Russia backs off from threats to Afghanistan

Soviet withdrawal recalled

effort to align with U.S. called motive

May 27, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN SERVICE

MOSCOW - Russia, which began the week with an inflammatory threat against Afghanistan and its Islamic leadership, was already organizing a retreat from its verbal offensive as the workweek drew to a close yesterday.

"It's hard for me to analyze the reasons for this stupidity," Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, said yesterday.

On Monday, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a senior presidential adviser, sent shock waves throughout the region when he suggested that Russia was prepared to attack Afghanistan if that country helped the Chechen rebels fighting in Russia.

"I wouldn't rule out pre-emptive strikes if a real threat arises to the national interests of Russia and friendly states and partners in the region," Yastrzhembsky said. "This is a real prospect if events take an unfavorable turn."

Though other high-level officials hastened to back him up, by yesterday Yastrzhembsky was moderating his statement. "The repetition of the mistake with regard to Afghanistan that was made by the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is out of the question," he said.

The memory of the Soviet Union's costly 10-year war in Afghanistan is as painful to Russians as the memory of Vietnam is to Americans. And Piontkovsky and other analysts here said they found it astonishing that Russia would even hint at such an entanglement.

"The statement made by Yastrzhembsky was in the context of our propaganda," Piontkovsky said. He said Russia was making such threats to buttress an image it wants to develop as a shield, protecting the West from the spread of Islamic radicalism.

Russia has been prosecuting a bloody war against Chechens, an Islamic ethnic group living in the Caucasus Mountains, incurring high civilian casualties and destroying thousands of homes in the process. It has been defending the war as a necessary stand against Islamic terrorism.

Now, by accusing the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan of supporting and training Chechen rebels, Russia appears to be trying to put itself into the same camp as the United States.

Two years ago, the United States attacked a remote section of Afghanistan with long-range missiles. The United States accused Afghanistan of harboring a terrorism suspect, Osama bin Laden, and allowing him to operate terrorist training camps there.

On Monday, Yastrzhembsky said that a week earlier, representatives of the Taliban, bin Laden and the Chechen rebels met in northern Afghanistan. Bin Laden, he said, had agreed to supply personnel, weapons and ammunition to the Chechen rebels. And Russia had also received reports that Chechens were being trained in terrorism at a camp in Afghanistan.

Analyst Piontkovsky said that if Russia was attempting to portray itself as a Western ally by threatening Afghanistan, it would reap few political dividends. Instead, he said, such language was certain to unsettle its neighbors, including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst who writes a weekly newspaper column, pointed out that Russia's Central Asia neighbors are led by secular Muslims who deeply fear the spread of radical Islam into their countries.

Russia, he says, does not have long-range conventional missiles and would have to launch a "pre-emptive" attack from Tajik or Uzbek territory. This would give the Taliban a pretext for striking back, spreading Islamic warfare into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

"It seems that the main target of Russian anti-Taliban threats is U.S. President Bill Clinton, not the Taliban," Felgenhauer wrote. He was arguing that President Vladimir V. Putin unleashed Yastrzhembsky's rhetoric as a way of retroactively approving the U.S. raids on Afghanistan while marshaling support for the Russian position on Chechnya.

Piontkovsky agreed.

"It is a very risky strategy," he said. "It will increase the number of Islamic fanatics who hate Russia."

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet president who was forced to withdraw the humiliated Soviet Army in 1989, weighed in Thursday.

"Afghanistan is our neighbor," he said. "There was an adventure for which we have paid a dear price. We thoughtlessly entered that country and then got out with enormous losses. "

He also suspected that Putin was trying to emulate Clinton in striking at Afghanistan.

"If this is a replica of what the United States did," Gorbachev said, "let us not forget that we all opposed the United States' decision, which it took, bypassing the U.N. Security Council. We may turn the whole world into an improvised battlefield where irresponsibility will prevail."

Other commentators said that although the Taliban posed a threat to Russian and Western interests, Russia might be better advised simply to keep on covertly supplying the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban fighters in northeastern Afghanistan.

"This is an abscess that is infecting everything around it," said Sergei Blagovolin, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations here. "The efforts of Russia and the West should be united. The world community seems to be completely impotent against terrorism."

Russia, he said, should consider all the consequences before talking about pre-emptive strikes.

"Without getting into war," he said, "we should help the Northern Alliance."

By yesterday, official Russia seemed to agree that it should back away from a dangerous game.

Col.-Gen. Konstantin Totsky, who commands the Russian Border Guards, said he would not like to see Russia make any strikes against Afghanistan.

"I am absolutely certain," he said, "that it would sharply aggravate the situation on the border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan."

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