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Russian Help in Terrorism Fight Comes At A Price - 2001-09-30


Russia supports the United States in its war against terrorism. It is not standing in the way of U.S. forces entering Central Asia, and the veterans of its Afghan war are offering advice to Americans as they confront Afghanistan. But all this comes at a price. Like other nations, Russia is considering its national interest, which also involves its concerns in Central Asia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to support the United States in its war against terrorism and is helping in a variety of ways. In return, Moscow expects some concessions from the United States.

It is a long shopping list, says Vladimir Socor, Munich analyst of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. "Moscow is demanding a very steep price," he said. "It is an open-ended game that has only just begun. No single Russian official has gone through the entire shopping list, but various Russian officials and very influential Kremlin advisers are publicly naming various items."

Mr. Socor notes Moscow is asking for a free hand in dealing with the Chechnya rebellion. It wants to stop NATO enlargement and the anti-ballistic missile defense system. And, despite its protectionism, it seeks entry into the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Socor says that is just for starters. He is particularly concerned about the mounting threats on Georgia in the south Caucasus. "Moscow is clearly trying to create a casus belli, reason for war, in Georgia by alleging falsely that Georgia is consciously colluding with Chechens and other international terrorists against Russia," he said. "This is a complete fabrication of Russian propaganda designed to bring Georgia to heel."

Mr. Socor says Georgia is key to western interests in the Caucasus. It serves as a transit artery from east to west, including vital oil and gas pipelines. Russia has three military bases in Georgia and says it now plans to keep them and perhaps introduce more troops.

Georgia is just north of oil-rich Azerbaijan, another shakily independent nation that emerged from the collapsed Soviet Union. Moscow analyst Yefin Dikiii says if the war against terror should widen, Russia might have the opportunity to annex Azerbaijan.

While Moscow temporized in offering support to the United States in Central Asia, Uzbekistan quickly made its military facilities available. Philip Griffin of the International Foundation for Election Systems has recently returned from two years in Central Asia. "Uzbekistan is the most populous and militarily the strongest Central Asian Republic and also tried to distance itself the most from its former masters in Moscow," he said. "So I think their decision is based purely on what President (Islam) Karimov wants to do."

Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, is under Moscow's influence, demonstrated by about 20,000 Russian troops stationed in the country, who have been aiding the Afghan Northern Alliance against the Taleban. After initial hesitation, Russia said the United States could launch strikes from Tajikistan, if the need arises.

The anti-terror war gives both Russia and the authoritarian governments of Central Asian nations a pretext to crack down on their opposition and thus, analysts say, perhaps fuel the terrorism they are trying to eliminate. Denied legitimate opposition, people turn in frustration to militant Islamic groups. Alone among Central Asian states, Tajikistan has a coalition government that includes an Islamist party that can operate freely. Looking ahead, Mr. Griffin says if U.S. forces enter Tajikistan, they should be mindful of this none-too-secure political balance. "It would be a mistake for the U.S. government to get involved in Tajikistan in the short term because of what we wish to accomplish in Afghanistan, and then if we were to accomplish that, immediately pull up stakes and move on. That could have a destabilizing effect," he said.

Mr. Griffin says every war has its broader and sometimes surprising implications. The war on terrorism is no exception.

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