Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday pledged continued support for Afghanistan's Northern Alliance opposition, which has battled the Taliban for years and is looking to play a major role in any government that succeeds the ruling militia. Putin also signaled that he does not favor accommodating moderate Taliban officials in a future government, thus taking a distinct step away from the current U.S. stance on the issue. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports on Russia's interests in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, and the war on terrorism.
Moscow, 23 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, returning from last week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai, made a brief stopover 22 October in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
During talks with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Burhanuddin Rabbani -- Afghanistan's ousted president and the political leader of the Northern Alliance opposition movement -- Putin pledged to continue Russia's military and technical support for the alliance, which he called Afghanistan's "legitimate" government.
He also said that any future government to emerge in Afghanistan if or when the ruling Taliban militia is ousted should not include any moderate Taliban officials:
"We presume that the position of the legitimate, internationally recognized government of the Islamic state of Afghanistan -- that the Taliban movement should not be represented in the future government -- is well grounded."
The remark is the first sign of potential discord between Russia and the United States in the war against terrorism. During a trip to Pakistan last week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. did not rule out including moderate Taliban representatives in a future government.
In his remarks, Putin, who was accompanied in Dushanbe by a large delegation of Russian ministers and military officers, appeared to signal Russia's desire to play a central role in reshaping Afghanistan's political future.
Russia has for the past five years supported the Northern Alliance -- whose membership comprises primarily ethnic Tajik and Uzbek groups -- as a way of promoting stability in the Central Asian arena.
Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says yesterday's meeting was a clear indication of Russia's interest in seeing the Taliban militia destroyed.
"It is necessary to destroy the Taliban movement. [Russia] has more military than political interests. This is the reason why the talks [in Dushanbe] had more a military than a political character. Russia pledged more [military] assistance, but [Russia] wants the Northern Alliance to begin to fight with [the help] of the arms and the money that Russia gave them for that purpose."
Felgenhauer says Russia's hope in joining the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism is that it will help destroy the Taliban militia. But even without U.S. assistance, Felgenhauer says, Russia will look to create its own zone of influence in Central Asia.
"Russia's long-term program is to defeat the Taliban movement together with the United States and the Northern Alliance. The short-term program is for the Northern Alliance to oust from power the Taliban and to build a buffer zone that serves Russia's interests in Central Asia. Of course, Russia is interested in influencing the development of the situation in Afghanistan and in influencing the future of the Afghan government."
Irina Zvyagelskaya, the deputy director of the Moscow Center for Strategic and Political Studies, says Russia does not want to see a permanent U.S. presence in the Central Asian countries -- a possibility that has been raised with the recent pledge of cooperation between the U.S. and Uzbekistan.
"I don't know whether Russia will really be happy with a permanent American presence in the countries of Central Asia -- especially in Uzbekistan, which is the most important country in the region from the strategic, economic and political [points of view]. So, nobody knows for how long the Americans are going to be [in Central Asia]. It is doubtful that they came there just for the short term of the anti-terrorist operation. It seems that they may stay there for good. And this, in the future, may change the strategic balance in Central Asia."
Zvyagelskaya says U.S.-Russian relations, which have been smooth since the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States, may take a turn for the worse if it becomes clear that their interests in the Central Asian region differ. A prolonged U.S. presence in the region, she says, may eventually pose a threat to Russia's traditional influence.
"Very much, of course, depends on the future relations between Russia and the United States. I don't think that these relations will be strengthened at the end. The United States and Russia have different interests and -- who knows? -- you cannot exclude the possibility of tensions between the two countries. Then the American presence in Central Asia may change the situation for Russia quite drastically."
But Sergei Mikhailov, deputy director of the Russian Public Policy Center, says that at the moment, the differences between the two countries' interests remain small.
"In the meantime, Russia cannot ignore the growing role of America in that part of Central Asia, which just a few years ago, together with Russia, was part [of the Soviet Union]. In any case, at the moment the contradictions between Russia and America are minimal."
According to Felgenhauer, Russia played a crucial role in supporting the Northern Alliance and preventing the Taliban from gaining total control of Afghanistan. Russia's support, Felgenhauer adds, is not limited to arms and money. He says it is widely believed that Russian soldiers and military advisers are also in Afghanistan to fight with the Northern Alliance.