Any event that impacts on the United States’ “homeland security” would have worldwide repercussions. The repercussions of the Boston Marathon bombings are most expected on the United States’ ties with Russia.
President Barack Obama on Friday expressed satisfaction that the manhunt for the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has ended with the arrest of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is of Chechen extraction. But he added, “Obviously tonight there are still many unanswered questions. Among them: why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and country resort to such violence? How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?”
These are pertinent questions to be asked, and the latter one can be answered definitively only with co-operation from Russia, which is forthcoming with a carte-blanche offer by the Kremlin to help out despite the frosty Russian-American ties in recent times.
The White House has disclosed that Obama spoke to President Vladimir Putin Friday night. The US statement said:
President Obama spoke by phone tonight with President Putin of Russia. President Putin expressed his condolences on behalf of the Russian people for the tragic loss of life in Boston. President Obama thanked President Putin for those sentiments, and praised the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counter-terrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack. The two leaders agreed to continue our cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues going forward.
It is an effusive account, but then, Putin did offer help in investigations within hours of the Boston tragedy. The Russian security briefly detained Tsarnaev’s father (who lives in Russia) and interrogated him before releasing him.
The US-Russia security cooperation has taken a beating in the recent year or two even as the “reset” in the relations ended and a period of cold-war style distrust and acrimony developed between Moscow and Washington. However, it is too big a surmise to make at this point that a resetting of the moribund US-Russia “reset” is under way as a result of the Obama-Putin phone conversation.
The point is, many issues of core interest to both sides in the overall testy relationship are intractable in a short term. Big powers do not overnight reset their compass. In fact, on Friday, the US State Department issued yet another annual human rights report, which alleged that fraudulent methods were applied by the Russian government in the last presidential election, which Putin won.
No answers yet: The Kremlin gave a rather taciturn account of Obama’s phone conversation with Putin, merely saying the two sides “emphasized their interest in increasing coordination between Russian and American intelligence services in the fight against international terrorism”.
Conceivably, Moscow would be quietly pleased that the US is getting a taste of its double standards on terrorism. The Chechen terrorists used to be known as “rebels” in the US lexicon.
But, having said that, Moscow would also be wary that taking advantage of Tsarnaev’s Chechen ethnicity and Kyrgyz background, the US might insist on being a stakeholder in the counter-terrorist strategies pursued by Russia in the North Caucasus and the Central Asian region. (Kazakhstan has an estimated 50,000-strong Chechen population.)
Significantly, on Saturday, Russia state television carried an interview with the Tsarnaevs’ mother alleging that her sons were “set up” and that the two boys have been under “constant FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] surveillance”. She said: “They [FBI] used to come [to our] home, they used to talk to me – they were telling me that he [the older, 26-year-old Tamerlan] was really an extremist leader and that they were afraid of him. They told me whatever information he is getting, he gets from these extremist sites? they were controlling him, they were controlling his every step? and now they say that this is a terrorist act!”
The Wall Street Journal meanwhile disclosed that the FBI had interrogated Tamerlan, who got killed last week, in 2011 at the specific request of the Russian government, “but didn’t find evidence of suspicious activity and closed the case”.
Indeed, these are early days and the Tsarnaev file may take new twists and turns. Surprisingly, Tamerlan made a six-month visit to Russia last year and is reported to have visited Dagestan – that is, even after he figured in the FBI’s watch list – and we have no choice but to believe that the FBI wasn’t smart enough to take note of it.
Curiously, India also had a strikingly similar frustrating experience when the Pakistani-American terrorist David Headley, who was involved in the planning of the fidayeen attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, paid repeated visits to Pakistan and India even after the US security became cognizant of his background and had interrogated him.
Intriguingly, Putin’s offer to Obama in his message within hours of the Boston bombing that “the Russian Federation will be ready, if necessary, to assist in the US authorities’ investigation” – to quote the Kremlin readout – was made before it was even known that there could be a Chechen link to the terrorist act.
A cat-and-mouse game seems afoot. At a minimum, it seems possible that Russians could have anticipated that something like the Boston bombing was waiting to happen.
Great game continues: Indeed, if the climate of Russian-American relations improves as a result of the new found camaraderie over the struggle against counter-terrorism and Islamist extremism, the fallout can only be positive for regional and international security.
For one thing, Russia’s hard line opposing the ascendancy of the Salafist and al-Qaeda groups in Syria and its support of the staunchly secular Bashar al-Assad regime stands vindicated. Yet, the outcome of the “Friends of Syria” [FOS] core group meeting in Istanbul on Saturday shows, on the contrary, that the calibrated drift in the US approach toward deeper engagement of the Syrian opposition fighters will continue.
How far should the US be prepared to put its weight in on the Syrian issue has been a difficult decision for Obama to make. The Istanbul meet took an important decision “to channel all military assistance [to Syrian rebels] through the SMC [Supreme Military Council].”
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington will double its assistance to the Syrian opposition to US$250 million and will expedite delivery of new US military assistance to the Syrian opposition fighters. “I’m going to make sure this is a matter of weeks. It has to happen quickly; it has to have an impact,” he said.
In fact, Kerry disclosed that FOS core group also discussed “how we might try to reach out to Russia” to persuade it to end its military assistance to Bashar al-Assad and its refusal to agree to a United Nations Security Council resolution.
There was not a trace of remorse in the US stance on regime change in Syria – that it might lead to the ascendancy of militant Islamists and al-Qaeda – in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.
Again, US-Russia cooperation in counter-terrorism struggle ought to be a game changer for Afghanistan. Nonetheless, there is no likelihood of a change of heart on the part of the US or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in their point blank refusal to have any collaborative partnership with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Collective Security Treaty Organization in the stabilization of Afghanistan.
Suffice to say, the Great Game goes on – Tsarnaev or no Tsarnaev – because the Boston bombing may ultimately have little to do with US-Russia relations. The Chinese commentators are perhaps close to the point when they say the Boston bombing has more to do with the US’s deepening domestic problems and its “sluggishness” in addressing them and the “gains and losses in the international sense” become irrelevant.
The real challenge facing Obama is not that the US-Russia reset has become moribund as a result of which the US’s homeland security has suffered, but that such incidents like the Boston bombing, as Global Times newspaper commented, “will serve as catalysts pushing partisanship to extremes” in America, which is already facing “serious polarization of politics and society”.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
Post by Kyle Keeton
Windows to Russia…
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