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Russia: Support For U.S. May Be Self-Serving

  • Andrew Tully

Russia is offering unspecified support for the American campaign against terrorism and has even said military force cannot be ruled out. But as encouraging as these words may seem, some analysts believe that Moscow will be helping itself more than it will be helping the United States.

Washington, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia says the use of military force cannot be ruled out in the new American-led campaign against international terrorism, and it promises unspecified cooperation in the effort.

But some analysts say Moscow's help will be self-serving, and they expect it will end abruptly if Russia sees its influence waning in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia that border Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is now the focus of the American response to the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban militia, which controls most of Afghanistan, is harboring Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who the U.S. says is the mastermind of the attacks.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss a broad range of issues, including the American response to the acts of terror, which are believed to have killed more than 5,000 people.

After their meeting, Powell and Ivanov spoke with reporters outside the State Department. Ivanov said Russia is prepared to coordinate and cooperate with the U.S. in combating international terrorism. And he went so far as to say that military force could not be ruled out.

"I have said that in combating international terrorism, no means can be excluded, including the use of force.... At the same time, so far we have not discussed with the United States any specific, any concrete actions."

Later, Ivanov met with U.S. President George W. Bush, and told reporters afterwards that Russia's experience with Chechen rebels makes it sympathetic with Americans about the recent terror attacks. Russia calls the Chechen rebels terrorists. At the White House, Ivanov pledged Moscow's solidarity with Washington's campaign against international terrorism.

International policy analysts interviewed by RFE/RL caution that any cooperation that Moscow offers the U.S. in the fight against terrorism will be based strictly on Russia's own self-interest.

Keith Bush is a senior associate of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy analysis institution in Washington. He told our correspondent that Moscow's key interest in the current crisis is Central Asia.

"It will be helpful insofar as it [being helpful] promotes its own interests. But it will draw back when it feels that its interests are jeopardized. And I'm thinking of Russian influence in Central Asia in particular because it still regards the former Soviet republics [in Central Asia] as its sphere of influence, it still regards the outer borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan as its own border in many respects."

Bush was asked about comments made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov that there is "no basis," as he put it, for Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan to offer their territory to the U.S. or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to launch strikes against Afghanistan.

Bush replied that while these former Soviet states, as well as the Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are now independent, they remain very dependent on Russia. He gave this hypothetical example:

"If there's a major incursion of Islamic rebels, say, into Tajikistan or into Uzbekistan, where can they turn for help? They have to turn to Russia. So there's this umbilical cord which has not yet been broken."

Muriel Atkin, an associate professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, agrees, but in an interview with RFE/RL, she spoke more cynically of Moscow's motives.

"I think that the Russian government is using this whole issue of support [for the U.S.] for its own purposes, to justify its policies in Chechnya and elsewhere, and [its] support of repressive regimes in Central Asia."

Atkin says Moscow's "old-fashioned thinkers," as she calls them, reject the idea of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia relying less on Russia and more on the West. She says these officials -- including Russian military leaders -- are particularly upset about Western oil companies doing business in the region.

The countries of Central Asia have generally responded positively to America's call for help in fighting terrorism. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have issued statements pledging cooperation. Kyrgyzstan said it would help the FBI's investigation, if asked. But Uzbekistan's offer of staging areas for military attacks against Afghanistan is so far the most generous.

According to Atkin, Uzbekistan's offers of help to the U.S. come as no surprise. She notes that Uzbekistan, with a population nearing 25 million people, hopes to become the true power broker in Central Asia, and therefore sees itself as a competitor with Russia, not a dependant.

Atkin says Uzbekistan has been cultivating the U.S. as a way to counterbalance Russian influence in the region. She notes that Uzbekistan's secular government, under President Islam Karimov, has been struggling against Muslim rebels, and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington give him a perfect opportunity to court Washington further.

"The regime in Uzbekistan is extremely repressive and routinely targets real or imagined opponents of the regime as Islamic extremists and terrorists. So how useful from the point of view of Uzbekistan's regime to say, 'We'll side with the United States against people who have committed this atrocity in the U.S.'"

So despite its generous offer to help the U.S., Atkin says Uzbekistan is merely looking for an opportunity to justify its own repressive policies against Muslim dissidents. She says this is no different from Russia's offer of cooperation to justify its war in Chechnya.

This issue was illustrated during the Ivanov-Powell briefing when a reporter for a Russian news organization reminded Powell that the U.S. says it is ready to combat terrorism anywhere. He then asked if that applied to Chechnya.

Powell replied that the U.S. understands that Russia must deal with that "challenge," as he put it. But he added that Washington has repeatedly counseled Moscow to seek a political, not military, solution and to respect Chechens' human rights.

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