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Russia: Putin Offers Russian Cooperation -- But How Much?

In a speech last night, Russian President Vladimir Putin spelled out in the clearest terms to date how his government plans to help the United States following the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks at what Putin said and the significance it holds.

Prague, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Underscoring the importance of President Vladimir Putin's message, Russian television last night interrupted its scheduled programming to broadcast his speech live across the country.

Putin outlined what his government is willing to do to aid Washington's battle against terrorism, which now appears focused on Afghanistan. That country is believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden, the main suspect behind the terrorist attacks in the U.S. Here's what Putin offered:

"Russia is supplying and intends to continue to supply all the information we have about the infrastructure and the location of international terrorists and their training bases. Second, we are ready to offer Russian airspace for airplanes with humanitarian aid for the region where the antiterrorist action will be carried out. Third, we have agreed on this position with our allies, including Central Asian states."

The Russian leader also said Moscow would intensify its support for the Northern Alliance, the main anti-Taliban opposition in Afghanistan. In particular, Putin said Russia is ready to supply the Afghan opposition with weapons and military equipment.

The speech followed a long telephone conversation on 23 September with U.S. President George W. Bush. Afterward, Bush talked of Putin's willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in the battle against terrorism.

"Vladimir Putin clearly understands that the Cold War is over and that the United States and Russia can cooperate. We can cooperate with a new strategic arrangement. We can cooperate in the battle against terrorism."

Such statements out of the Kremlin and the White House seem to herald a new era between the Cold War-era foes. But at least one well-respected Russian military analyst thinks not.

In fact, Pavel Felgenhauer says Putin's speech can be seen not as a victory but as a setback for U.S. military plans to hunt down bin Laden. He says despite seeming to offer cooperation, Putin made categorical statements that would appear to limit American military involvement. He explains:

"Well, [Putin made] a clear statement that the United States military is not welcome in Central Asia, and that Russia will do its best to prevent any American military presence in the area."

Felgenhauer says Putin also left out important details, especially regarding the use of Russian airspace. Felgenhauer says Putin, in fact, made no specific mention of giving permission to any U.S. military flights. Earlier today, the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as stating unequivocally that Russia will not participate in any U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan.

Felgenhauer says of Putin's statement that if his position has been "agreed" with other Central Asian states, it could spell bad news for U.S. efforts to forge military cooperation in that region:

"Russia will allow in only humanitarian flights. That means no military planes or planes carrying military equipment or supplies are allowed in. And Russia says this position is agreed with other Central Asian republics, which means that Central Asia is right now out of reach for the American military to establish any kind of bases."

The nations of Central Asia would play a key role in any U.S. effort to hunt down bin Laden. The U.S. has stepped up its efforts to woo Central Asian leaders to participate in an international coalition against terrorism.

Yesterday, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said his country "is ready to support an action against terrorism with all means it has at its disposal," including the use of Kazakh military bases and airspace. But the other countries -- especially Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- have been vague, failing to state clearly if they will offer assistance to U.S. military operations.

However, Oksana Antonenko, a Russian expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that while Putin's speech may at first glance not contain much that's new, there were what she called significant nuances:

"For the first time, he actually explicitly stated that some Central Asian countries may decide on their own to allow the United States-led coalition forces to use their air bases. And I think that this is really quite a big difference from what was previously stated by Defense Minister Ivanov, who said even hypothetically there cannot be a possibility that any Western countries can station their forces on any bases."

Antonenko says that, in her opinion, Putin's speech can be seen as a "green light" to Uzbekistan for it to decide on a limited U.S. military deployment on its soil, which some reports say is already taking place.

What about Putin's statement on increasing Moscow's backing of the Northern Alliance?

Felgenhauer is not impressed. He says Russia has long backed the Northern Alliance, providing arms, munitions, and air support. Russia, like other Central Asian states, fears the spread of the type of Islamic extremism practiced by the Taliban.

Furthermore, Felgenhauer says Putin is unlikely to keep his word on increasing weapons shipments to the Northern Alliance. That's because, he says, the Northern Alliance is already getting from Russia all the weapons it can absorb.

Antonenko disagrees. She says Putin's statement may signal Russia's willingness to supply weapons to the Northern Alliance as "military aid," meaning the alliance would not have to pay for them. She also says Moscow may now be willing to supply the Northern Alliance with better hardware.

"Another issue I think is what type of equipment is supplied. I think Russia had been supplying a lot of outdated used equipment from its own forces, and spare parts and ammunition ... [that] the Northern Alliance had inherited ... [or] equipment that had been left by the Soviet troops."

Felgenhauer acknowledges that nothing is set in stone. He says Putin may become friendlier to U.S. military plans if Washington expresses a willingness to compromise on issues of importance to Moscow. These issues include, for example, Western support for -- or at least less criticism of -- Russia's war in Chechnya and a halt to the NATO military alliance's expansion into Eastern Europe.

"[Putin] openly said that Russia is open for bargaining -- its position could change. Russia has already tacitly stated: non-expansion of NATO, NMD [national missile defense], Chechnya, lots of different kinds of issues [that Russia may be willing to bargain on]."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.