Russians divided on U.S. in their back yard

Force in Central Asia has Putin's support

War On Terrorism

The World

October 14, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It's starting to sink in here that the U.S. Army has showed up at an air base in Uzbekistan, and the news has stirred mixed feelings of alarm, astonishment and foreboding. And there's also a line of thought that says: This is not a price that Russia is paying for its newfound alliance with America, but a benefit it is receiving.

The American soldiers down there in the unstable southern flank of the old Soviet Union, this argument goes, do not pose a threat to Russian influence and in fact are defending Russian interests.

What makes that point of view pertinent is that it is apparently shared by President Vladimir V. Putin.

"Russia does not want to see the destabilization of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Polity Foundation here. "Russia is not interested in a Muslim revolt inside Russia. We also do not want terrorist attacks in Moscow. My answer? It is great to have Americans in that messy place. Let America protect Russia."

Since the evening of Sept. 11, Putin has been in front of public opinion and the opinion of his military and security forces. He made it clear at the outset that he wants Russia to cooperate with the United States in its war on terrorism. When that message didn't stick among his subordinates, he made it even clearer two weeks later.

The thought of American troops deploying to Central Asia - a place that Russia considers its back yard - would have been unthinkable before Sept. 11. When, in late September, Putin signaled that he would not obstruct or object to their coming, military officers grumbled that this was just something that had to be done in times of emergency, much the way Stalin made common cause with capitalist America during World War II.

But others have started to think about the future and are asking, "What kind of ending would suit Russia's interests in Asia?"

Even the most diehard generals now recognize that a precipitous American withdrawal while the region goes up in flames would be a disaster for Russia.

"It's better for Russia if the U.S. gets deeply involved in this conflict," says Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the CIS Studies Institute. "It's clear that at this moment Moscow doesn't see any danger in the way events are developing in Central Asia."

But the challenge for Putin is to convince his country that a continuing American presence - even possibly beyond the end of a shooting war - is not necessarily bad for Russia.

"There is still a momentum of old thinking in Russia," Nikonov says. Attitudes, he points out, are not changing as fast as the world is.

In the world as it used to be, Central Asia was troubled by poverty, rich in oil and gas, ruled by authoritarian regimes and the object of wary gamesmanship by Russia, China and the West. Putin had declared that Russia still expected to pursue its interests vigorously in the region, which consists of five former Soviet republics. He had been moving to bring it back into Moscow's embrace, with some success.

China, acting so as not to rile Russia, was striving to gain access to much-needed oil. American companies that had tried to do business were largely pulling out, frustrated by corruption and capricious application of the laws. One exception was Kazakstan, which is politically close to Russia but has been involved in large projects with Western oil companies.

All sides were uneasily aware of Afghanistan next door and of limited but troubling insurgencies in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that drew support from the Taliban.

In the world as it now is, Central Asia is still poor, repressed and full of oil - but the great-power gamesmanship has been put aside.

Putin has seized what he hopes will be a chance to create a "strategic partnership" with the United States, one that will consist of more than platitudes. If the two countries can rethink such issues as NATO expansion, Russian debt, free trade, missile defense and the nature of the conflict in the Caucasus, and defeat Osama bin Laden in the bargain, then American access to Central Asia would be a small concession - except that the Kremlin refuses to see it as a concession at all.

"But don't get emotional about Putin's turn to the West," warns one Tajik diplomat, because Putin himself isn't. The one-time KGB agent has one thing in mind - Russia's best interests.

All sides are treading lightly.

For fear of provoking a backlash that could have far-reaching consequences, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has publicly limited American activities in his country to humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions. On Friday, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a security agreement that could open the door to a much larger, sustained American role. But, for now, the air base where the Americans have encamped is sealed off by Uzbek security.

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