For much of the past decade, cooperation between the FSB and the FBI has been guarded and pragmatic at best. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the identification of ethnic Chechen suspects with potential ties to an Islamist insurgency in the Russian Caucasus, the White House and the Kremlin have been talking up greater cooperation on counterterrorism.
“This tragedy should motivate us to work closer together,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference late last month. “If we combine our efforts, we will not suffer blows like that.”
President Obama echoed those remarks, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III visited Moscow this week for what were described as productive meetings. FBI agents have been working closely with the FSB to determine whether suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police four days after the blasts, received any training when he visited Dagestan for six months in 2012. Dagestan, which borders fellow Russian republic Chechnya, has been plagued by a bloody Islamist insurgency.
Russia has provided more information since the April 15 bombing, including details about intercepted telephone conversations involving Tsarnaev’s mother that were the basis of Moscow’s initial concern about his possible extremist leanings. But U.S. counterterrorism agencies have not seen evidence to substantiate reports in Russia that Tsarnaev met with militants in Dagestan.
Deep mutual suspicion, which stretches back to the Cold War and is periodically inflamed by cases such as the sleeper agents busted by the FBI in 2010, means there are significant limits to U.S.-Russian security cooperation, according to former and current law enforcement officials and scholars of the countries’ relationship. Putin once named the United States as the “main opponent,” and the United States and Europe are the targets of aggressive high-tech and industrial espionage by Russia, according to intelligence officials.
“There is a broad culture of mistrust that is going to be very hard to change,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “That’s a huge obstacle to moving forward on counterterrorism. It’s the same sets of people who have to cooperate.”
Hill said that “for real counterterrorism cooperation, as you have with the Brits or the Europeans, you have to be able to share operational information.”