Cooperate to Deescalate: Working With Russia Against Terrorism Will Make America Safer
Colin Clarke’s essay against U.S. counterterrorist cooperation with Russia asserts both that such cooperation is not attainable and that it is not desirable. Intelligence sharing about terrorist threats, it argues, requires a certain baseline of trust that is noticeably lacking in U.S.-Russian relations, and the threats that Russia is targeting differ significantly from those that the U.S. is combatting, making genuine cooperation impossible. Even if obstacles to cooperation could be overcome in principle, the argument continues, they should not be, because Russia can do little of significance to help the U.S., employs a level of brutality in counterterrorist operations that would both taint and endanger us by association and—most important—is an adversary intent on undermining the U.S., its allies and the liberal international order. None of these assertions is compelling. In fact, counterterrorist cooperation with Russia is both possible and desirable.
History itself refutes the argument that the United States is unable to cooperate with Moscow. The most notable example of this, of course, was the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, a time when few would have argued that the level of trust between Washington and Moscow was high or that broader American and Soviet goals were compatible. After that alliance dissolved, and relations descended bitterly into the Cold War, the CIA and KGB eventually decided that exchanges about terrorism and other shared concerns were so important that they established a secret “Gavrilov channel,” known to only a handful of senior officials on both sides, in the early 1980s. According to Leonid Shebarshin, erstwhile chief of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate, “occasionally, information was exchanged at the highest levels, especially on possible terrorist threats, and this channel was quite effective."
More recently, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Russia provided significant intelligence, diplomatic and logistical assistance that greatly facilitated U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Intelligence sharing has continued, albeit at lower levels, throughout the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship over the past decade and a half. In December, President Putin thanked President Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo for sharing threat intelligence with Moscow that enabled the successful arrests of terrorists planning an attack against civilians in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-most populous city. Even more recently, during a time when the U.S.-Russian relationship is arguably in its worst state since the height of the Cold War, the directors of Russia’s foreign and domestic intelligence services (the SVR and FSB, respectively) visited Washington to meet with Pompeo to discuss counterterrorist cooperation.
It is true that Russians and Americans view terrorism through different cultural and political prisms, and that the groups we are battling do not completely coincide, but they do overlap—that includes Islamic State, which is as threatening to Russia as it is to the U.S. These differences complicate cooperation, but do not preclude it. The U.S. intelligence community has long experience in protecting sensitive sources and methods in exchanges with foreign intelligence services. Trust is certainly lacking in the U.S.-Russian relationship, but it need not be strong to allow a basic level of counterterrorist intelligence exchanges that can benefit the security of both countries while still safeguarding intelligence equities. The record shows that obstacles to cooperation can be overcome if approached wisely and pragmatically.
But should we try to overcome them? That is a more interesting question, on which reasonable people can disagree. The most obvious reason that we should is Russia’s ability to provide significant assistance. Good intelligence is the most important line of defense in counterterrorism, and Russia’s intelligence services are very capable in general and particularly well informed in the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus and Central and South Asia, the so-called “arc of crisis” from which many of the world’s greatest terrorist threats emanate. Many Americans recall that Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone President Bush with condolences following the Sept. 11 attacks; few know that on Sept. 9, Putin called Bush to warn urgently that Russian intelligence believed that the assassination that day of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, portended the start of a broader terrorist campaign and that an operation “long in preparation” was imminent. Gaining access to more of Russia’s valuable intelligence in this region could be a significant advantage for U.S. security.
The second reason to cooperate is geopolitical. The anti-cooperation essay contends that Moscow does not want to help the U.S.: Instead, it seeks to undermine American interests around the world, and pursuing a partnership with Russia against terrorism in such a context would be to hand the Kremlin a tactical victory in its larger strategic war against us. But this is largely a misperception. In the early 2000s Putin made bids for partnership with Washington and the West more broadly. It is indeed true that since then Moscow has come to view the U.S. as a malevolent force in the world, recklessly wielding its immense military and economic might and opposing Russian efforts to regain status as a great power. Putin had hoped that counterterrorist cooperation with the U.S. would be a key element in a larger strategic partnership that would facilitate Russia’s renaissance following its economic, military, political and spiritual collapse during the 1990s. He no longer has such hope.
But that speaks to Russia’s determination to play a key role in the international system alongside the U.S. and other great powers, not to an intention to destroy or displace us. When Russians began to believe that the U.S. had different goals for Russia in mind—encirclement by a hostile military alliance, economic subordination and second-class status internationally—their views of partnership with Washington changed significantly. Putin shifted course to pursue Russia’s renewal without American help, using both military force and information warfare to thwart NATO’s encroachment, forging a robust partnership with China, projecting military power in Syria and courting U.S. friends and enemies in the Greater Middle East. None of these actions serves American interests. But Russian officials claim that they have not yet given up altogether on the potential for a more cooperative relationship with Washington, even if a larger strategic partnership is no longer realistic. From the Kremlin’s perspective, having the world’s foremost power accept Russia’s rise is clearly preferable to the more dangerous alternative of having to overcome Washington’s efforts to thwart it.
The U.S. should not facilitate Russia’s ascension to great-power status or accept its agenda uncritically. But the record of the past decade shows that we cannot prevent Russia’s rise, and efforts to oppose it have come at a high cost to broader U.S. interests. The greatest threats to U.S. security include China’s growing power, international terrorism, North Korea, Iran and nuclear war by miscalculation. In all these areas, Moscow can be an important part of the solution or part of the problem. Our vain efforts to punish and isolate Russia have contributed to making Moscow part of the problem, and the growing frictions in our bilateral relationship threaten to spiral uncontrolled into direct military clashes. Carefully calibrated engagement, including through counterterrorist cooperation, can help to manage the risks that attend Russia’s increasing power and incentivize an alternative Russian course that is more in alignment with U.S. interests.
George Beebe is director of the Intelligence and National Security Program at the Center for the National Interest. He was formerly director of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and special advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney on Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Photo by U.S. military in the public domain.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.