Relations between the United States and Russia have been frosty in recent years, but in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the two countries have found a common foe in Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The two terrorism suspects’ family is Chechen. If most Americans couldn’t locate Chechnya on a map before the bombings, Russians are all too familiar with the North Caucasus region and its Islamic insurgency, having fought two Chechen wars and domestic terrorism born there since 1991. It was Russian intelligence officials who first flagged the older Tsarnaev brother as a potential threat. Their help in the ongoing investigation could prove invaluable.
Yet the United States should proceed with caution in this counterterrorism cooperation. Justice often looks very different in Russia than the United States, with due process swapped out for cruelty and corruption. Human rights abuses are rampant. President Vladimir Putin has always preferred a take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with terrorism; he has opted to end standoffs by sending police storming in, even if criminals and innocent bystanders are killed without much distinction. Those arrested alive rarely receive a fair trial, instead disappearing into the bowels of Russia’s prison system.
The United States should make clear its rejection of such practices. There is a real concern that Putin will use the Boston attacks as a pretext for ever-greater restrictions on civil liberties, particularly in the Caucasus region. The consequences could be dire: Memories of past Russian crackdowns there motivate, rather than repress, terrorist ambitions.
Of particular concern are the 2014 Winter Olympics. The host city, Sochi, is a Russian resort on the Black Sea and lies at the base of the Caucasus Mountains. It also directly borders Abkhazia, one of two breakaway sections of Georgia that briefly set off a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. The stakes are high for Russian officials, who have assured the public both at home and internationally that the games will be safe.
The basis for those assurances is the Kremlin’s belief that its forces have plenty of experience killing, detaining, and suppressing Muslim militants. But Russia’s indiscriminate approach has also hampered legitimate, nonviolent political dissent in the past. So it is not hard, after Boston, to imagine a brutal crackdown on such dissent in the months leading up to Sochi. The US should exert any influence it has to stop Putin from using the tragedies in Boston as an excuse to inflict more bloodshed of his own.