Attacks on U.S. affording Kremlin a new boldness

Russia puts pressure on Chechens, deals in arms with Iran

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 03, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russia is already counting the benefits of its solidarity with the United States against the Taliban.

In Chechnya, Moscow believes there is less danger of international criticism of its actions and that it can place more pressure on the rebels. This has raised hopes that the 2-year-old war there might finally be resolved - perhaps even through negotiation with rebel leaders.

Russia also is putting together a significant new arms deal with Iran - one that the United States would have vociferously objected to in the past.

And, with hardly anyone noticing, the Kremlin appears to be trying to shut down a small television company that has served as a last holdout of independent TV here.

President Vladimir V. Putin went to Belgium yesterday to meet with European Union leaders, and more and more the Russian government is acting as though it no longer needs to worry about criticism from the West. In fact, the Bush administration has redoubled its support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Behind all of this is the expectation that the American military will soon dispose of the Taliban government in Afghanistan - an outcome that the Russians would very much like to see.

Moscow, which has been stingingly critical of American military operations from Iraq to Kosovo, is suddenly gung-ho for action against terrorism. Putin said yesterday that Russia requires no proof from the United States of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the attacks on New York and Washington, because it's already obvious.

At a press conference in Brussels, Putin criticized Saudi Arabia's reluctance to allow U.S. forces there to attack Afghanistan, Reuters reported. "I think this is a cardinal error. It's not a question of soldiers preparing strikes against Muslims but rather of soldiers preparing strikes against terrorists," he said.

The mood among some circles here was summed up by a businessman named Vladimir Lutsenko who was in an anti-terror unit in the KGB and now runs a private security firm that reportedly has close links to the Federal Security Service. Asked if Russia could avoid being drawn into an American war in Afghanistan, he replied, "Who says Russia should avoid it?"

The Russian government has long argued that the revolt in Chechnya is part of a worldwide revolutionary Islamic movement. Two years ago, when the second Chechen war flared up, the Russians sought to demonstrate a link between their foes and bin Laden, and they have been renewing those allegations the past two weeks.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a presidential aide, said yesterday that at least four of the hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11 attacks had earlier "passed through" Chechnya. The Chechen rebels' new negotiator, Akhmed Zakayev, conceded to a Georgian news agency that one of the rebel commanders, a Saudi named Khattab, "probably" had a connection to bin Laden in the past.

But for two years, Moscow felt it was being pilloried by the West over human rights violations in Chechnya; now, there's an unmistakable sense of justification.

"President Putin has tried to use the events of Sept. 11 to get carte blanche for the conduct of Russian federal forces in Chechnya," Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, said in a statement released yesterday. "The E.U. can't allow this to happen," she said.

But after Putin went to Germany last week, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it was time to rethink Western criticism of the war, and diplomats in Belgium reiterated that idea yesterday.

Europe, wrote Leonid Radzikhovsky in yesterday's edition of Itogi magazine, "has no business teaching Russia to pacify bandits, but rather Russia should teach the West to destroy bandits."

Russia is actually dealing from a position of some weakness on the ground, but the events of the past three weeks have emboldened its efforts to find a way to end the war. Federal forces ostensibly control most of Chechnya - but in pretty much the same way that U.S. forces used to control the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. Hit-and-run attacks in August and September took a serious toll on Russian soldiers.

But after Sept. 11, several things happened.

In Georgia, which borders Chechnya and through which the Russians believe Chechen rebels were able to move men and materiel, a genuine fear set in that Russia was going to take military action.

"Many people here thought that Russia would take advantage of this anti-terrorism euphoria and seize the moment," said Alexander Rondeli, a policy advisor in the Georgian foreign ministry and one of the architects of Georgia's close relations with the United States.

So the Georgians entered into serious negotiations with Moscow; as a result, Rondeli said, several men wanted by the Russians are likely to be extradited from Georgia. The Itar-Tass news agency also reported that the Georgians agreed to close access to the Pankisi Gorge, which leads to Chechnya, though the Georgians have denied this.

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