By Jill Dougherty
When I was CNN’s Moscow Bureau Chief I participated in a round-table discussion with Vladimir Putin, then president for the first time, in the Kremlin library. Sitting next to him, just to his right, I could see how even the word “Chechnya” infuriated him. After all, it was Putin who, in 1999, launched the second Chechen War.
Thursday, in his annual national call-in, “Direct Line,” in which he fielded questions from Russians for almost five hours, Vladimir Putin showed that he still has a deep current of anger toward Chechen terrorists, along with a deep grudge toward the West for what he perceives as its double standard on terrorism.
The Russian President got a question during Thursday’s call-in from a viewer described as a Russian now living in the United States, Mikhail Smurygi, who told him, “In the wake of the terrorist attack in Boston, many Americans turned against Russia, as the terrorists were from the Caucasus.”
“The Internet is full of anti-Russian comments,” the viewer added. “Our relationship with the United States is quite strained already and these accusations do not help. How are you going to address this?”
Putin replied that ordinary Americans “do not understand what is happening.”
“I want to appeal to Russian and American citizens, and to all the people who follow these international events, and to say: Russia is itself a victim of international terrorism, one of the earliest victims.”
Then, Putin’s anger flashed: “I have always felt outraged when our Western partners, as well as your colleagues from the Western media, referred to our terrorists who committed brutal, bloody, appalling crimes on the territory of our country, as ‘insurgents.’”
“They were hardly ever referred to as terrorists. They provided assistance to them, information support, financial and political support – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, but it always accompanied their activities on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Then, President Putin said, in effect, “I told you so:”
“…we always said that they (the West) shouldn’t make empty declarations that terrorism is a common threat, but make real efforts and cooperate with each other more closely. But now these two criminals have provided the best possible proof that we were right.”
Putin flatly dismissed the idea that the Tsarnaev brothers, whose family comes from the war-ravaged North Caucasus region of Russia which includes Chechnya, were suffering from the effects of the conflict.
“One can endlessly speculate on the tragedy of the Chechen people during their deportation from Chechnya by the Stalin’s regime. But were Chechens the only victims of repression? The first and the biggest victim was the Russian nation, which suffered the most as a result of repression. This is our common history. You can speculate all you want but does it have to do with the United States? What did they do to deserve this? It's not about nationality or religion, as we have told them a thousand times – what is at issue here is extremism.”
Mr. Putin, who obviously has been following reports on the Boston bombing closely, smacked down members of the U.S. Congress who have proposed treating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the captured suspect, as an enemy combatant, although he used the phrase “prisoner of war.”
“They (Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan who died in a battle with police) moved to the United States and they were granted American citizenship.
The younger brother was an American citizen. Some people there are saying now–not the US Administration but they are politicians–that the surviving terrorist suspect should be declared a prisoner of war. They have completely lost their marbles. A prisoner of which war? Has the civil war between the North and the South started again? What complete nonsense! They are talking gibberish!”
Vladimir Putin, however, insists he wants more cooperation with the United States on fighting terrorism. ”If we really join efforts,” he said, “we will not have any more such attacks and we will not bear such losses.”
The Russian president later told reporters the security services of Russia and the United States regularly exchange information but the warning the FSB gave to the FBI and the CIA in 2011 was not enough to stop the attack.
“Since the Tsarnayevs did not live in the Russian Federation, they came to Russia from Kyrgyzstan and only appeared here occasionally while residing in the United States, the Russian special services, to my great regret, were not able to provide our American colleagues with information that would have operative significance," Putin said.