Russia gets cold feet over antiterror plans

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As the US looks for allies in a potential military retaliation for last week's terrorist attack, Russia is increasingly jittery about ripple effects in its neighborhood.

Among Moscow's fears are the possible destabilization of Pakistan and an explosive spread of Islamic extremism through Muslim regions of the former USSR.

"I'm not sure the Americans understand how precariously balanced the entire central Asian region is," says Vyacheslav Belokrinitsky, a central Asia expert with the official Institute of International Relations in Moscow. "Russia is literally sitting atop a powder keg, but the whole world is in the line of fire."

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Soon after the attacks in the US, Putin noted that Russia has long warned of the Afghanistan-based terrorist threat, and that the time has come to "pool efforts" against them. But by Monday, Mr. Putin was sounding more ambivalent, while his subordinates were ruling out any use of Russian forces or military bases on former Soviet territory.

The former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, however, has indicated that it would consider letting the US use its territory to stage strikes against the Taliban. This predominantly Muslim country has accused Afghanistan of harboring Islamists who attacked its southern border last year, killing 200 Uzbek troops and an unknown number of civilians. Uzbekistan's leader, Islam Karimov, has cracked down on any independent Islamic expression, jailing thousands of believers and closing hundreds of mosques since 1997, when the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been linked to the Taliban, tried to assassinate him.

Next door, the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, a close military ally of Russia, has 10,000 Russian troops on its border with Afghanistan, now on "high alert." Tajikistan has gone through a cycle of brutal civil wars since the USSR's demise, and made the latest peace with its domestic militant Islamic opposition in 1999. Although Tajikistan has expressed sympathy for a fight against terrorism, Vladimir Orlov, president of the PIR Center for Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Moscow, believes its marching orders will come from Russia. "Tajikistan is an independent country in theory, but in practice it is a Russian protectorate," he says.

The third of the former Soviet Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, has adopted a neutral stance.

As the current situation unfolds, Russia also worries that US influence that could come too close in any Western-led campaign. "There is a bit of a phobia in Moscow about opening the doors to US influence in our own back yard," says Belokrinistsky. "I don't think we will allow any operation not under our direct control, and we ourselves have little enthusiasm for military action." Geographically and logistically, it would be difficult for the West to stage an offensive from Central Asian states without Russian participation.

However, Georgia, a former Soviet republic and now NATO aspirant on the Black Sea, has offered to host NATO troops on its soil, provoking Russia's wrath Tuesday. Calling on Georgia to "join the fight against terrorism, not just with declarations but with deeds," the Russian foreign ministry accused Tbilisi of harboring hundreds of "terrorists" - fighters in predominantly Muslim Chechnya's separatist war against Russia - and demanded their extradition. Meanwhile, a coordinated rebel offensive seized part of Chechnya's second city, Gudermes, Monday in intense gun battles. Russia has accused Osama bin Laden of aiding the Chechen fighters. "After those attacks on the US last week, suddenly we see a qualitative upsurge of rebel activity in Chechnya," says Grigory Bondarevsky, an Afghanistan expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Is that a coincidence? I'm not sure."

Another Russian fear is vulnerability to revenge if it extends help to the US. "Russia is not a member of NATO. We have no guarantees, no allies to help us if we become the target," says Vyacheslav Nikonov of the Politika Foundation, a Kremlin-connected think tank. "Borders within the former Soviet Union are quite porous, and we know Taliban agents are already in Uzbekistan and other central Asian states."

Another reason for Moscow's reluctance: the USSR's disastrous nine-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "We know what it's like to stir that hornet's nest," says Bondarevsky. "We are living still with the consequences of destabilizing Afghanistan, as we did, and we know that any rash actions down there could lead to the most horrific results." Kremlin officials are now talking about taking part in a long-term cooperative effort, with Russia's main role to help with intelligence-gathering.

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