The CIA routinely shares threat information with Russian counterparts. However, after 9/11, the two sides vowed to work together more closely and share more widely. Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, and there was a view that Russia’s experience in Afghanistan and relationships in the Middle East would prove a benefit to the United States against this new challenge. Indeed, the Russians had suffered devastating terrorist attacks inside their own country, as well.
The day after 9/11, the director of CIA’s counterterrorism center briefed Bush that the Russians would be key partners in the fight against al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, he failed to coordinate his comments with elements inside the CIA responsible for relations with Russia — who would have told him that, despite what seemed reasonable to assume, the Kremlin would be unlikely to help. The Russian intelligence services view the CIA as the enemy, and they routinely see cooperation as just another means to undermine U.S. interests.
Nevertheless, in the days following the attacks, Moscow hosted a high-level intelligence summit, and CIA officials began to share insights from the agency’s experiences around the world with our counterparts there. Before long, however, the Kremlin turned every request into a focus on Russian domestic terrorism, leading those engaged with the Russians on the counterterrorism exchange to label the program as the “Global War on Chechen terrorism.” Worse than the failure to share insights, the Russian intelligence service used the pretext of counterterrorism cooperation to undermine U.S. relationships with other services around the world, even sharing the identities of CIA officers with hostile countries. Despite the sharing of intelligence, the Russian services treated their CIA counterparts as adversaries rather than partners.
Shortly thereafter, the Russians sought U.S. assistance to return to Afghanistan after American forces had retaken Kabul from al-Qaeda and the Taliban in early spring 2002. Washington viewed the opening as an opportunity to develop a broader rapprochement to encourage and incentivize improved relations. Russian requests, however, quickly escalated into demands for more and more significant support. After months of assistance working with Afghani authorities to facilitate Russian requests and sharing intelligence, it was clear that the Russians had no interest in a reciprocal relationship — they were, instead, interested in using the opportunity to spy on U.S. activity in-country.
Despite the lack of success in the initial efforts to engage the Russians in a mutually beneficial relationship, the White House was prepared to have another go in the mid-2000s. Again, counterterrorism was seen as a natural area to restart a larger effort of cooperation and collaboration. Knowing that the Bush administration was banking on improved relations, the Russians leveraged the relationship with CIA to wring out every bit of intelligence that could fill gaps in what they knew about us, while providing nothing in return. Russian counterparts didn’t even pretend that they were interested in collaboration.
In 2013, then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn traveled to Moscow on an official visit. While there, Flynn met with Russian intelligence officers, many of them in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. During the lead-up to Flynn’s travel, the DIA indicated that Flynn wanted to discuss the matter of increased cooperation on counterterrorism with his Russian counterparts. Flynn’s office claimed this was an obvious area for greater collaboration between the United States and Russia, since both countries shared the same values when it came to combating terrorism. Though Flynn was aware of Russian efforts to manipulate counterterrorism cooperation over the years, he nonetheless pressed to work with them, apparently assuming the two sides shared the same interests and values. The GRU’s unwillingness to share real information and their subsequent effort to hack U.S. government and electoral systems again put lie to their willingness to work together.
As the pro-Russian Trump administration took power in early 2017, the intelligence community realized that it should again look for opportunities to work with Russia in the Middle East and on the larger issue of terrorism. Two decades of failed efforts and the still-fresh Russian attack on the U.S. election process made a new “reset” a tough pill to swallow for many in the intelligence community. These reservations were shared with the White House. Nonetheless, directed to increase the sharing of intelligence, the CIA again made a good-faith effort to improve cooperation. As reported by the news media, senior Russian intelligence officials were invited to the United States, and the CIA looked to revitalize cooperation on the issue of global terrorism. On several occasions, Russian counterparts thanked the CIA for sharing actionable intelligence that thwarted terrorist attacks on Russian citizens. But as before, the effort to foster cooperation proved a failure. The Russian side never provided meaningful intelligence or information to help uncover potential threats to the United States.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s attempt to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom and the subsequent tit-for-tat expulsion of Russian and U.S. diplomats damaged the renewed counterterrorism exchange.
Shared goals against terrorism, it turns out, do not necessarily translate into a common outlook and approach. Russia may be determined to stamp out radical terrorism inside Russia, but the heirs to the Soviet intelligence services are quite comfortable supporting those terrorist groups at war with the United States. While Islamic terrorism is a mutual enemy, Russia’s top enemy is the United States. The Kremlin is more interested in doing damage to the United States than in helping solve the terrorism problem — even if there is some ancillary benefit to them.
Inside the CIA, we often joked that, to Putin, win-win means I beat you twice. Good intentions from the U.S. side have proved time and again to have been futile in improving relations. The periodic desire to work with the Russians on terrorism is akin to someone who buys a baboon as a pet, only to be surprised to have their face ripped off. Then, after recovering, he goes out and buys another baboon. How many times do we have to get our face ripped off by the Russians before we realize that we have fundamentally different goals?