How Russia Can and Can’t Help Obama

In hindsight, KGB analysts and Soviet officials were extraordinarily prescient about the perils of Islamist terrorism and the fallout from the Afghan jihad. But could Russia, for all its faults and foibles, be a more valuable counterterrorism partner today?

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama's recent diplomatic effort to push past differences between the United States and Russia in order to seek cooperation on matters of mutual interest has a fascinating and little-known antecedent. In 1987, I received an unusual request. The Kremlin invited a group of American terrorism experts to come to Moscow. It said it wished to explore how the United States and the Soviet Union might cooperate in combating terrorism.

The idea seemed almost absurd. This was the bitter height of the Cold War. True, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan had hit it off personally, and the two reached some surprising arms-control agreements. But personal cordiality did not extend to other areas of superpower competition.

Many U.S. analysts suspected Moscow of backing terrorist campaigns in the Middle East and Western Europe. Meanwhile, the United States was redoubling its efforts to aid the mujahedeen in driving the occupying Soviet force from Afghanistan and backing Contra rebels against the Marxist Sandinistas who had, with Cuban assistance, taken over Nicaragua. Each side was accusing the other of sponsoring terrorism.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent diplomatic effort to push past differences between the United States and Russia in order to seek cooperation on matters of mutual interest has a fascinating and little-known antecedent. In 1987, I received an unusual request. The Kremlin invited a group of American terrorism experts to come to Moscow. It said it wished to explore how the United States and the Soviet Union might cooperate in combating terrorism.

The idea seemed almost absurd. This was the bitter height of the Cold War. True, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan had hit it off personally, and the two reached some surprising arms-control agreements. But personal cordiality did not extend to other areas of superpower competition.

Many U.S. analysts suspected Moscow of backing terrorist campaigns in the Middle East and Western Europe. Meanwhile, the United States was redoubling its efforts to aid the mujahedeen in driving the occupying Soviet force from Afghanistan and backing Contra rebels against the Marxist Sandinistas who had, with Cuban assistance, taken over Nicaragua. Each side was accusing the other of sponsoring terrorism.

For 15 years I had been directing the RAND Corporation’s research on terrorism, and though skeptical of the view that all the world’s terrorists were linked to a command post in the Kremlin, neither did I see the Soviet Union as the United States’ most likely ally in combating terrorism.

Wary of walking into a propaganda ploy, I sought advice from Washington. Officials at the State Department informed me that the U.S. government wouldn’t touch the Moscow meeting with a 10-foot pole, but as a private citizen, I could do whatever I wanted (and if I went ahead, U.S. officials were very interested in what the Soviets were up to).


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Only somewhat reassured, I decided to participate, but urged that a pre-meeting meeting be held with Soviet organizers to establish ground rules. We would assemble as private citizens, not national representatives. There would be no public pronouncements. No signed communiqués. No photo ops. If the Soviets insisted on ideological debates, these would be held only at 2 a.m., and attendance would be optional. The Soviets agreed, and our first meeting was set for early 1988.

Led by John Marks, a former State Department intelligence official, we traveled under the auspices of Search for Common Ground, a daring but respected nongovernmental organization. Our team included among others, Robert Kupperman, former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Geoffrey Kemp, former assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs; John Murphy from Villanova Law School; Augustus Richard Norton, then a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Marguerite Millhauser, a conflict resolution attorney; and Robin Wright, a reporter who had written a splendid book about Middle Eastern terrorism. We were joined later by former CIA Director William Colby and Ray Cline, a former CIA deputy director. The Soviet team included officials from various ministries, academies, and institutes, as well as KGB officers who said they were retired.

Our rule-making meeting had taken place in early winter. Moscow was cold and white. By the time of our first full meeting, an early spring thaw covered the streets with a thick chocolate milkshake of melting snow and mud. Was it an omen of warm success or a slippery mess?

At our very first session, following the mandatory exchange of warm greetings, my colleagues and I dispensed with the usual diplomatic niceties. We knew what Americans considered terrorism and wanted to know what the Soviets worried about. Expecting the standard Marxist diatribe about imperialist terror, I was surprised by their answer.

Two threats topped the Soviets’ list of concerns. The first was Islamist terrorism. The Soviet Union had by then decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, but it expected no end to the Islamist fanaticism its invasion had unleashed. The Kremlin thought Islamist terrorism would spread through Central Asia and then up the Caucasus — much of which was then Soviet territory. Moscow itself would suffer terrorist bombings. The Soviets’ warned that the United States, despite its support for the mujahedeen, would also be a target of Islamist terrorism.

In retrospect, it was a remarkable forecast. In 1988, we had never heard of Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda in the United States. It was eight years before bin Laden’s declaration of war against the infidel West, a decade before the al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, 12 years before the attack on the USS Cole, and 13 years before the September 11 attacks.

It is hard to say whether this prescience was due to the KGB’s analytical skills or to deep-seated prejudices. Most of our Soviet interlocutors were ethnic Russians with few pretenses of political correctness. Over the course of centuries, Russian armies had expanded their empire through the Caucasus, the Asian steppe, and the Ottoman-controlled Balkans. Russians and Muslims, in their eyes, were implacable enemies, a fact unchanged by a multi-ethnic Soviet Union. For them, Islam could only be in retreat or on the march.

The second Soviet fear was nuclear terrorism. This was also surprising. The United States worried about the security of its own nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons in the event of a possible terrorist attack. But the United States still considered nuclear terrorism a remote threat. Here it was, No. 2 on the Soviet list. Why?

The answer was the disaster at Chernobyl. In 1986, a nuclear reactor caught fire and spewed radioactive contamination across Europe. Because of human error, we emptied a city, the Soviets said. But a Chernobyl-like catastrophe could just as easily have been because of human malevolence. Given 21st-century concerns about dirty bombs, this also now seems prescient.

The unofficial dialogue continued in Moscow and then moved to the RAND Corporation in California the following year. As we gained confidence, new participants signed on. Soon enough, even former CIA Director Colby, a staunch Cold Warrior, was locked in intense discussions with (ostensibly) retired KGB officers.

Our informal talks facilitated discussions at the official level, but the two-tier effort ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. America’s concerns shifted to the security of the USSR’s vast nuclear arsenal and to the fate of its army of nuclear scientists and weapons designers. Arguing that the security of Soviet weapons was in the national interest of the United States, Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar introduced farsighted legislation that laid the groundwork for U.S.-Russian collaboration on nuclear security that continues to this day.

Of course, no one seriously expected our Soviet interlocutors to hand over their dossiers on Germany’s Red Army Faction or Italy’s Red Brigades — terrorist groups suspected of receiving Soviet assistance. Nor did anyone expect to address the issue of the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal, rumored to have been a Soviet operative and still at large at the time. Apart from the symbolism, U.S.-Soviet cooperation was likely to be limited, but still worth it. The message sent by the two superpowers even seeming to be cooperating could dishearten their terrorist foes. And it would provide another channel of communications that gradually could be widened.

With U.S. President Barack Obama eager to cooperate with Russia on matters of mutual interest, expectations must remain limited. The Marxist terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history. Russia does not have superior intelligence on al Qaeda or the jihadi movement. Although U.S. analysts no longer see Moscow’s hand behind today’s terrorist groups, it is difficult to envision a close working relationship between the CIA and the KGB’s Russian successors. Suspicions are mutual and run deep.

Despite the two countries’ shared concerns about jihadi terrorism, Russian troops are not about to return to Afghanistan to fight alongside NATO and U.S. forces. Passive logistics support is the most that can be expected. And U.S. willingness to assist Russia’s often-brutal counterterrorist operations in the Caucasus is constrained by human rights concerns.

Yes, Russia participates in the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and Russia opposes Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States both think that either country’s possession of nuclear weapons increases the threat of nuclear terrorism.

But here, common ground gives way to realpolitik. Russia would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, but knows that China is the only country capable of bringing about true change in Pyongyang. Russia sees little utility in messianic efforts. Its course will be pragmatic, maintaining its opposition to a nuclear-armed North Korea, while exploiting the standoff when it can for its own strategic or commercial gain. And though Moscow does not want a nuclear Iran, neither does it want to jeopardize its friendship or commerce, including lucrative arms sales, with Tehran.

On the other hand, Russian ships have joined the anti-piracy flotilla off the coast of Somalia. Thwarting terrorist ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons or material is a shared concern and historic cause for cooperation. Obama’s recent agreement to remove unneeded nuclear weapons from U.S. and Russian arsenals is a positive step, but will also add to the existing mountains of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in Russia. To facilitate the exchange of information on nuclear smuggling already agreed to in principle, he could propose a U.S.-Russian intelligence fusion center, which could expand to include mutually identified terrorist threats.

A strategic partnership may be an illusion, but 20-odd years after that unusual first meeting, terrorism still offers a chance for pragmatic collaboration. It’s worth a shot.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?, is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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