U.S.-Russian relations are strained, but in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, the two governments are trying to communicate to help the investigation. NPR's Michele Kelemen talks with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about the state of their complicated relationship.
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tracing the Tsarnaev family roots back to Russia is going to require cooperation between Washington, D.C., and Moscow and of course, as we just heard, this comes at a frosty time in relations between the two countries. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us. Thanks for being with us.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.
SIMON: And first, any signs of cooperation so far?
KELEMEN: Well, President Obama and Vladimir Putin did talk by phone, as we heard in Corey's report, and the White House says in a statement that President Obama praised what he called the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counterterrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack.
You know, when the Obama administration came into office and famously reset relations with Russia, they set up a lot of working groups. And one of them was on counterterrorism. It seemed to be one of the areas where the two countries really have maintained ties despite all the other frostiness in relations. I'm told that the Russians, in a lot of these conversations with the U.S. over the years, have really been fixated on Chechnya, on the Caucasus. Now, the U.S. side will probably be much more interested in that.
SIMON: At the same time though, the U.S. has an investment in that viewpoint. Is it likely that view of the Caucasus is going to change?
KELEMEN: You know, it has evolved over time. The U.S. was always really critical in the way that the Russians waged two wars in Chechnya, raised a lot of concerned about human-rights abuses. But you know, I think that criticism has gradually toned down, you know, especially as Chechen fighters started turning up in places like Afghanistan and even now, in Syria.
Just how far the U.S. is going to buy into the Russian line on Chechnya, and on the surrounding areas, will be interesting to watch over the course of this investigation. I should point out, Scott, that the State Department actually issued its annual human-rights report yesterday afternoon, and it did raise concerns about the Caucasus. It said the rule of law is particularly deficient.
It said the conflict among government forces, insurgents, Islamist militants and criminals have led to numerous human-rights abuses - including torture, killings and abductions - and it singles out the region of Dagestan, where these boys' father has been. And it calls out the most violent area of the Caucasus, and it criticizes the leader of neighboring Chechnya for being behind many of the abductions.
SIMON: Michele, realistically, how much cooperation do you anticipate?
KELEMEN: You know, it depends, really, on the connections that these Tsarnaev brothers had to the region. The FBI's going to want to know more about the older brother's travels back to Dagestan. We already know that the FBI interviewed him back in 2011, apparently because of a Russian request. The FBI says it didn't find any derogatory information about him, at the time. So I'm sure they're going to be looking into all of this again with the Russians.
But as one longtime expert on the region - a former national intelligence official, Fiona Hill of Brookings - told me yesterday, the U.S. and Russian conversation might end up becoming much more general if we learn that in fact, this is more of an isolated - this was more of an isolated incident, or that they were radicalized online rather than on the ground in Dagestan or Chechnya.
SIMON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.