Debate: Can Counterterror Cooperation Serve as a Basis for Improved US-Russia Ties?

October 29, 2021
RM Staff

counterterrorismThis week, the United States’ deputy national security adviser for cyber indicated that Washington had passed Moscow intelligence about criminal hackers operating on Russian territory and was “really looking for continued, real action”—a clear euphemism for arrests or other measures to curtail such groups’ activities against U.S. victims. For the Biden administration, what happens next could serve as a litmus test of Russia’s willingness to engage in substantive cooperation on cyber crime.

In the past, analysts have linked U.S.-Russian cooperation on cybersecurity with cooperation on counterterrorism—in part, because both rely heavily on intelligence sharing. This year we have been fortunate enough to have two Russia-focused former CIA officers write about prospects for the latter, and their views diverge considerably.

Paul Kolbe of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs argues that Russia’s only genuinely significant input into U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the past 20+ years was its “political support for U.S. bases and overflight in Central Asia” after 9/11. Other than that, due to “fundamentally divergent interests and worldviews,” as well as incompatible intelligence practices, neither of the two countries “found the other’s [shared] information compelling or of truly strategic value.”

George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest, on the contrary, believes that, although combatting terrorism is unlikely to transform the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship, “Russia has demonstrated a strong ability to help the United States prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.” He points out that “counterterrorism cooperation is not binary but exists in varying degrees”; successful elements of such cooperation, such as exchanging threat warnings, should continue, he writes, and roads to more sharing of “both intelligence and expertise” should not be closed off.


Russia’s Impact on US National Interests: Preventing Terrorist Attacks on US Homeland and Assets Abroad

April 13, 2021
George Beebe

Editors' note: With a change of guard in the White House, the new U.S. administration has a chance to commission a review of U.S. domestic and foreign policies. This primer is the fifth in a series designed to facilitate such a review by detailing the impact Russia does or can have on each of five vital U.S. national interests as defined by a task force co-chaired by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill. Some of the authors offer recommendations on how to best advance these interests in 2021-2024. The interests are: (1) maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia; (2) ensuring energy security; (3) preventing the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials and preventing proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons; (4) assuring the stability of the international economy; and (5) preventing large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland, addressed below.

Executive Summary

What kind of impact can Russia have on U.S. attempts to prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland, a vital national interest for Washington? This primer assesses this question by reviewing the past history of U.S.-Russian interaction in the counterterrorism domain and looking ahead to near-term terrorism challenges that the U.S. may face, and Russia may influence, one way or another. Its key judgment is that although combatting terrorism is unlikely to provide the basis for transforming the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship into a strategic partnership, Russia has demonstrated a strong ability to help the United States prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. targets. In assessing future prospects, we must remember that counterterrorism cooperation is not binary but exists in varying degrees. Bilateral cooperation on threat warnings has been ongoing for more than 20 years and few people, even Russia hawks, think that should stop. Joint operations, however, would be a bridge too far, considering the adversarial state of U.S.-Russian relations. This does not mean there is nothing more the two sides can do in terms of sharing both intelligence and expertise.

This primer will illustrate the following points:

  • Over the past two decades, Russia has made a significant contribution to preventing attacks on the United States by providing valuable intelligence and logistical support after September 11 that helped our fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also warned U.S. authorities about the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon attackers, in 2011; while that intelligence failed to prevent the attack, the reasons seem to lie mostly in the handling of the information by the U.S. side.
  • The primary terrorist threats facing the United States today include Islamist groups such as Islamic State, or ISIS, and al Qaeda, as well as domestic groups on the far right and far left, with the possibility ever looming that terrorists anywhere in the world might gain access to nuclear materials. As one of the world’s foremost repositories of nuclear weapons, materials and expertise, Russia can play a leading role in combatting nuclear terrorism.
  • Counterterrorist cooperation can take many forms, including: the provision of threat warnings; intelligence sharing about terrorist groups and their membership, plans, operations and locations; cooperation to understand and counter the ways that individuals can be radicalized and become prone to extremist acts of violence; and operational and logistical cooperation to kill or capture terrorists, disrupt plots and undermine terrorist financial networks. Moving beyond basic sharing of threat warnings to more extensive operational cooperation, however, requires a significant degree of trust between the U.S. and Russian governments and their intelligence services that is currently lacking.
  • Counterterrorist cooperation with Russia can indirectly discourage Russian support for terrorist groups that oppose the United States but pose little threat to Russia, including extremists based in the American homeland. Gaining an explicit Russian commitment to refrain from supporting extremists in the United States, however, would probably require an American pledge not to support political opposition in Russia.
  • It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Russian government would actually facilitate large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland given the dangers such action would pose to Russia’s own security, but Russia-based extremists like those who have joined ISIS and oppose the Russian government do pose a potential threat to the United States. Just as it warned the U.S. government about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization in 2011, Russia can share intelligence about these extremists that can help the United States protect itself against them.

Gauging Russia’s impact on the key American security interest of preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is a slippery endeavor. Counterterrorism is an arena in which failures are almost always exposed in public, but successes tend to remain closely held secrets. Moreover, simply enumerating instances where sharing threat intelligence or conducting joint operations has thwarted terrorist plans can tell only part of the story. Bilateral cooperation can potentially serve American interests more broadly by encouraging restraint on key counterterrorist matters, such as whether Moscow provides weaponry to states that the United States considers sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran. Yet, despite the inherent difficulties in demonstrating impact, it is likely that Russia has made important contributions to American efforts to prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the United States and its interests over the past two decades.

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The Global War on Chechnya: What Does 9/11 Teach Us About Counterterrorism Cooperation With Russia?

October 13, 2021
Paul Kolbe

A colleague of mine who worked closely with Russian security services on sharing intelligence in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks was fond of pointing out a fundamental disconnect. He noted that while the United States wanted Russia to join the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the Russians just wanted the United States to join in the GWOC—the Global War on Chechnya.

His joke perfectly encapsulated the counterterrorism relationship between the United States and Russia as it evolved after 9/11. In the weeks that followed, Russia, shocked by the attacks and worried about its own security, provided the United States with three main lines of support of varying degrees of importance—intelligence, ground and airspace transit permission and non-opposition to the establishment of critical U.S. bases in Central Asia. In return, Russia hoped for recognition of its status, greater deference to Russian interests and reciprocal intelligence to aid its own bitter counterterror and counter-separatist fight.

Whenever commentators and policymakers grapple with concrete ways to improve American and Russian bilateral relations, they gravitate toward counterterrorism intelligence sharing as representing a logical and easy first step. After all, who could disagree about the desirability of comparing notes on al-Qaeda, of cooperating to prevent nuclear terrorism or of sharing information that will save lives? The most skeptical can agree that these are important goals even when relations are at their lowest. The basic humanity of sharing threat information that protects innocent lives is an easy lift.

After 9/11, spurred by the fear of new attacks and with the Cold War in the rearview mirror, there was a strong belief that a new intelligence relationship between Russia and the U.S. could emerge in the 21st century. The U.S. and Russia shared reports and leads, provided mutual access to detainees for questioning and even entertained proposals for joint operations. Delegations traveled between Moscow and Washington, reams of paper were exchanged and some bad actors were identified and arrested. The U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism, co-chaired by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov met regularly. Officials and pundits spoke of the common fight against terror as representing hope for a fundamentally recast U.S. and Russian relationship, the dawn of a new era.

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