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By Michael Wines

Russia faces fateful choice on cooperation with US
To free the way for the U.S., or not?

New York Times, September 21, 2001

As American military operations move toward what could be the first deployment of Western troops on former Soviet soil, Russia's policy of giving the Western war on terrorism full moral support and so far not much else is about to hit a dead end.

What the Kremlin does next in Central Asia has the potential to alter relations with Europe and the United States, for better or worse, for years to come. The Russians are clearly anguished by their options.

Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov hinted at the Kremlin's latest direction on Wednesday in Washington when in one sentence he appeared to abandon Moscow's opposition to the placement of Western military forces in the Central Asian nations of the former Soviet Union, which Russia still regards as its strategic backyard.

"Each country will decide on its own to what extent and how it will cooperate with the U.S. in these matters," he said.

Not a week earlier, the defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov, had said that there was "no basis for even a hypothetical possibility" of Western forces' being stationed in Moscow's former fief.

Either choice is a fateful one for the Russians, who have been trying for a decade to recast themselves in a European mold and are now beginning to learn that such a decision comes at a price.

Russia was the first nation to console the United States after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and has been unswerving in its verbal support for the elimination of radical Islamic terrorism, seen by Moscow as the chief destablizing force on its southern borders, particularly in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

But it is the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan, that are the first concrete test of Moscow's unity with Washington and the West in any antiterrorism campaign.

The United States wants access to those lands and in the case of the more
independent Uzbekistan may already have it for the sorts of short-notice military missions, from search-and-rescue to special operations, whose success rests on surprise or speed.

Russia still sees matters differently. Whatever its shared antipathy toward terror, it regards an American military presence as a threat to its considerable influence in the region. Nationalists see such a presence as a humiliation that would give the United States a lasting foothold in Russia's hinterland.

Worse still, many officials fear that American strikes launched from former Soviet territory will inevitably draw Russia into a broader conflict whose goals it may share, but for which it is unprepared and against which it is unprotected.

Russia is effectively Tajikistan's defender against the Taliban, with a large Russian contingent on the Afghan border. It is bound by a treaty to defend nearby Turkmenistan, also bordering Afghanistan, from outside attack.

Russians still bear the scars of the 1980's war in Afghanistan, which led to a humiliating withdrawal for the Russian Army after it failed to subdue the Afghans. That war was followed by vicious civil conflict in Tajikistan after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Thousands were killed, and as many as 300,000 people, many of them ethnic Russians, displaced in fighting between Islamic forces and the government.

As one expert noted in an interview today, the Russian Army already is conducting one fruitless war against Islamic extremists in Chechnya. There, the current conflict erupted after the insurgents made incursions into another Russian republic, Dagestan, and Russian authorities say blew up apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities, killing more than 300 people.

Two fronts may be both beyond the resources of the military and other Russian security forces, and the nation's patience.

"Russia is far more vulnerable to terrorist strikes than the United States because of geographic, political, economic and other reasons," Aleksei Arbatov, a member of the Russian Parliament and a leading expert on the military, said this week.

"If Russia joins the U.S. and becomes a target for terrorists, no matter what forms their activities take, then Russia will have every right to seek a U.S. obligation to ensure its security. Otherwise these relations will not work."

Moscow's fear of being dragged into a wider war is not an idle one.

Russia keeps 10,000 troops on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan and 15,000 within the country, largely to cope with drug smuggling and the constant threat of an Islamic insurgency by extremists of the Taliban school.

Beyond that, Russia has a sizable Muslim minority of its own, and a large Muslim population on its southern border, in Kazakhstan, that could be destabilized by any disintegration of Afghanistan.

Others here believe Russia and the United States cannot cooperate in Central Asia regardless of any security guarantees. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament's lower house, Dmitri Rogozin, said this week that American use of Russian military bases in the region was impossible "because Americans may turn them into their permanent residence."

That is a popular view among the military and an influential slice of strategists who want to see Russian abandon any Western course and regain its historic role as an independent Eurasian power.

But the cost of staying on the sidelines in this conflict, others argue, could be far greater.

Dmitri Trenin, a top scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center, is a leading advocate of closer ties to the West. He argued in an interview today that the antiterrorism campaign offers the Kremlin a blue-moon chance to win Western trust and cement itself into European security arrangements all by committing to a war whose goal it supports, and which it most likely cannot avoid in any case.

Western nations do not need Russia's money or its military clout, both of which are in short supply these days. But what Russia could offer a strategic location and influence with Afghanistan's neighbors, for starters is dearly sought.

Finally, he said, by throwing its lot with the West, Russia would gain at least some say in the United States' conduct of a war it desperately wants to contain. In any event, Russian opposition alone may not be enough to keep the United States military out of Uzbekistan and, perhaps, other Central Asian states as well.

Shireen Hunter, a leading Central Asia scholar at Johns Hopkins University, predicted that the Kremlin would decide to support the Western coalition. "The question is how far they are willing to go to do that," she said.

Russian willingness to allow its Central Asian allies to support the war, she said, will provide one of the first clear indications.

See also:

Acts of terror in the US

New York Times, September 21, 2001

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