What could the White House have been thinking? The Obama administration’s recently concluded Summit on Countering Violent Extremism was a high-profile affair, bringing together key world leaders and decisionmakers on a critical topic at a critical time. But it was also punctuated by instances of stunning tone-deafness, and a profound failure to understand the dynamics of terrorism in its many forms.
A case in point is Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service), who was invited to Washington as the head of Russia’s delegation to the Summit. Ostensibly, Bortnikov was here to talk about “the role of the state” in Russia, and the techniques used by Russian law enforcement agencies against “foreign terrorist operatives.” The FSB noted in an official statement ahead of the parlay that “Bortnikov will inform the participants of the forum about the functioning of the Russian Federation in the national system to counter extremism, while focusing attention on the importance of the central role of the state in countering the ideology of terrorism.”
But Borotnikov isn’t part of the solution; he’s part of the problem. The agency he heads is a prime actor in the reign of terror that prevails within Russia today, and which has spread to the Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine over the past year. It runs a revitalized Gulag system that, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is once again replete with political dissidents. And it is a prime mover in the expansion of Russia’s anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislation, which has systematically been extended in recent times to include NGOs and innocent civilians.
Admittedly, Russia has been fighting terror at home in the North Caucasus for twenty years. But Moscow itself started the war in Chechnya, which then engendered the outbreak of terrorism in the North Caucasus. Nor do its forces merely fight terrorism there; they conduct it. At least some of the numerous abductions in the North Caucasus, where citizens are held without explanation or benefit of law or are kidnapped for ransom, are the work not of jihadist insurgents but of Russian troops – a portion of which are FSB forces.
Moreover, Russia supports similar behavior abroad. In the Middle East, the Kremlin is a key supporter of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria – including its use of chemical weapons against opposition forces, weapons that Moscow itself provided to Damascus. The Kremlin also enjoys a cozy relationship with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, has gone so far as to say that Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad is entirely “legitimate.” Moscow, clearly, believes that there are “good” terrorists as well as “bad” ones.
Bortnikov’s presence in Washington was all the more conspicuous because it would not have been possible in Europe. There, the FSB chief is among those individuals who have been sanctioned by the EU for his government’s conduct in Ukraine.
That’s a standard the U.S. should apply as well. Allowing Bortnikov and his delegation to come to the United States when his government is engaged in state terror in Ukraine — and supports an array of rogue actors in the Middle East — is ill-advised at best. At worst, it is a reflection of Administration myopia about Russia and the “war on terror” writ large. For, if we cannot identify and label state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism for what it is, how can we hope to combat it abroad?