Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”
Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.
Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”
The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)
There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.
But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”
What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees 'from Russian repression.'” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.