It’s not that the FSB, the major Russian intelligence agency, has never been able to work with its American counterparts. The most romantic period of their relationship was in 2013, following the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured some 250. Two brothers from the Russian republic of Chechnya, Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had organized the attack, and it became known soon afterward that the Russian FSB had sent messages in 2011 to the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Though these letters were not real warnings—the FSB asked for information on him, fearing he could join a militant group—the information inflamed public opinion in the United States, and there were calls for more cooperation between Russian and American intelligence agencies. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke twice by phone in the wake of the bombing. A White House statement said Obama praised the “close cooperation” Washington received on counterterrorism from Moscow, and that “both sides underlined their interest in deepening” it. Congressmen rushed to Moscow praising FSB’s willingness to work together.
It had long been assumed that militants in the North Caucasus were not interested in attacking Western targets. After the 1990s, the Chechen movement shifted from what had been a primarily nationalist agenda to make Chechnya independent, to one embracing radical Islam. Militants continued to employ a terrorist strategy against the Russians—including attacking civilians in Moscow, and killing law-enforcement personnel in the North Caucasus. But foreigners had not been in their crosshairs. Ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains near the Islamists’ stronghold, the Boston bombing raised questions about whether that had changed.
Hunting down hackers was another area where the Russians, the British, and the Americans seemed to be willing working together. This story also had its romantic moments. For some years the U.S. and Russia had the Russian-American Law Enforcement Working Group, which covered a range of topics, including financial crime, cybercrime, and child protection. It yielded some results. In October 2014, for example, Sergei Tsurikov, a leader of a cybercriminal group that had stolen over $9.4 million from a credit card processor, was sentenced to 11 years in prison due in part to the cooperative efforts of the FSB and the FBI. This cooperation stalled after the annexation of Crimea, and the story of the DNC hack damaged any remaining hope for the resurrection of cooperation in cyber.
The most famous among the four people arrested was Sergei Mikhailov, the deputy chief at the FSB’s Information Security Center, which is the FSB’s main unit involved in hunting down hackers. Mikhailov was involved in many cyber investigations. But the community of cyber experts was truly shocked at the arrest of Ruslan Stoyanov, the head of Kaspersky’s computer incidents investigations team. The department he ran consulted the Interior Ministry and the FSB on investigating cyber crime cases. Just before his own arrest, Stoyanov had helped collect evidence in the country’s biggest-ever crackdown on financial hackers, involving the arrest of 50 members of a cyber-crime ring known as Lurk that stole more than 3 billion rubles ($45 million) from banks in Russia and other countries. The group had also exploited weaknesses in how banks connect to Swift, the global payments network, to steal $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank and $12 million from an Ecuadorean bank.