is also obsessed with spy mania as regards Russia, and partially with a clear internal political context. In the last few years Russia has steadily been among the countries (on par with China and Iran) that pose the biggest spy threat to the United States.

Can the security services of the two countries combine the work they are carrying out against each other with cooperation against the common threat of international terrorism? The answer is unequivocal: yes, they can, and a vivid example of this is the notification of US security services by their Russian colleagues about the terrorist threat posed by the Tsarnayev brothers. However, common mistrust will hardly allow the two countries to elevate their counter-terror cooperation to a higher level. They will continue to cooperate sporadically and will rarely share information that goes beyond a planned act of terror of an Islamist or Jihadist nature. It is also indicative that the United States perceived with mistrust the information of Russian security services about the Tsarnayev brothers.

It is necessary to bear in mind that the general political context for Russian-US cooperation in anti-terrorist activities will grow worse in the next few years. The positive aspect of the bilateral agenda will continue to be reduced, while the rivalry and contradictions will grow. The sides are unlikely to agree on new cuts in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons or adopt a mutually acceptable decision on missile defense in the next few months. Nor are they likely to overcome their contradictions on Syria and transformations in the Arab world in general. The buildup of US aid to the Syrian opposition, up to direct military support, may deal a heavy blow to US-Russia bilateral relations. By the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, Afghanistan may turn from the main positive component of their bilateral ties into one of their main causes of contradiction, and even a source of a new round of geopolitical rivalry in Central Asia.

Despite certain rapprochement in the last few years, Russia and the United States have contradictory views on whom to consider actors of international terrorism. Moreover, this primarily concerns those regions that are and will continue to be among the main sources of threat of Jihadism and Islamist terrorism: Afghanistan and the Middle Eastern countries, particularly Syria. Thus, Russia has grounds to connect the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan (in particular towards Central Asian countries) with the Taliban. It fears this threat may grow if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan or the civil war escalates in that country after 2014. In the meantime, the United States is seeking political settlement with the Taliban. It is fighting against the Taliban and is holding direct talks with it at the same time. Washington has recently made an open statement about these talks. This discord over the future of Afghanistan and the role of the Taliban in it considerably complicates Russian-US counterterrorist cooperation in this part of the world. Russia opposes US initiatives on combating terrorism in Central Asia because it perceives them at best as a striving to unilaterally consolidate cooperation with Central Asian states at Russia’s expense, thus weakening its positions in the region.

The Arab Spring, primarily Washington’s decision to render aid to the rebels, including military support, has added to the disarray in Russian-US anti-terrorist cooperation. A considerable share of these rebels, if not the majority, is directly linked with radical Islam, and some are closely affiliated with or are part of al-Qaeda. There has emerged a strange alliance between the United States and al-Qaeda against the regimes of Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. Although Washington admits the risks involved in dealing with the diverse Syrian opposition and affiliation of some of its members with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the political inertia, considerations of prestige, geopolitical and value-oriented interests are obviously gaining the upper hand. In US opinion, political chaos in what will be left of Syria, rampant terrorism and consolidation of radical Islam are a lesser evil than the preservation of Assad’s regime.

Russia is completely perplexed by this attitude, which obviously restricts the opportunity of anti-terrorist cooperation with the United States. What kind of cooperation is possible if Washington is directly facilitating the consolidation of the forces that Russia and America justifiably list as terrorist, and if American security services – a potential side of this cooperation – are trying to reveal facts about Russia’s support for the Assad regime?

The current stalemate is likely to persist in Syria for a long time. The United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East will not let the Assad regime win a civil war. This is impossible in principle. In turn, Russia and Iran will continue preventing the possibility of intervention in Syria and an obvious advantage in favor of the rebels. This will practically completely rule out any possibility of Russian-US counterterrorist cooperation as regards the country that is one of the main sources of the terrorist threat.

Finally, Russia is concerned over some methods of US anti-terrorist policy, such as strikes dealt by drones at terrorist bases in sovereign states. This is being done primarily in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Tactically, Russia does not call into doubt the need to destroy cells of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and is confident that these strikes are dealt at them, but strategically it is worried about the violation of sovereignty of the said countries by the United States. Russia is particularly concerned about this because the importance of sovereignty has obviously grown in its foreign policy over the last two years, and Russia is increasingly irritated by Washington’s adherence to the policy of replacing objectionable regimes and interventionism.