Putin defies hard-liners in offering to help U.S. with anti-terror campaign

Some see `new style' in ties with Washington

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 26, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - By pledging to cooperate with the United States if it launches military strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, President Vladimir V. Putin has defied diehard cold warriors in his government and seized the chance to build closer ties to the West.

With one bold stroke, said Vladimir Kumachev of the National Institute of Security and Strategic Studies, Putin might have changed "the whole system of relations between the Western countries and Russia."

Before Putin's announcement, the Kremlin seemed to offer little more than strong words in support of Washington's battle against terrorists. And Putin, since taking office, has been spirited in his rhetoric, presenting Russia as a nation that was standing up to the United States, not falling in line behind it.

In the spring, Russia and China signed a treaty of friendship that was widely perceived as a slap at the United States. Putin said Russia would not stand for a "unipolar" world.

In June, Russia, China and four Central Asian countries held a summit, ostensibly to devise ways to combat Islamic fundamentalism and separatism in Central Asia, but most of the final communique was devoted to a denunciation of U.S. plans for a missile defense system.

But on Monday, Putin told the nation that he would give additional arms and supplies to anti-Taliban rebels fighting in northeastern Afghanistan. Reversing the position of his generals, Putin gave his blessing to the use by U.S. warplanes of airfields in several former Soviet nations in Central Asia. He also promised to open Russian airspace to "humanitarian" flights supplying anti-terrorist forces and to aid any search-and-rescue missions.

"We are willing now, too, to contribute to the cause of anti-terrorism," he said in a brief televised speech after days of consultations with the United States and other nations.

In a world made perilous by the spread of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Russia, the United States and Europe must increasingly cooperate, said Kumachev, an adviser to the upper chamber of Russia's parliament. "When we see a common enemy," he said, "we must work together."

Kumachev said the Russian people seem split on the question of whether to aid the United States in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks. Some Russians fear that the United States would use the opportunity to increase its influence in the oil-rich states of Central Asia, a region Moscow considers its territory.

Not only are the Central Asia countries former parts of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, but they serve as a buffer for Russia between its borders and Islamic states that could export fundamentalism to Russia's Muslims. One of seven Russians is a Muslim.

Russians also fear that supporting the United States now could draw them into a wider war against Islamic militants as their armed forces fight a costly war against Muslim guerrilla fighters in Chechnya. With oil prices falling, Russia can little afford a battle on another front.

Years of Cold War propaganda have left many former Soviet citizens deeply suspicious of the United States, which they consider their country's greatest rival, and a dangerous one.

"There is great inertia in our society and our elites as far as distrust of the United States goes," Michael Krasnov, a former Putin adviser, told Rossiskaya Gazeta yesterday. "I am sure that among our generals there are those who would not agree to close contacts with the Americans."

Russian politicians can get easy and significant political mileage out of anti-American statements. One leader of the Liberal Democratic Party has called on Russia to support the Taliban against U.S. forces.

A Communist deputy in Russia's Duma, Vladimir Volkov, said Putin's decision marked "a new style of relations" between the United States and Russia that could ensnare Russia in what he called a "genocidal war."

The United States' desire to use airfields in Central Asia raises the possibility of triggering a wider conflict that could drive millions of refugees from half a dozen countries into southern Russia, he said. "It would be a catastrophe," he said.

Putin is one of the few Russian officials with the political credentials to deflect such criticism. Because his first career was as an officer in the KGB, Russians regard him as cold, calculating and invulnerable to seduction by the West. His image-makers have taken care in presenting him as tough, whether practicing judo to relax or taking the co-pilot's seat in a fighter flying over a Chechen battle zone.

That and his stern words for the United States allowed him to make his extraordinary offer to support Washington by allowing the use of Russian airspace and providing other assistance.

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