FROM Tajikistan in Central Asia to the Transcaucasus, Russia is reasserting its control over southern defense lines shattered by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, officials here say.
"We're not just standing around there, we're defending the interests of Russia," Col. Gen. Vladimir Shlyakhtin, commander of the Russian border troops, told reporters after returning last week from a tour on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.
General Shlyakhtin, whose troops operate under the authority of the Ministry of Security, the former KGB, charged that fundamentalist Islamic forces backed by Afghan mujahideen are flowing across the border as a result of the civil war in Tajikistan.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin spoke more broadly a week ago about Russia's role as a "guarantor of peace and stability" in the former Soviet Union. His remarks drew sharp criticism from a number of those states, including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which fear a reassertion of Russian dominance.
The Russian government rushed to clarify Mr. Yeltsin's remarks, saying it referred only to Russian peacekeeping efforts carried out at the request of former republics, such as Georgia and Moldova. But there is ample evidence that a broader Russian security effort is underway.
According to Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency, the proposal has been made to create a military force within the boundaries of the former Soviet Turkestan military district. This would include units from the armies of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia, placed under a joint command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation of 10 former Soviet republics.
In addition, Russian President Yeltsin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed at a meeting on Feb. 27 to conclude a treaty on military cooperation forming a "common defense space." The Russians are also seeking to re-install radar stations on the Afghan border, Tajikistan Deputy Premier Makhmadsaid Oubaidulloyev told the Interfax news agency.
In the conflict-ridden Transcaucasus, the Russian government has moved to reinforce its armed forces already based in this region. According to an agreement reached in early February, Russian troops are to withdraw completely from Georgia by 1995 and from the border with Turkey by the end of 1994. But on Feb. 21, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told Russian television that removal of Russian troops based in the Georgian region of Abkhazia, where separatists are fighting Georgian forces, would mean
losing Russian control of the Black Sea.
During a tour of the North Caucasus region of Russia and Abkhazia on Feb. 24-25, Mr. Grachev discussed plans with military and civil officials in southern Russia to beef up the North Caucasian Military District with troops being withdrawn from east Germany, the Baltics, and Transcaucasia. The incorporation of traditional Cossack units into the border forces is also on the agenda.
Officials in neighboring Azerbaijan say the Russians are particularly concerned to repair the holes in their air-defense system. "They say openly they are trying to reestablish the Soviet air-defense system," says Vice Premier Hikmet Gadzhi-Zade, also the Azeri permanent representative in Moscow. "Practically, the borders of the former Soviet Union are open. Of course, that worries the Russian military."
Almost all Russian troops are out of Azerbaijan, but the Russians are negotiating to maintain a key radar installation there, the Azerbaijani official says. According to a variety of sources, the Russians also reached a secret understanding at a Jan. 10 meeting between the Armenian and Russian presidents to reposition troops from Georgia to Armenia.