Every major terrorist act gives rise to conspiracy theories. September 11, 2001, still stirs the imagination of those who are convinced that it involved powerful forces pursuing their own goals behind the scenes. The tragedy in Boston is no exception. Although it was on a much smaller scale, questions remain about where it came from and why it happened. Since many people in Russia are convinced that America’s all-powerful intelligence agencies exercise absolute power around the world, some interesting hypotheses have appeared here, too. For example, everything that happened is connected to the events in Syria, with China looming in the background.
American strategists are supposedly worried about the increasingly close relationship between Moscow and Beijing (after becoming president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping visited Russia on his first foreign trip) and have begun playing a complex combination by bringing the Chechens into the game. This puts the issue of Russian-American cooperation in the war on terrorism back on the agenda. The United States is beginning to show a better understanding of Russia’s position on the situation in the Caucasus, while, at the same time, Washington is distancing itself from the Syrian conflict, which has reached a stalemate with no good prospects anyway, thereby seeming to make concessions to Moscow. As a result, Russia is drawn into a new round of cooperation, China is left on the sidelines, and the United States, by distracting Russia, can increase its presence in Asia, while also guaranteeing that the two greatest Eurasian powers will not join forces against America.
Of course, this is an unofficial and by no means the only version of events, but it reflects an intellectual trend that is widespread in Russia. In a sense, this is how the complexity and diversity of today’s world is transformed in the minds of thinkers within the conservative tradition that still dominates the public scene. It is their particular attempt to rationalize the chaos that is becoming ever scarier because of its unpredictability.
Even without considering the extreme hypotheses, the parallels with 9/11 are evident. Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to offer help and cooperation. This surprised many people who did not expect Putin to show sympathy for America, but in fact it was an entirely logical move. First, Russia was fighting the insurgency in Chechnya, which at that time was evolving from a separatist movement into an Islamic movement. And Putin correctly calculated that in the new situation, Washington would be more likely to interpret it in just such a way, rather than as a “people fighting for freedom.” Second, in that early period Putin was much less anti-American than he is now, and he really was looking for ways to close the book on the Cold War once and for all and begin a new kind of relationship with the most influential country in the West.
On the first point, progress was made. After 9/11, the sympathy for the Chechen movement declined noticeably in America, especially on the official level. Of course, this was not the cause of Russia’s victory in the second Chechen war, but it was a factor that promoted this victory. On the second point, things did not work out. And the reason for this is not so much the Russian-American relationship itself, but rather the conceptual problems with the very idea of a global war on “international terrorism.”
It became clear rather quickly that this notion in itself is at best an umbrella term that conflates very diverse phenomena that must be dealt with in entirely different ways. No universal method emerged, as could not have, because a generally accepted definition of terrorism, which the UN General Assembly has been stumbling over for decades, still cannot be crafted. Terrorists are always criminals to some and freedom fighters to others. In fact, most terrorism is not global but rather specific and local in nature, with roots in the problems of a particular country or region. Accordingly, efforts to counteract terrorism in each case must take into account the specific local situation. The unification of terrorism has occurred in form only, because the global information environment creates wonderful opportunities for extremists throughout the world to learn from each other’s experience, without ever being in direct contact.
On top of this, the United States decided to use the idea of promoting democracy as the ideological basis of the worldwide counterterrorism campaign, which seemed logical. It is well-known that democracies do not go to war with each other; so, more democracies means a more secure peace. However, democratization through force, which was resorted to in places where the conditions did not exist for it as a natural process, led to growing hostility and resistance. And rather than counteracting terrorism, this only made it worse, while also causing powerful countries with different political systems, like Russia and China, to become nervous.
By the end of the 2000s, the anti-terrorism discourse had lost momentum as the basis for a global policy, and in Russian-American relations it completely withdrew into the shadows. The telephone call between Putin and Obama after Boston, the news that Russian intelligence agencies had made inquiries to their American counterparts regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the general return of the Chechen issue led many people to say that the effort to improve relations on this basis might be repeated. But this will not happen. The situation in the world has fundamentally changed over the last 12 years.
In 2001, many people thought that terrorism was a discrete aspect of international relations. This is why it can be used as a common enemy to consolidate all the “forces of good will”. It is obvious today, however, that radical ideologies and extremist methods are nothing more than a tool of big-time politics, an element that is woven into all kinds of different processes. The “Arab Spring” totally shattered the black-and-white view. The popular awakening and the desire for self-determination, emancipation and democracy in that region not only failed to prevent the domination of radical forces, but actually required it.
Russia’s differences with Western countries and the US on the Syrian question, for example, are conceptual in nature. In America, they believe the most important thing is not to end up on the “wrong side of history”, not to become the supporters of autocrats against their freedom-loving peoples, whatever the ultimate goals of these peoples might be. A conservative point of view prevailed in Russia, seeking to preserve the status quo at any cost and to support the forces that are resisting the tide of Islamization, even if their methods are unsavory. In all likelihood, both sides will lose in this game. Arab democracy will not show recognition and gratitude to America, probably just the opposite. And Russia’s hopes to maintain the current situation are also doomed to fail: the authoritarian regimes will fall sooner or later.
The lack of consistency in the actions of the players on the world stage also reflects confusion. Everything is muddled. In Mali, the West is fighting against the same forces with which it has shown solidarity in Libya and Syria. Radical Islam and nationalism are inextricably linked, and for nationalist movements in the Arab world, Islam often serves the same purpose as the leftist and socialist ideas did a half century ago. In this sense, a decade and a half ago Chechnya served as a sort of prototype: the distinction still existed then, but it was quickly wiped away as the conflict intensified. Speaking directly to the Russian public, Putin did not shy away from reproach: “I have always felt angry when our Western partners and the Western media referred to the terrorists who have committed bloody crimes in our country as ‘insurgents’ and almost never as ‘terrorists’. They have given them informational, financial, and political support. We said we should not be making declarations, we should be working together. But now these two criminals have demonstrated perfectly that our approach was correct.”
Russia and the United States can now show that they are capable of working together in the war against terrorism in particular occasions, Putin also said. This will improve the atmosphere in the relationship, but it will not change it radically. Regarding the unending conflict in Syria, Moscow now has a new argument in its favor, not a decisive argument, but an additional one: misunderstanding the essential nature of an insurgency can come back like a boomerang. But in general, it is becoming ever clearer now that the terrorist threat lies primarily within a society, and that while external factors can catalyze it, they do not create it. And to blame its own misjudgments on external forces is a mistake for any government, whether American, Russian or Syrian.