photo courtesy www.kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons
Russia is no friend of the United States or our democratic allies around the world, and Vladimir Putin’s circle are not the sort of people we ought to admire or trust. But sometimes you have to work with people without admiring or trusting them.
The Kremlin issued a statement on Sunday thanking President Trump and the CIA for sharing information that allowed Russia to purportedly head off a major terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. The White House soon issued its own statement, which confirmed the call between Putin and Trump and the exchange of information that allowed Russian authorities to apprehend the individuals allegedly planning the attack.
Russia’s security service – the Federal Security Service, more commonly abbreviated FSB – said it had not only arrested seven individuals, but had also seized large quantities of explosives, weapons and “extremist literature,” the BBC reported. The attack’s main target would have been St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral, and there may also have been secondary targets in the city. The threat of terrorist violence recalls the April 2017 terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg Metro. The Islamic State group also claimed it was behind the crash of a Russian charter flight in 2015. Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB’s director, said that the country’s security services have prevented 18 terrorist attacks this year.
While the announcements about the incident from the Kremlin and the White House were somewhat unusual, as media outlets including the Financial Times observed, intelligence agencies sharing information with one another is fairly routine. In a way, this incident of CIA help returned the favor of warnings from the FSB about the future mastermind of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, even if we were not able to put that information to use so effectively.
As early as 2011, the FSB warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s potential connections to violent Islamic extremists. The FBI opened an investigation and flagged Tsarnaev for special attention should he leave or return to the United States. However, the investigation found no evidence of links to terrorism, and a typo in the spelling of Tsarnaev’s name meant he was not detained when he flew to Moscow in early 2012 or when he returned to the U.S. several months later.
It is easy to say in hindsight that U.S. intelligence agencies should have done more to stop Tsarnaev. While Tsarnaev was never tried for the Boston Marathon bombings – he died in an attempt to escape police a few days after the attack – his brother Dzhokhar’s defense team admitted at trial that the brothers had together carried out the bombings, which killed three people and injured several hundred. But the FSB did what it could to put us on alert.
We have a difficult and complex relationship with Russia, as we do – to an even larger degree – with China. Both are autocratic regimes that maintain their power through intimidation when possible, and violence when necessary. They are not particularly trustworthy. Russia’s actions in Syria, its continued aggression in Ukraine, and its government’s ongoing crackdown on its own citizens’ rights all speak for themselves, and we should continue to bear them in mind in our dealings with Russia’s leaders.
But in the bigger picture, Russia and China’s governments are responsible for the physical security of their citizens, just as our government is for us. We still have some mutual interests, not least of which is the prevention of terrorist attacks and the defeat of their sponsors. As the White House statement observed, this incident “serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.”
We can criticize and counter our adversaries’ aggression while still keeping lines of communication open, so we can work together when our mutual interests demand we do so. It is reassuring to know that both sides seem to remember this.