In Russia, doubts, skepticism


Putin: The Russian president's policy reversal in offering to let the United States use his country's airspace to strike Afghanistan is greeted with suspicion by Russian newspapers.

September 27, 2001

In an abrupt change of policy and heart, Russia's President Vladimir V. Putin said this week that the United States could use Russian airspace to carry out strikes against Afghanistan. Putin, who until then had been eager to put more and more distance between himself and Washington, also withdrew his objections to a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet republics Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Russian newspapers greeted the announcement with various degrees of enthusiasm, but nearly all were suspicious about what kind of deal might have been cut between Putin and President Bush. Yesterday, their skepticism was apparently justified when Bush said Chechnya was harboring a terrorist element with links to Osama bin Laden. The United States had been sharply critical of Russia's conduct of the war in the region.

Here are excerpts from Russian newspapers over the past two days:

Nezavisimaya Gazeta

The President's Second Front

Vladimir Putin has made a very difficult decision. Neither the Kursk tragedy nor Chechnya stands anywhere near the enormity of the issues the Russian president has had to tackle this September.

No matter how cautious Vladimir Putin was in formulating his televised address, one thing is abundantly clear: Russia stands the enormous chance of being drawn into an armed conflict.

Putin couched the loss of neutrality in brilliant phraseology. The wording of his speech was so oblique that the first response of most Russian politicians was delight with what they thought was Russia's refusal to be involved in an armed conflict. Western newspapers exuded disappointment with Moscow's restraint.

But if Russia were to get involved in some "reconnaissance and rescue" operations in Afghanistan's mountains or elsewhere, would not that pave the way for its direct involvement in war? By the same token, if Russia were to open its airspace, would not that give the green light to its involvement in the conflict, especially against the background of the remark about the possibility of closer cooperation with the United States?

By all appearances, the prospect of Russia's being drawn into a military conflict is not dictated by Moscow's altruistic wish to help Washington fight terrorism. Far from it. Nor is Moscow pursuing pragmatic goals, which is regrettable.

It is in effect an attempt to reconcile two opposing points of view within the country. Those who want Russia to give support to the United States should be satisfied. Those who want Russia to distance itself from the conflict should be delighted with Moscow's readiness to radicalize its actions in Chechnya and carry them through to the end. ...

The United States stands to benefit from the collapse of oil prices, but it is catastrophic for Russia. Is it the price Russia will have to pay if Saudi Arabia is to be let alone, or does that mean that Russia is doing everything within its powers to help Washington fight terrorism? Does that mean that Washington accepts help from other countries with conditions after all?


Northern Alliance

In essence, Russia has formed the second front against the Taliban, whose military might is hugely overestimated. They have about 50,000 soldiers, 20,000 of which are defending the Pakistani border. A massive advance of the Northern Alliance could temporarily paralyze the Taliban and allow attacks on bin Laden and his people.

Anatoly Kvashnin [head of the general staff] is one of the few Russian generals who is not an Afghanistan veteran and, therefore, is not "allergic" to that country. We can almost be sure that the Northern Alliance will become the main land force used against the Taliban.

If Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff continues his support of the U.S., the Taliban will find themselves in a tight spot very soon. If Iran joins the coalition, a war against the Taliban will not be led by the Americans and the Europeans directly, but by their local supporters instead. For Russia this turn of events could be favorable: in this case, Russia's military intervention will not be needed.

Novaya Gazeta

America will fall flat on its face in Afghanistan

Osama bin Laden is not afraid of war. He hopes for it, because war is a recruiting campaign for bin Laden's forces, paid for by American taxpayers' money. Every American missile which kills 100 people will create a thousand new fighters.

Right now, bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is made up of fringe-dwellers, who survive by extracting donations from "true believers" and drug trafficking. But a couple of thousand American tactical missiles will turn it into a Pan-Islamic government.

Bin Laden did not want to upset the United States. He wanted to unite the Islamic world in a struggle against the "infidels." You can bet that the average American doesn't have the slightest idea of what they are going to be fighting. Americans are used to this.

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