Intelligence sharing between Russia and the United States regarding the Islamic State (IS) group is "quite possible," the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, has said.
"Current events are of such a serious nature that we need to unite," Bortnikov said, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Bortnikov made his comments to reporters in Washington, D.C., where he is part of a Russian delegation at the Obama administration's antiextremism conference in Washington.
"The issue of partnership between our service [the FSB], of which I am the head, is very important for us. In the first stages of active counteroperations we must apply special measures and means to locate terrorist attacks [...] knowledge of the situation is very important and, of course, intelligence sharing with our partners in this regard," Bortnikov told reporters.
Bortnikov also told reporters that as many as 1,700 Russian nationals could be fighting alongside the IS group in Iraq. "Right now, there are around 1,700 Russian nationals in Iraq and this number has practically doubled over the past year," he said.
The head of the FSB said that Russia must prevent its citizens from leaving to join militant groups. "We must undertake work to prevent the departure, and on the other hand [we must] do whatever is needed so that after these citizens return to their countries of origin we avoid terrorist attacks," Bortnikov said.
It is noticeable and significant that, while Bortnikov was ready to admit that Russian nationals are fighting alongside IS militants in Iraq, he did not say that Russian nationals were fighting in Syria. Why not, given that evidence points to the presence of Russian nationals in Syria and in far greater numbers that in Iraq?
The reason for Bortnikov's omission of Syria as the main theater for Russian nationals fighting not only with IS but with other Islamist militant factions is likely a purely political one. As Syria's most powerful ally, Moscow has led a diplomatic campaign to paint the Syrian conflict as a battle between the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad and illegal, armed terrorist groups sponsored by outside forces and consisting of foreign fighters.
An open admission that Russian nationals are part of that illegal, terrorist force is less than optimal for Moscow's position. Far easier, therefore, to focus entirely on Iraq.
Bortnikov's evasion reflects a trend that has been noticeable elsewhere in Russia's portrayal of how its nationals are fighting in Syria. While the several court cases involving returning fighters (mainly from the North Caucasus) have accused the militants of fighting in Syria, the courts have been vague about giving details of which groups the militants allegedly belonged to. In most cases, it appears that this evasiveness is likely in order to avoid mentioning the fact some Russian nationals have been fighting with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), the Syrian affiliate of the main North Caucasus militant group, the Caucasus Emirate.
Beyond these issues, the presence of Russian nationals in Syria and Iraq has been a bone of contention and source of great embarrassment for the head of the pro-Kremlin Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has insisted that most ethnic Chechens in Syria are from Europe.
While there is no official data that break down the exact numbers and identities of Russian nationals in Syria, analysis of social media and other Internet resources has offered some insights into participants in the armed conflict.
This evidence indicates that most of the Russian nationals in Syria (and, far more recently, Iraq) are from the Northern Caucasus republics of Daghestan, Chechnya, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. A recent video published by the Caucasus Emirate affiliate JMA showed a group of militants who identified themselves as being from the Terek-Kuma Lowland or Nogai Steppe region of Stavropol Krai, Chechnya, and Daghestan.
There is also evidence, including reports of court cases against returning fighters, that there are some militants from Russia's Tatar region, particularly Kazan.
Not all of the Russian-speaking militants in Syria are from the Russian Federation, however: others in this group include ethnic Chechens from the Chechen diaspora in Europe and Turkey, Kists from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, Tatars from the Crimea, and at least one Ukrainian convert to Islam.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk