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U.S.: Russian Official Voices Support For Fight Against Terrorism

As the United States continues to assemble an international coalition to wage war against terrorism, Russia has yet to decide what, if any, diplomatic or military support it will offer if the U.S. launches an attack against Afghanistan. Yegor Stroev, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, discussed his country's options with RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Moscow, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian politicians were quick to use words like "barbaric" and "cruel" to describe last week's attacks in New York and Washington. But their actions, to date, have been less decisive. Despite an early pledge to join the international community in the fight against terrorism, Russian officials have yet to offer airspace or military bases for a potential U.S. assault against Afghanistan. Afghanistan is where the prime suspect in the attacks, Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, is presumed to be hiding.

Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroev, in an interview with RFE/RL, says Russia is still considering what its role should be in a U.S.-led war against terrorism. He says the Council -- Russia's upper house of parliament, which consists of the country's regional leaders -- supports the U.S. fight. No single country, he adds, can fight such an enemy alone:

"We [in the Federation Council] support the United States in its fight against international terrorism. Even an economically and militarily powerful country like the United States cannot succeed [in this fight] without [the help of] the international community and without a common aim and a wish to keep order."

Stroev says he believes Russia should ally itself firmly with the international community and the United States to fight what he called a "common enemy." Russia's two-year-old war in the breakaway Chechen republic is commonly described by Kremlin officials as an "anti-terrorist" campaign. They allege that Chechen rebels have received funding and training from organizations linked to Saudi-born extremist bin Laden.

Despite these common bonds, however, Stroev says the United States would be wrong to rush into a military operation in Afghanistan. The use of force, he says, is an improper response that could fuel tensions even further by resulting in massive civilian casualties:

"We [Russians] openly say and it is our right that retaliation should not be transformed into revenge. [We think] that the indiscriminate use of force [to punish the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on the U.S.] should not be employed if it isn't necessary."

The United States may be looking to use Russia's military bases in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic on the Afghan border, which Moscow itself used in 1979 to launch its invasion and 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.

Moscow appears eager to see an end to both bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. But recent remarks by Russian officials have indicated that Moscow opposes a new assault on Afghanistan because of the destabilizing effects such a campaign would have in Central Asia, where Russia maintains a strong sphere of influence.

Defense experts say that Russia may eventually face open conflict with the Taliban, in either Afghanistan or Tajikistan, where the movement may gain a stronghold. This, experts say, may happen even if the U.S. does not initiate a military operation against the Afghan militia.

Earlier this week, Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian country to say it is willing to help the U.S. combat terrorism.

But today, three other Central Asian states voiced their support for the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign, with officials from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan saying they are open to cooperating with the U.S.

The statements came after Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo today called on the Central Asian states to pool their efforts in the fight against terrorism. Rushailo was speaking in the Kazakh city of Almaty at the start of a Central Asian tour expected to include Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All except Kyrgyzstan share borders with Afghanistan.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov said that his country "strongly condemns terrorism." In Kyrgyzstan, the secretary of the security council, Misir Ashykulov, said his country is ready to provide "all-around information support."

In Tajikistan, Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov said his country is ready to help the United States in its fight against terrorism, if asked.

Reuters news agency quotes Nazarov as saying: "The republic of Tajikistan is ready to cooperate with all countries which are today waging war against international terrorism, including the government of the United States." He added that he has not yet received any formal request for assistance from the U.S.

Reuters also cites a Russian military official in Dushanbe as saying Anatoli Kvashnin, Russia's chief of general staff, may be traveling to Tajikistan 19 September for talks on the issue.

The big question in Moscow is how Russia will respond if the U.S. requests the use of Tajik military bases. Russia's early pledge of support led many to believe the Kremlin would attempt to ally itself with the U.S. But subsequent remarks by officials like Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who last weekend signaled that Russia would not allow NATO troops to deploy in any former Soviet republics, indicate that Russia may be looking to adopt a more neutral position.

Stroev says the situation in Central Asia is difficult because each of the countries in the region has its own particular political concerns. For example, he says, Turkmenistan has adopted an official neutrality and is unlikely to host either U.S. or Russian military bases. Uzbekistan, likewise, has tried to distance itself from Russia's influence.

These issues, Stroev says, will prevent Russia from offering Central Asian support to the U.S. even if it decides to take a more accommodating stance toward U.S. retaliation:

"On the question of [the possibility of] Russia lending its bases or not. You can only give what belongs to you. It's impossible to give something that you don't own."

The issue of Russian and Central Asian support for a U.S.-led campaign is expected to be discussed at talks tomorrow in Washington between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.