A Putin problem

The two disaffected brothers suspected of the Boston marathon bombing, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, might have spent a decade in America, but it’s hard to ignore that their family background is rooted in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts.

And who is the leader that turned the Chechen people’s aspiration for freedom into a killing field? Vladimir Putin.

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It was back in 1996, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, that Chechnya, a Muslim republic that was part of the Russian Federation but was seeking independence, negotiated a peace pact with the Kremlin after a 20-month war. A formal peace treaty was signed by Yeltsin and the moderate Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov in Moscow the following year. But hopes of a political settlement were short-lived: Amid growing lawlessness in the restive republic, and the sidelining of Maskhadov by extremists, Putin, in his first incarnation as Russian prime minister, launched the second Chechen war. The carpet-bombing of Grozny, the Chechen capital, was triggered by a series of apartment bombings in Russia blamed on Chechen rebels; suspicions remain that they might have been carried out by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the former KGB from whose ranks Putin emerged.

If there’s a single thing that enrages Putin, now the Russian president, it’s the West’s portrayal of Chechen rebels as freedom fighters. His protege, Ramzan Kadyrov, rules the republic with an iron fist and has been accused of torture and even murder. The Chechen people have endured deportation under Joseph Stalin — the Tsarnaev family lived in the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan as a result — two Chechen wars and now an implacable ruler loyal to the Kremlin. 

Chechnya lost its best chance for peace in the 1990s under Maskhadov, with whom Putin refused to negotiate. Maskhadov was assassinated by Russian forces in 2005. As a direct result of Putin’s “pacification” of the secessionist republic, what was once a regional conflict with Moscow has now exported radical militants — and thousands of ordinary Chechens — to all the corners of the globe. Chechen extremists have been active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and now Syria. For the radicals, who have committed many atrocities, the notion of an independent Chechnya has been superseded by the goal of a unified Islamic northern Caucasus. The website of the “Caucasus Emirate” has denied any connection to the Boston Marathon bombers and repeated that its enemy remains Russia. But according to the FBI investigation, it looks as though Tamerlan Tsarnaev — radicalized in a U.S. mosque? — might have latched onto the Chechen cause amid his alienation from America.

What does the Boston bombing mean for future U.S.-Russian relations? The U.S. and Russian presidents  agreed to step up coordination in combating “international terrorism.” But I can’t imagine a meeting of minds between the two, who have failed to establish any kind of personal relationship over the past four years.

The Russian press is full of articles, presumably reflecting official opinion, that the West has now discovered the Chechen rebels are not freedom fighters but terrorists. They also highlight the FBI “ignoring” a warning from Russia about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activities in Dagestan. The Chechen leader has said it’s “futile” to look for an explanation for the brothers’ action in the Chechnya conflict and that “it is necessary to seek the roots of this evil in America.”

That may be. But it’s clear that America needs to work hand in hand with Russia on counterterrorism. Unfortunately, as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin, I doubt that there can be any meaningful cooperation. 

Penketh is a long-term foreign correspondent who writes on security issues from Paris. She is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.