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Central Asia: Russia, Central Asian Countries Debate Supporting Retaliation For Attacks On U.S.

With no tactical air bases from which to launch an air attack on Afghanistan, the United States is looking to Russia for assistance and the opportunity to use its military bases in the Central Asian states. But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says Central Asia must not be used for any U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Moscow, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to express his condolences and pledge support for the United States in its fight against terrorism.

But since then, Russia has eased away from a full-fledged show of solidarity, saying it opposes the use of its Central Asian neighbors to aid U.S. strikes against Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban militia is believed to be harboring Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.

The role of Central Asia in possible U.S. retaliatory strikes is coming under scrutiny as three of the states -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- border Afghanistan. But Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking in Yerevan over the weekend, signaled that Russia would not allow NATO troops to deploy in any former Soviet republics.

Russia today reaffirmed its commitment to fighting terrorism, but steered clear of offering its territory or air space. Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, who today met with his Indian counterpart, Brajesh Mishra, urged caution in considering an appropriate response to the attacks:

"Acts of international terror cannot go without consequences. But all measures against international terrorism must be aimed accurately and, when carrying them out, all possible negative consequences must be taken into account and civilians should not suffer. In addition, all measures should be carried out within the framework of international law."

Rushailo later began a tour of Central Asia to discuss the situation in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone today with the presidents of ex-Soviet states in Central Asia and elsewhere on how to fight international terrorism in the wake of the terror attacks on the United States.

Putin spoke with Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akaev, Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliev, and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma.

In Uzbekistan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said his country would be willing to discuss cooperating with NATO in the fight against international terrorism. But Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have both indicated they will not allow the U.S. to use their territory or air space.

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who was in Moscow today for talks with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Mamedov, said discussion touched briefly on Central Asia but that the issue needs further negotiation:

"We talked about a range of things, but I had no operation or request to make. That's not the reason I was here. But I did discuss with the [deputy] foreign minister the implications -- both political and humanitarian -- in Central Asia, of the possibility of military reaction that may come. And this is a good example of an issue of concern of the Russians, and certainly both the political and humanitarian aspects will concern us as well. So that's a situation where I'm sure there will be further consultations in possible areas where we can work together."

Bolton's visit precedes a trip later this week by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Washington, for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst, says that Russia's reluctance to lend assistance to the U.S. is unlikely to change unless the U.S. puts pressure on Russia:

"Moscow has put itself in a rather controversial position. On the one hand, Mr. Putin is saying 'OK, we're in the same boat, we're part of the civilized world.' [But] on the other hand Russia prefers not to participate militarily. I cannot foresee circumstances in which Russia will change its stance. Unless there is pressure from the U.S. side."

Nikolai Kovalev is the former head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and current deputy chairman of parliamentary state security. He says that Russia opposes a military operation in Afghanistan because it will destabilize the situation in Central Asia. He said the move will also spark a refugee crisis and an increase in the illegal arms trade. He calls the anticipated U.S. intervention in Afghanistan a "huge mistake."

"A ground operation [in Afghanistan] will have catastrophic consequences [for the U.S.]," he said. "It will worsen the situation in the regions that border Russia. For that reason, I will repeat one more time, it will be a huge mistake on the part of the U.S."

Golts says, however, that the situation in Central Asia will be unstable regardless of whether it agrees to cooperate with any U.S. military action against Afghanistan.

Russia, which is fighting its own battle against Islamic militants in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, views the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist movements as a threat to the secular governments of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.