Putin opens skies for U.S. aid

Russia to give arms to Afghan opposition, help in search, rescue

September 25, 2001|By Douglas Birch | By Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin announced last night that Russia would open its airspace to what he called "humanitarian" aid to U.S. forces pursuing terrorists blamed for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

He also pledged to send arms and military equipment to the Northern Alliance, the rebel forces who helped defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who have been battling the ruling Taliban regime since the mid-1990s. And he noted, without criticism, that several former Soviet republics had offered the United States the use of airfields.

Putin spoke on national television after meeting with leaders of the Russian parliament to outline his plan and after several days of talks with the Bush administration, Russian military planners and governments in Central Asia. He pledged that he would not send Russian troops to Afghanistan but promised to help in search-and-rescue operations.

His decisions represent a complete reversal of the policies of Soviet times. Little more than a decade ago, allowing U.S. planes to use Soviet airspace was unthinkable, the Northern Alliance was the enemy rather than a possible ally, and the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were wholly within the Soviet orbit and thus off-limits to the United States.

Putin said that "other deeper forms of cooperation between Russia and other participants in the counter-terrorist operation are possible" but that such decisions would depend on the "quality" of Russia's relations with the United States and its allies. The statement seemed to link additional support to Washington and Western European capitals endorsing Russia's military actions in Chechnya.

Russia has described its actions there as a battle against terrorist gangs rather than a war against separatist guerillas. But it has been widely condemned for its brutal conduct and its refusal to negotiate without conditions with Chechen rebels.

At one point last night, Putin called on the rebels to initiate talks within 72 hours. "I suggest members of all illegal armed formations and those who call themselves political actors immediately sever contacts with international terrorists and their organizations," Putin said. He didn't say what would happen if his deadline wasn't met.

There is strong public sympathy here for the United States after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington. But Russia is reluctant to relive its nightmarish 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, which began in 1979 and ended with at least 15,000 Russians dead. The Kremlin also maintains important trade links with countries such as Iraq that could become targets of the U.S. war against terrorism.

Some Russian politicians and military figures are also uneasy about a potential U.S. military presence in Central Asia, an oil-rich region that Moscow considers its back yard. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan both share borders with Afghanistan and oppose the ruling Taliban.

Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said there wasn't even "the hypothetical possibility" of anti-terrorist forces operating out of Central Asian states. The Kremlin has about 25,000 Russian and Tajik troops stationed on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan. The government said yesterday that it had no plans to bolster that force.

According to unconfirmed reports, the United States has begun landing military cargo planes at an airport in Uzbekistan, and special forces personnel are using an airfield in southern Tajikistan.

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