MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been tempted to tell U.S. President Barack Obama “I told you so” when U.S. officials blamed two ethnic Chechens for the Boston Marathon bombings.
He has long said the United States underestimates the security threat posed by Islamist militants in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus, and has rejected criticism that Moscow’s use of force in the region has been heavy-handed.
But the Kremlin leader has kept silent in public since Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a shootout with police, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured after a manhunt in a Boston suburb. Both are ethnic Chechens who had been living in the United States.
Instead, he and Obama made positive statements about cooperation on counterterrorism in a phone conversation on Friday, suggesting both sides see an opportunity to improve strained relations between their countries.
“I hope the revelation of the bombers’ Chechen ties will, if anything, open a window of opportunity to repair U.S.-Russia security cooperation,” said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.
The Kremlin said in a brief statement after the phone call between Putin and Obama that the two presidents agreed to step up cooperation on counterterrorism.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, sounded an upbeat note in a television interview, telling state-run Russia 24, “I think that there will be contacts between our intelligence services.”
He gave no details. A U.S. law enforcement source told Reuters on Saturday that Russia had asked the FBI to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. Tamerlan traveled to Russia in January last year and spent six months in the region, the source said, but it was unclear what he did there.
It was not immediately known what Moscow had done to cooperate with Washington since Monday’s bombings, but even small steps would be progress in a security relationship that has worsened in recent years.
Moscow and Washington have been at odds over the conflict in Syria and what the U.S. government sees as a clampdown on dissent since Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term as president last May.
The Kremlin appears to hope Washington will be forced into a rethink on the North Caucasus, even though the U.S. State Department said in its latest survey of human rights around the world that the rule of law was “particularly deficient” there.
While the Obama administration has long hoped to lower the temperature and forge a more constructive relationship with Putin, a source close to White House policymaking said it was too early to say whether cooperation in the wake of the Boston bombings would translate into a more muted U.S. approach to human rights problems in Russia.
Obama’s aides believe that they can find common ground with Moscow on security matters while handling their differences on separate tracks, much in the same way the administration seeks to “compartmentalize” relations with China, the source said.
At the same time, the White House is mindful that it cannot afford to alienate Russia, partly because it needs its U.N. support to tackle nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea.
Putin cemented his rise to power by crushing an independence bid by Chechnya in the second of two wars there, so is sensitive to any criticism of his handling of the Islamist insurgency that has now spread across the North Caucasus.
Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University and a Russia expert, said the events in Boston would help increase U.S.-Russian cooperation because the sides would share intelligence and information about the suspects.
He underlined that Russia had been quick to rally behind Washington after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and a similar deepening of security cooperation could take place now.
“I think in the end, the Russians under Putin want to keep the relationship as constructive as possible,” Legvold said. “This episode is likely to be more positive than negative (for U.S.-Russian relations).”
Putin needs closer cooperation on security matters now because he wants to ensure the 2014 Winter Olympics pass off peacefully in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is close to the violence in the North Caucasus.
During a visit to Moscow by White House national security adviser Tom Donilon this week, the two sides avoided hostile public rhetoric, in a sign they want to get the “reset” in relations, sought by Obama when he became president, on track.
The main obstacle to better ties in the past few months has been a row in which the United States passed legislation to punish Russians suspected of involvement in human rights abuses, including the 2009 death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian jail, and tit-for-tat moves by Russia.
But political analysts say the former Cold War enemies have both shown that despite the dispute, they want to limit the damage to relations.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Peter Cooney