I made the point at much greater length in my most recent column for Russia! , but it’s worth repeating that cooperation in the "war on terror” isn’t going to magically salvage the Russia-United States bilateral relationship. Jacob Heilbrun was by far the most outspoken in advocating such a partnership, but the idea of de-emphasizing democracy promotion and focusing on "hard” security interests is a common one. However, the US-Russia relationship is an extremely complicated and varied one that cannot be "solved” by focusing on a single particular issue, even one as seemingly significant as terrorism.
First of all, I would note that the cooperation that characterizes anti-terrorism, which is a necessarily secretive process that takes place far from the public’s gaze, is simply far too limited in scope to have much of a broader impact. Anti-terrorism is the purview of very small numbers of people with very specialized skill sets, and these people are, understandably, extremely leery of overt publicity. Particularly in Russia, these groups like to operate in the shadows, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect some sort of ancillary PR benefit from whatever interactions take place between Russian and American intelligence. I mean, just take a moment and try to imagine what some sort of hypothetical future FSB-FBI news conference trumpeting the partnership would look like. Having a hard time imagining it? Well, my guess is that it would be like anArcher episode brought to life, if not more ridiculous.
In fact, based on what happened to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was interrogated by the FBI at the FSB’s request, it would appear that the United States and Russia already have a reasonably effective working relationship when it comes to combating Islamist terror (and if not terribly effective, than at least an extant one). And yet, despite the fact that the FSB and FBI can cooperate when it comes to tracking specific terror suspects, the two countries don’t get along very well. Had Tamerlan not gone full terrorist and bombed the marathon, we would almost certainly never have heard about the FSB and FBI’s cooperation with regards to him since those sorts of things are almost always kept top secret.
Moving away from terrorism, we need to refrain from the pleasant illusion that any particular topic is, by itself, going to be sufficient to fix the United States and Russia’s diplomatic relations. Sometimes it’s nuclear weapons, sometimes it’s energy, sometimes it’s missile defense, sometime’s its democracy promotion, sometimes it’s the "near abroad,” and, yes, sometimes it’s anti-terrorism, but there is no end to the op-eds that proclaim if only we could cooperate with the Russians on specific issue X then everything else would fall into place. That’s arguably not how any diplomatic relationship works and it’s obviously not how Russia conducts its diplomacy. The Kremlin is all about de-linkage, about dealing with specific countries on specific issues. Thus the Kremlin and Turkey can cooperate closely on energy matters but can vociferously disagree when it comes to Syria: the two issues aren’t linked, so agreement in one doesn’t preclude disagreement in another (and vice versa).
What’s needed in Russian-American diplomacy is patience, good faith, and a greater awareness that the two countries are probably never going to see eye to eye. And that’s fine: the United States and Russia can disagree about a lot of things so long as they understand why they disagree and so long as they don’t let particular disagreements color the overall relationship (for example, they shouldn’t allow the furor over the Magnitsky act to limit their limited anti-terror efforts). But there aren’t any quick fixes or easy solutions and we shouldn’t pretend that there are. If, as seems likely after Boston, the United States and Russia will work even more closely together to combat Islamist terrorism we should remember that this won’t have any positive side-effects in the other, more troubled, parts of the relationship.