Russia sets a price for anti-terror support

Shifting alliances: Everything is on the table, from Chechnya and "star wars" to NATO expansion.

September 30, 2001

RUSSIA AND CENTRAL Asia's former Soviet republics are key players in the U.S. campaign against the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. They will cooperate -- but at a price.

"The time has come for the world to understand that the Cold War has sunk into oblivion and the world is at a new stage of its development," Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in a speech to Germany's Bundestag last week.

That long-planned visit was the most visible in a flurry of diplomatic activity that will continue this week, when Mr. Putin is scheduled to meet with Lord Robertson, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Orgnization.

For the past 50 years, NATO has been Moscow's bugaboo. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's loss of prestige have heightened the Kremlin's concerns.

In particular, Russia is terrified by the prospect of several former Soviet republics' desire to join NATO. The Kremlin fears encirclement and a further diminished sphere of influence. This is a key reason why Russia finds U.S. plans for a new ballistic missile defense system so worrisome.

There have been some suggestions in Moscow in recent days that Russia should use this opportunity to put an end to NATO's eastward expansion by requesting a membership in the alliance. There is a precedent to this. Shortly after Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev asked to join. The United States and Britain turned him down with a categorical "no."

Last week, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited NATO headquarters, reporters asked him about membership. After some confusion and waffling, he said, "My presence here confirms that I never exclude anything."

Developments since Sept. 11 have both strengthened and weakened Russia.

Because of the Kremlin's slow initial response, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan directly negotiated with the United States for the use of their airports and territory. The Kremlin gave its blessing belatedly.

The benefits for the Central Asian republics are obvious. They have been watching with growing alarm the spread of Islamic fundamentalism within their borders. If it is imported from Afghanistan in a wholesale manner, it could pose a threat to their stability as well.

The tougher U.S. position on Chechnya has given the Kremlin more leeway in efforts to suppress Islamic rebels. Russia is moving on two fronts: It has initiated contacts with separatist leaders while conducting extensive security sweeps.

Chechen rebels may not be ready to give up. Nevertheless, they have incentives for negotiations because the worldwide anti-terrorism drive may cut off their funding, supplies and recruiting from Middle Eastern countries.

The White House's position that "terrorists" in Chechnya "ought to be brought to justice" also enables the Kremlin to fulfill another long-term goal. It is tightening the screws -- particularly on strategically important Georgia, which has been accused of aiding and harboring Chechen rebels. Even such a distant former Soviet republic like Estonia, which has sympathized with the rebels, may feel Moscow's pressure.

In accommodating the developing U.S. campaign against terrorism, Russia and the Central Asian countries are not being altruistic.

They will be asking for economic aid and political concessions. The tougher the fight becomes, the higher the price tag will get.

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