Fixing Russia Cooperation After Boston

Why relations fell apart—and how to put them back together.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, Americans have every reason to renew the national debate about how law-enforcement agencies manage critical information and where they strike the balance between public safety and civil liberties. Yet this discussion should not overshadow an equally important lesson from this tragedy for U.S. national security. In the aftermath of this brutal attack, it should be clearer than ever before that the United States needs fulsome security partnerships with other countries, even when Americans dislike those nations’ politics or positions on other issues. In this case, the missing security partnership was with Russia.

In the days since the apprehension of Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it has come to light that the FBI actually questioned the older brother, Tamerlan, as recently as 2011. According to the FBI, Tamerlan came to the attention of U.S. authorities thanks to a tip from Russia’s security services. At first blush, this information might suggest that as with several of the 9/11 hijackers, security officials followed proper procedure and came close to uncovering the plot, but were simply unable to keep these particular individuals from slipping through their fingers.

Although the Russians warned U.S. officials about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possible extremist ties “multiple times” in 2011 and recorded phone calls in which he discussed participating in jihad, he was allowed to go to Russia for half of 2012, where he spent time in the restive North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. If anyone knew whether Tsarnaev made contact with Islamist fighters or terrorist recruiters while in Dagestan, it was likely to have been Russian security officials.

Had these officials shared a more complete picture of Tsarnaev’s activities with their U.S. counterparts, enough red flags may have raised to reopen his FBI file once he returned to Boston in July of last year. While in retrospect both sides must wish they had done more, it is no surprise that there was so little cooperation during 2012, one of the worst years in recent memory for U.S.-Russia relations.

Last year marked the end of the “reset” period in ties between Moscow and Washington. Putin’s choreographed return to the Kremlin unleashed waves of public protest, which was met with heavy-handed police tactics and harsh new laws constraining civil society. In December, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russian officials accused of human-rights abuses, and Russia retaliated further with a ban on U.S. adoptions and a crackdown on Western-funded NGOs. Trust between officials on both sides sank to lows reminiscent of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war or even the worst days of the Cold War.

In the context of this severe downturn in U.S.-Russia relations, intelligence and counterterrorism working groups set up under the auspices of the Bilateral Presidential Commission in 2009 failed entirely in their mission to promote fluid, working-level cooperation between U.S. and Russian officials. Without such cooperation, it would have been extremely difficult for either side to track Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s interactions with extremist contacts in cyberspace and on the ground in both countries. It is even possible that Russian officials gave up monitoring Tsarnaev once he left Russia in mid-2012, writing him off as a problem Americans had brought upon themselves by welcoming displaced Chechens as refugees.

Like any other value-added product, intelligence does not simply appear on its own, but rather is developed in response to demand from authorities, which in turn depends on politics. At a time when the U.S. Congress was enacting measures to deny visas and seize the assets of Russian security officials over alleged human-rights abuses, those same officials were not likely to see helping Washington as a high priority.

Kremlin bashers in the United States have already deemed Putin responsible for failing to prevent the Boston bombings. Some even claim that but for Russia’s brutal tactics during the 1999-2000 Second Chechen War, the region would not have produced terrorists in the first place. Others blame Russia alone for the breakdown in relations that was hastened by Putin’s anti-American rhetoric and crackdown on civil society. These claims are hyperbolic and counterproductive.

Fortunately, recent experience, including the abortive 2011 effort to share intelligence in this case, proves there is another path. The tragedy in Boston may have opened a very modest window of opportunity to restore U.S.-Russia security and intelligence cooperation, and to begin to rebuild the trust sacrificed over the past eighteen months of tit-for-tat haranguing.

Russians must accept that for Americans, the means used in the name of public safety are often as important as the outcomes, and that criticism of Russia’s harsh tactics will not disappear. At the same time, Americans must recognize that ceaseless badgering of Russian officials over shortcomings on human rights and democracy will produce a chilling effect on the Russian government's willingness to cooperate across the board, including on intelligence vital to U.S. national security.

Matthew Rojansky is the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.