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Russia: Moscow Joins Countries Advocating Preemptive Stance On Terror

The head of Russia's General Staff announced yesterday that Moscow is willing to strike against "terrorist bases" anywhere in the world. The comments come after the bloody school siege in southern Russia last week that left more than 300 civilians dead.

Prague, 9 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The chief of Russia's General Staff, Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, said preemptive strikes are an extreme measure in the fight against terrorism.

"We will take any action to eliminate terrorist bases in any region at the earliest stage. This does not mean we are going to carry out nuclear strikes," Baluevskii said. "Our choice of action will be determined according to the situation."

Baluevskii spoke after talks in Moscow with NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General James Jones. NATO officials declined to comment on the statement. Baluevskii's comment came in response to a question about whether Russia would resort to such strikes in the future to try to avert attacks such as that last week on the school in North Ossetia.

Baluevskii's remarks match official Russian military doctrine, which authorizes preemptive strikes if the country's security is under threat. It also allows using nuclear weapons if the country's very existence is in question.

However, analysts say no real changes can be expected in Russian military tactics.

Aleksandr Goltz, a Russian military expert, noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin as early as 2002 had ordered the military to prepare for preemptive strikes. Since then, he said, the policy has been cited a number of times.

"Periodically, this idea to strike preventively surfaced. So-called terrorists allegedly based in Pankisi Gorge in Georgia were threatened [by the Kremlin]," Goltz said. "However, every time something prevented Putin from moving forward. It is easy to understand what [the obstacle was] -- Russian armed forces, nuclear capabilities aside, are not fit for pinpoint attacks, especially in locations where terrorists are operating among large numbers of civilians."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Russia's stance was "understandable."

The analyst said Russia has inherited its armed forces from the Soviet Union, which had an army trained for conventional warfare -- ready to be deployed in large territories and to fight using artillery, tanks, and other heavy equipment.

Goltz said the ongoing war in Chechnya illustrates the powerlessness of the Russian, post-Soviet army.

"No one knows where terrorist bases in some far-away countries are located. But everyone knows perfectly well that terrorists have bases on the territory of Chechnya," Goltz said. "But [Russian forces] have never been able to hit the right place at the right time in Chechnya. This only shows that Russian forces are not ready for antiterrorist activities."

The analyst said the Russian military needs to respond in some way to the North Ossetian school siege. But so far, he said, statements by Baluevskii and others only reflect Russia's "powerlessness."

Baluevskii's declaration received a more positive reception in some Western countries. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Russia's stance was "understandable." A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said the fight against international terrorism is "a priority for the entire international community."

There has been no official public reaction from the United States to Baluevskii's statement. Washington has a similar policy of preemptive strikes as part of President George W. Bush's declared war on terror. The same stance is advocated by Israel.

This new trend in international politics makes some countries feel uneasy. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that no country, "no matter how powerful," is allowed to adopt a one-sided approach to combating terrorism.

Roy Allison, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the growing number of declarations about preemptive strikes are worrying.

"That kind of language is worrying," Allison said. "And the assumption that, in fact, states can identify military targets and then strike and expect the international community to give legitimacy to that is also alarming."

Allison said preemptive-strike policies contradict international law and represent a challenge to the United Nations.

"It is a challenge to international law," Allison said. "The authority and legitimacy of military action ultimately should be vested in the Security Council of the United Nations. So, by bypassing the Security Council for any military action [undermines] the effectiveness and legitimacy of that body."

Allison said the trend also encourages the general loosening of laws and regulations on how wars are fought. The analyst also said that in many past cases, preemptive strikes have not been effective. He said U.S. strikes against Libya and Afghanistan in the 1990s had few results.

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