Firming Russian borders

Carrot and stick: Putin woos former Soviet republics, punishes countries harboring enemies.

May 27, 2000

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin is moving on two fronts to strengthen his grip on Russia. He is using administrative centralization as a way to bring his country's far-flung regions under tighter Kremlin control. He is also forging closer links to now-independent former Soviet republics willing to cooperate with Moscow.

Largely because of his five-year training as a KGB spy in East Germany, Mr. Putin is strongly European in his orientation. But because of the war in Chechnya, he has come to recognize the vulnerability of the old Soviet empire's Asian borders.

This was a priority when leaders of several ex-Soviet states recently met in Belarus for talks about security. Particular attention was devoted to Afghanistan.

Moscow threatened the ruling Taliban movement there with air strikes unless it stops aid to Chechnya and Islamic insurgents in other former Soviet republics. Taliban warned that it will hold Uzbekistan and Tajikistan responsible for any Russian strikes.

Taliban has long-standing links to Osama bin Laden and other international terrorists. In fact, that's why the U.S. military raided training compounds in Afghanistan nearly two years ago. Moscow's warnings show its renewed interest in Afghanistan, where its troops were defeated in a long war in the 1980s that claimed 15,000 Russian dead.

Border security concerns also contributed to Mr. Putin's recent move against Russia's powerful regional governors.

Years of systematic mismanagement has thrown much of Russia's strategic Far East into chaos. Vladivostok, the headquarters of Russia's Pacific navy, is without heat or reliable electricity. The same goes for the Sakhalin Island, across from Japan.

President Putin has now sent his satraps to oversee the local governors -- and to fire them, if necessary.

This kind of drastic power grab would have been resisted had President Boris Yeltsin attempted it. But Mr. Putin's popularity is so high that his stratagem has stirred little opposition.

When President Clinton meets with Mr. Putin in Moscow June 3-5, many international topics will be on the agenda.

To Mr. Putin, they may be of secondary importance to assurances that Washington will not undermine his efforts to restore Russia's sphere of influence.

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