Russia unlikely to offer military support in Afghanistan

Overt assistance for U.S. could anger Islamic world

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 19, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The Kremlin is talking of joining the West in a global war on terrorism, and there is strong public sympathy here for the United States after last week's attacks. But if the U.S. government decides to launch an assault on Afghanistan, many Russians say, don't expect Russia to offer military support.

Efforts to broker a military alliance between Moscow and Washington seem doomed, because of a clash of interests in oil-rich Central Asia, Iran and Iraq.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is scheduled to arrive in Moscow today for talks with Russian officials. The major issue will likely be whether Russia will help - or at least not hinder - potential U.S. reprisals against suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

If the United States is looking for bases from which to strike Afghanistan, the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would be tempting. Both share borders with Afghanistan and have major military bases. But persuading Moscow to endorse the use of those countries as bases could be difficult.

"I don't see any basis for even the hypothetical possibility of NATO military operations on the territory of Central Asian nations," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said recently.

If it overtly aided the United States, Russia would risk alienating the Islamic world - something that Russia, where one in seven citizens is Muslim, cannot afford. Russian officials also are skeptical of bellicose talk about the use of ground troops in the region.

"Why should we be involved in this doomed business?" Nikolai Kovalyov, former director of Russia's intelligence agency and now a member of parliament, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The Soviet Union suffered 14,000 deaths and 50,000 wounded in its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. As many as 1 million Afghans died in that conflict.

But even if it withholds support, Russia cannot prevent the United States from taking action against Afghanistan, said Alexander Savelyev, an arms-control expert with the Academy of Sciences' Institute of International Economic Relations.

"It's impossible politically, it's impossible militarily, it's impossible diplomatically," he said. "It's impossible in any other way you can think of."

Russia may also find it impossible to prevent the United States from using bases in former Soviet states. Uzbekistan has announced its readiness "to discuss any form of cooperation in the struggle against international terrorism, including deployment of United States forces."

Uzbekistan served as the Soviet Union's base of operations against Afghanistan and maintains large airbases near Tashkent, the capital, and Termez, on the Afghan border. And the Uzbek government opposes Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime. Uzbek President Islam Karimov was the target of a bomb attack two years ago in Tashkent, an assault blamed on Islamic militants backed by the Taliban.

Tajikistan is less welcoming. A spokesman for Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry has called reports that Americans might base military forces there "absolutely unfounded." Russia maintains two large military bases there, and commands about 25,000 Russian and Tajik troops.

Russia could demand U.S. support for Russian actions against Chechnya in exchange for Russia's backing American policy against terrorism. Russia has fought secessionist rebels there for nearly a decade but characterizes the conflict as defense against terrorism, rather than a war. Washington has criticized the brutal tactics of Russian military operations in the area. As recently as Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia called on Moscow to negotiate with the Chechen rebels.

"Double standards in connection with terrorism should be stopped," said Makhmud Gareev, head of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and a former Soviet general. "The U.S. should make a final decision. Either we're going to fight terrorism or we're not."

"If some interests of Russia are not taken into consideration," he said, "there will be no cooperation."

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